The Secret to Cooking Pasta and Veggies

Pasta with veggies is a great combo for a healthy meal, but how you cook this food affects its nutritional value. Maximize the nutritional impact with these food chemistry tips.

  1. Save the Color
    The Problem:
    Cooking vegetables is often necessary to make them safe to eat and soft enough to eat. Unfortunately, cooking can have negative affects on the vegetable’s appearance. Carrots, bell peppers and other veggies with a yellow-orange or orange-red hue get their color from carotenoids, which are fat-soluble. Fat-soluble pigments are less likely to fade during cooking but the same cannot be said for the chlorophyll in green vegetables. When green veggies are heated, a slight structural change makes chlorophyll more water soluble and thus more likely to leak into the cooking water. Acidic conditions also change chlorophyll’s structure, causing bright green veggies to turn an unfortunate and unappetizing olive color.
    The Solution:
    Cook under slightly alkaline conditions. Use tap water (which is typically slightly alkaline to minimize pipe corrosion) or add a pinch of baking soda to the cooking water to make it less acidic.
    NOTE: Adding too much baking soda can leave a soapy after-taste and speed up the softening of the vegetables. Use just a teeny tiny pinch of baking soda to keep your vegetables from turning into a soapy tasting mush. 
  2. Save the Texture
    The Problem:
    Food texture is a deal-breaker, for cereal and for veggies. The challenge with cooking vegetables is the method that creates the optimum texture may not be the optimum method for those in a rush. Cooking vegetables in the microwave is one of the fastest preparation methods, but it can dry the food out as the water in the food turns to water vapor and escapes. Boiling your veggies lets their nutrients leak into the water but it will dissolve their pectin structure, making them moist and soft. Steaming your veggies keeps more of the nutrients from leaking out, but it won’t soften them as much as boiling does.
    The Solution:
    Steam your veggies whenever possible, and soften them up by adding a small amount of water to the steamer or bowl you use. If you prefer the boiling method, add a pinch of table salt to the water to speed up the softening of the vegetables–a shorter cooking time means less time for the nutrients to leak out. This trick works because the salt interferes with the cross-linking that stabilizes the cell wall. Then again, if the cooking water is “hard water”, meaning it has an abundance of calcium ions, those calcium ions can reinforce the cross-links and slow the cooking process. A pinch of baking soda can help overcome the set-back from hard water.
    NOTE: For steaming, assembling the vegetables in a lose pile will ensure they all get cooked all the way through. For boiling, cutting the vegetables into smaller pieces will speed up the cooking process AND ALSO the surface area from which the nutrients leak out. (Score one more point for steaming.)
  3. Save the Nutrients with Pasta
    The Problem:
    Fresh vegetables lose nutrients faster than frozen vegetables because the nutrients in the frozen variety are essentially locked in place. Fresh vegetables are still living, breathing organisms so they lose nutrients  through exposure to light and air and also though respiration (Vegetables, breathing? Creepy…). Either way, both fresh and frozen vegetables lose a portion of their nutrients during the cooking process. Steaming is one solution, but what about for boiling?

    The Solution:
    Cue pasta. Boil the vegetables in just enough water to cover them. When they are done cooking, remove them from the pot with a slotted spoon. Use the leftover water to cook the pasta. When starch is boiled, starch granules soften and swell as they absorb water from their surroundings. This process, called gelation, is how you can rescue the nutrients that escaped from the vegetables. They will simply get absorbed into the pasta. You might not be able to recover 100 percent of the lost nutrients, but you will conserve water and reduce the number of dishes you have to clean after your healthy, delicious meal. 

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