Delicious food can be difficult enough to make sometimes. But delicious and healthy often seem mutually exclusive to some. This need not be the case though. By combining some of the food science-based Cheap Tricks I’ve previously employed with a couple new ones, I’ve found a way that you can completely eliminate any empty calories, such as from refined cooking oil and sugars, from a host of dishes (especially hearty soups and stews). This is among the holy grails of healthy cooking.
To be sure, what I discuss here will save roughly 100 calories per serving in a dish holding volume and nutrients (other than empty fat and sugar calories) constant. That may seem trivial on its face, but if you save just 100 calories daily, feeling just as full and getting the exact same nutrients you’d otherwise have gotten, you’ve just saved yourself from putting on five kilograms (or over 10 pounds) of fat per year, the equivalent of about 80 or so hours of rigorous cardiovascular activity. That’s not nothing.
The Purpose of Refined Oil in Cooking
Oil does serve a purpose in cooking, however, and eliminating it introduces dilemmas that must be solved. The first is that cooking with oil servers to create better flavor and texture in foods because it can remain a liquid at much higher temperatures than water. While water generally maxes out at a temperature of 100 °C (212 °F), typical blended vegetable oils begin to vaporize (called the smokepoint) around 220 °C (428 °F) but won’t autoignite into a grease fire until at least 350 °C (662 °F). The reason temperature in cooking is so relevant is the amount of heat energy contained in a system. Higher temperatures mean more heat energy which are required for certain chemical reactions that give rise to more complex flavor compounds.
For example, when food (such as meat or vegetables) reach temperatures between 110 °C (230 °F) to 165 °C (329 °F) the Maillard reaction occurs, which is basically browning. Most simple sugars begin caramelizing at 160 °C (320 °F) which results in a rich, deeper flavored sweetness, while charring or the blackening that occurs in grilling and other high temperature cooking, generally occurs at temperatures over 205 °C (401 °F). Each of these phenomena creates additional layers of flavor in many of your ingredients. Generally, without oil, you don’t have easy access to these flavor-generating reactions. Furthermore, many aromatics (such as herbs and spices) contain flavor compounds that are fat soluble and not water soluble. As a result, the flavors become more apparent when oil is present to tease them out of your ingredients and into our sauce or stock.
Obviously, fat also adds richness and mouthfeel to foods and depending on if the fat is of neutral or strong flavor (for example, the difference between vegetable oil and olive oil), you may also impart the oil flavor to your cooking as well. The punchline is, though, that we need to have a plan to fix or supplement all of these items before we take the oil away.
Texture and Complexity
There is no easy, perfect solution here for meat lovers. If you insist on your meat having a beautifully browned, even crust, you just need to cook in fat. But, in the context of meats and stews, you can get all of the flavors of beautifully browned meat and just about the same texture. The key is to first grill your meat at relatively low temperature, about 195 °C (383 °F) on a nonstick skillet, turning frequently, about every 15 to 20 seconds. If you keep this going for a few minutes, it will get you a crust, but a blotchy and uneven one. The texture will be suitable enough though, and some of the rich flavors from the Maillard reaction would have developed.
The problem still remains that the crust you get is not deep and crisp. As a result, although the flavor of the meat has enrichened, it really isn’t the same as a proper pan searing with oil. To close the gap, we need a Maillard bonanza, to pressure cook diced onions and a robust dried bean (such as a navy bean). In a pressure cooker set to a pressure of about 15 pounds per square inch, water has a boiling point of about 120 °C (248 °F). The greater the pressure, the higher the boiling point, which is why water boils at a higher temperature in low elevation Chicago (100 °C) than in high elevation Denver (95 °C).
The pressure cooker internal temperature puts us right in the range of our Maillard reaction and will result in richly flavored onions and beans, not just on the surface like well-browned meat, but all the way to their core. This more than offsets the loss in flavor from not searing our meat with oil, as it turns out.
Fat Soluble Flavors
In organic chemistry there is a rule of thumb for solubility: Similia similibus solventur or, as expressed in English, “like dissolves like.” The idea here is that solvents are best at dissolving substances that are chemically similar to them, specifically in polarity. Thus, highly polarized water molecules are great at dissolving polar sucrose molecules and ionic compounds (which are by definition polarized) like common table salt, whereas non-polar oil does nothing to dissolve sucrose or salt.
Flavor molecules are like salt or sugar. To taste them, like anything, they have to be dissolved into solvent, like water (or the water content of your saliva). Like salt and sugar, flavor molecules are very often polar, but sometimes they can be non-polar and therefore don’t dissolve into highly polar water. Saffron and rosemary famously have many non-polar flavor molecules and, as a result, oil is the ideal method of extraction. Many aromatics in common use have a combination of polar and non-polar flavor molecules, both sets of which you have to extract for your food to achieve that deep, well-rounded flavor.
The problem to solve, then, is how to extract flavor molecules from our aromatics that are non-polar and, therefore, not soluble in water. The answer (as is the case with many problems in this world) is to add booze, one of my previously described cheap tricks. Booze, or ethanol, is an especially powerful solvent precisely because it dissolves both polar and non-polar molecules. The overall ethanol molecule is polar for the same reason that water is: It contains what’s called a hydroxyl group, composed of a hydrogen and an oxygen atom, bound together. The hydroxyl group is what pulls polarized molecules into it, dissolving them. But ethanol also has a non-polar ethyl group, composed of bound carbon and hydrogen atoms, which attracts other non-polar molecules and dissolves those as well. That said, you need to ensure that you have enough concentration of ethanol in your cooking liquid (say, your stew’s braising liquid or your soup’s broth) for it to be an effective super solvent, so to speak. This concentration is, at a minimum, about one to two percent ethanol by weight.
