7 simple cooking tips for your eco-friendliest kitchen

Some of these practices may be second nature, and some may surprise you

By Paul Greenberg
Published May 26, 2021 9:59AM (EDT)
 (Rocky Luten / Food52)
(Rocky Luten / Food52)

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With The Climate Diet, award-winning food and environmental writer Paul Greenberg offers us the practical, accessible guide we all need. This new release contains fifty achievable steps we can take to live our daily lives in a way that's friendlier to the planet — from what we eat, how we live at home, how we travel, and how we lobby businesses and elected officials to do the right thing. Here, Paul shares a whole host of simple tips to make our cooking — and yes, our kitchens overall — a whole lot more sustainable.

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With the news this month that Eleven Madison Park, by some measures the most famous restaurant in the world, has gone vegan, I think it's safe to say climate-conscious menu planning has gone mainstream. Queries for vegan recipes now regularly top Google food searches and any number of plant-based meat replacements are now widely available at American supermarkets, potentially pairing with millions of tons of emissions off of our meals.

But as the notion of putting the country on a climate diet gains traction, we're coming to the realization that food choices can only take us so far. If we're aiming to hit President Biden's net-zero emissions goal for the country by 2050, we're going to need to reimagine entire systems that we use in our day-to-day life. A major system that we can collectively remake is the one in our kitchen.

So let's talk about that kitchen. How can we cook in the greenest way possible? There are actually quite a few things we can do both in terms of our daily routines as well as how we equip our kitchens. And, yes, I know you're busy. You don't need another flight of tasks to do in getting dinner on the table. So let's start small and build to big. Step-by-step you can get your kitchen to a much greener place. Here's a roadmap.

1. Put a lid on it

When we cook we can lose as much as 50% of our cooking energy to the ambient air when we leave our pots exposed. It's a little tricky adapting to lid-always cooking, and, yes, there is a time and place for cooking off excess liquid. But if you're doing stovetop for an extended period of time, lid-on is best.

2. Give things a good soak

We know that soaking beans is a good way to reduce cooking time. But did you know this also is a great way to improve the efficiency of baked pasta dishes like macaroni and cheese and lasagna? Soak your dry noodles for 20 minutes ahead of time instead of boiling them, and they can be incorporated into the ready-to-bake dish easily; you'll even end up with a better al dente bite in the end.

3. Rethink the conventional oven

When baking or broiling small meals for up to three people, cooking in a toaster oven is markedly more energy-efficient than pouring heat into a standard-sized oven. Microwave ovens, though they don't really do the job of browning food very well, are even more efficient than toaster ovens. A baked potato, for example, takes 15 minutes in a microwave as compared to an hour in a conventional. And when you are using a standard-size oven, because of its heat-retaining abilities, ceramic cookware allows you to lower your oven temperature by as much as 25°F and still get the same thorough cooking effect on your food.

4. Make a heat plan

When you do use your big workhorse oven, remember that you can make use of all the heat still present in your oven after you've finished cooking the main event. Akin to a traditional method Indian cooks use to slow-stew dal in the leftover heat of a tandoor, you can put beans, rice, and even tougher cuts of meat in the oven, lid on, and keep the food in there to slow-cook overnight. You may need to finish under some heat the next day, but you'll still save yourself a lot of cooking energy.

baking stone many of us use to make bread at home does double duty retaining and evening leftover heat, so consider getting one for your conventional oven. Similarly, boiled water can do double duty. Spinach, thinly sliced zucchini, or other quick-cooking vegetables can be placed in a metal bowl underneath a colander so that when you drain your pasta you also can parboil your sides.

5. Get some help from gadgets

Both Instant Pots and pressure cookers blow doors off standard stovetop cooking methods in terms of energy efficiency. While these tools are of course not suited for every type of cooking, if energy savings is the bottom line, then this is the direction you'd want to head in.

6. Electrify . . .

This might be the hardest sell for the home cook, but it's really time to rethink the roaring gas stovetop. This is an important step not only because new electrical appliances (like that Instant Pot) are often more efficient than gas ones, but also because natural gas, which has of late been sold to consumers as a cheaper and cleaner alternative, turns out to be invisibly problematic.

Put simply, natural gas is leaky. When you cook on a gas stove, only about 40% of the energy from the flame gets to your food. Besides that, every time you turn on your stove, or every time your water heater fires up, methane leaks into the atmosphere. And before it even gets to your home, gas leaks from the ground during extraction and spurts out of pipelines as it moves from the gas field to home. Methane is more than 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2.

What's more, natural gas is cheap now because a large customer base offsets the cost of its maintenance and expansion. But as renewables drop in price (as they markedly have in the last 10 years), more and more customers will almost certainly switch to electric; those that remain on gas will bear larger individual costs to support a vast and expensive natural gas infrastructure. At the very least, you may want to consider replacing your gas stovetop with an electric one. Induction electric stovetops, which conduct 80 to 90% of cooking energy into your food, can cost under $150 for a simple plug-in, two-burner model.

7. . . . Then bring clean electricity into your home

If you're going to electrify, you'll also need to consider bringing green electricity into your home. With more and more renewable energy being incorporated into the national energy grid, it is possible to shop for better power options and route them through the old-style grid without having to lift a screwdriver or spend extra money.

Why can working with the old grid be a good thing? Supply follows demand. If as many of us as possible demand renewable energy, economies of scale will start to lower renewable costs, and the grid itself will begin tilting away from fossil fuels and toward solar and wind. This is already happening to some extent, but we can accelerate the process by choosing to buy into renewables right now.

To convert your energy supply from fossil fuel based to renewable, you will need to contract with what is called an energy service company, or ESCO. Consumers can shop for a renewable energy ESCO at green-e.org. In some states, you can choose an energy service company that can deliver power to your existing utility; in other states, you choose and pay a new company that controls the transaction.

Bonus: Look into local energy options

In my book, "The Climate Diet," I give ideas for going even further with changing your power sources — like sourcing from a community solar farm; I'll let you explore that further in the book if you want to do a really deep dive. But in a nutshell, community solar programs are neighborhood-based initiatives that fund the construction of local solar power plants for use by multiple homeowners. Think of it as the electricity equivalent of a CSA. Just as those programs help citizens grow local agriculture, community solar allows communities to build capacity for local power generation. Thirty-nine states now have community solar programs. As with an ESCO, you can shop online for providers and request that community solar be integrated into your electricity supply. Some of the most progressive states — New York, New Jersey, Colorado, and Maine—actually subsidize community solar so it can end up being cheaper for individuals, too.

All of this together may sound a bit overwhelming, but you don't have to do everything all at once. Start with small bites: lid on your pot today, a pot of beans in a cooling oven tomorrow. Over time you'll find, as I have, that cooking greener can be pretty easy and a fun challenge to boot. And when you finally sit down to eat, it'll be that much more enjoyable knowing you've done what you can to do best by the planet in getting dinner on the table.

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Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg is the author of the James Beard Award-winning "Four Fish, the Future of the Last Wild Food." He is on Twitter @4fishgreenberg and on the web at fourfish.org.

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