So what does this mean for our pressure cooked onions and beans? It means that if you add one large onion (which is about 500 grams, up to 93 percent of which is water) and 300 milliliters of water or stock, to make use of the non-polar solvent properties of ethanol, the math works out that you’d have to add about a shot of 80 proof vodka. It’s worth noting that a shot of vodka has about 100 calories whereas 30 mL of vegetable oil has about 250 calories. So, on the whole, not so bad.
Planning Ingredients and Cooking Techniques
Bringing all the taste sensations into harmonious balance is the one of the keys to great great cooking. In total, there are actually seven “tastes” to deal with in balancing. There are obviously the four conventional tastes of sweet, sour, salty and bitter, plus the fifth, umami. These five are considered tastes in scientific terms because they each have unique taste receptors, mostly concentrated on our tongues. Eat something salty and we taste it as a result of actual ions hitting a taste receptor, the experience of which is then registered with our brains. The final two are more sensations, namely of peppery heat or picante along with richness or fat.
Generally speaking, the biggest problem to deal with at the end of cooking is too much acid. When you’re using lots of tomatoes, for example, you may end up with an astringent sourness when you’re done cooking that throws off an otherwise beautifully prepared dish. Usually the remedy for this is to just throw in a bit of sugar and call it a day. But that sugar is just more empty calories, about 20 calories for every five grams of granulated sugar.
To avoid the empty calories from refined sugar, we have three options. The first is better planning around our onions, which are about four or five percent sugar by weight. To balance the acid, we can use more onions if we wish, make them more richly sweet through caramelization or use aromatics to better highlight the existing presence of sugar.
In the case of adding more onions, we have to do this in the very beginning of cooking. In the case of caramelizing the onions, this goes to initial moments of cooking. Once they’re done and we’ve made an error, there is no going back to correct them. With experience and better planning, they’re excellent tools to avoid added sugar, however. That said, adding sweet aromatics to better highlight sugars we do have is a useful tool, usable in the last 15 minutes or so of cooking. I prefer to use sweet herbs like oregano and basil for this purpose. For a list of sweet aromatics, you can consult my abridged listing, however.
Bringing it Together
Using dry pan roasting and ethanol to avoid refined cooking oil, along with herbs to avoid the use of refined sugar to balance sourness can be a major calorie saver in your cooking. You don’t sacrifice flavor and you eat healthier. It’s a win/win. So, without further ado, you should get to cooking! The following is a quick and easy French country-style chicken, white bean and potato stew. It is also keeping with my recent focus on herbs and plant-based proteins. It’s incredibly healthy and incredibly delicious!
Ingredients – Serves Four
250 g (about 1 cup) dried navy beans, soaked at least eight hours in 500 mL (about 16 fl oz) of filtered water and drained
250 g (about 9 oz or 2 count) deboned and deskinned chicken thighs
250 g (about 8 – 10 count) yellow fingerling potatoes, sliced into 2 cm (about 1 inch) medalions
500 g (about 1 large) Spanish onion, diced
50 g (about 6 to 8 medium cloves) garlic, finely diced
300 mL (about 16 fl oz) homemade gara (chicken) dashi (quick, pressure cooker variant available here)
45 mL (about 1.5 fl oz) 80 proof vodka
3 g (about 1.5 tbsp) dried oregano
1 g (about 1.5 tsp) dried bay leaf, finely ground
1 g (about 2 tsp) dried rosemary, leaves only
4 medium sprigs fresh thyme
2 medium sprigs fresh basil
5 white peppercorns, finely ground
1 g of freshly grated nutmeg
10 g (about 2 tsp) kosher salt, additional to taste
15 g (about 1 tbsp) freshly squeezed lemon juice, strained
1 large sprig chervil, leaves and tender stems only, roughly chopped
You may substitute 125 g each of beans and potatoes in place of the chicken and kombu dashi instead of the gara dashi to make the dish vegan.
You may use the same amount black peppercorns in place of white, although the flavor is altered somewhat strikingly.
Italian parsley may be substituted for chervil.
For additional umami, you may include 30 g of high quality cured anchovy filets, roughly chopped.
- Pour the dashi, vodka and half the salt into a pressure cooker and stir over medium heat until salt dissolves fully. Add the onions, beans, potatoes, anchovies (if desired), bay leaf, rosemary, thyme, white pepper, nutmeg and half the oregano, ensuring that they are mixed well, evenly distributed and fully submerged. Add additional filtered water as necessary to ensure beans and onions are submerged. Seal the pressure cooker and cook at 15 pounds per square inch (standard high pressure) for 30 minutes.
- Heat a heavy, nonstick skillet over medium heat to 195 °C (383 °F). Without any oil, sear off the chicken thighs, turning about every 15 to 20 seconds until well browned. If meat begins to char, reduce the heat. Slice into 1 centimeter (0.5 inch) strips and set aside.
- When the onions, beans and potatoes have completed cooking, unseal pressure cooker and add the chicken, remaining oregano, remaining salt and basil, folding to well integrate. Simmer with lid off until chicken is fully cooked through but still maintains it’s shape and does not shred, about 15 minutes.
- Add half the lemon juice and stir to integrate. Taste the sauce. It should be sweet and herbaceous, brightly flavored but not sour. If it is not brightly flavored enough, add remaining lemon juice. Remove basil and thyme sprigs and add additional salt to taste.
- Portion into four bowls, top with chervil, a little grated nutmeg and serve immediately.