Jane Says: Don't Waste Energy While Cooking Your Holiday Feast

Preparing a huge meal for family and friends shouldn't be a wasteful affair.

energy saving

(Photo: Jonathan Kitchen/Getty Images; design: Lauren Wade)

Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“My kitchen is in heavy use during the holidays. What are some tips for saving as much energy as I can?”

—Jeremy Handley

The kitchen is often the busiest room in the house—and even more so during the holidays, whether you’re hosting a houseful of guests or gearing up to prepare homemade food gifts for one and all. I turned to sources such as the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy for some simple yet significant changes that will help you save on energy costs now and through the years ahead.

Appliances

The refrigerator: This is the energy hog in most homes, so if you’re hoping a kitchen do-over is in the cards for the new year, then put an Energy Star–certified model at the top of your Christmas list. Interestingly, it was David Goldstein, codirector of the Natural Resources Defense Council's energy program, who in the early 1990s proposed the Super Efficiency Refrigerator Program, which spurred development of the chilling and insulating technology benefiting us all today. The NRDC, which helped in large part craft the 1987 National Appliance Energy Conservation Act, has some guidelines on buying energy-efficient refrigerators and more.

The stove: Blackened burner pans (the metal pans under the burners used to catch grease) absorb heat, reducing burner efficiency. So keep them as sparkling-clean as possible so they’ll reflect heat up to the cookware. If you have gas burners, you should be getting a bluish flame. A yellow flame means that the gas may not be burning efficiently; if that’s the case, have your gas company check out the situation.

The disposal: Operating a sink disposal with cold water not only saves the energy used to heat water but solidifies grease so it can be ground up more easily.

The dishwasher: Unless your model is an old one, there’s no need to pre-rinse dishes; just scrape them clean. For small loads, avoid the “rinse-hold” feature, which can use up to seven gallons of hot water. If you have several wash cycle selections, then check the manufacturers’ instructions for total water use with different cycles. Most new dishwashers offer an energy-saving no-heat drying feature: If you select it, at the end of the rinse cycle, air is circulated through the dishwasher by fans, rather than using an electric heating element to bake the dishes dry.

Other tools

Slow cookers and pressure cookers: These smaller appliances use far less energy than an oven or stovetop, so if braises, stews, soups, and stocks or broths play a large part in your culinary repertoire, think about investing in one or the other (or both, if you have the room). The slow cooker is ideal for those who are organized enough to get dinner cooking before leaving for work in the morning. The high-temperature, high-pressure steam created in a pressure cooker permeates food quickly, so a pot roast, say, can be done in under an hour, but you need to keep an eye on it, like anything else on the stovetop.

The microwave: I know how much some of you detest this marvel of modern technology, but my point here is simply that a microwave can use as little as one-fifth the energy of a stove. Its efficiency really shines when cooking small portions, thawing frozen items, reheating leftovers, or melting a small amount of butter or chocolate for a recipe. For a more in-depth look at microwaves, check out this column.

An instant-read thermometer and a timer: Overcooking a meal because you are not sure it’s done—or simply lose track of the time—contributes to both energy and food waste. Especially if you are trying to coax recalcitrant kids or adults to eat more vegetables, wizened-verging-on-burnt sweet potato wedges, for instance, aren’t going to cut it. On the other hand, if those sweet potatoes are caramelized, juicy, and tender (i.e., perfectly roasted), they’ll do most of the work for you—so use a timer. As for instant-read thermometers, digital models usually read faster than analog ones.

Before cooking

•   Think big batch! Reheating takes less energy (and time) than cooking. Whether you are using the stove or a pressure cooker or slow cooker, plan to make enough so that you’ll have an extra container or two of stew, soup, or cooked whole grains or dried beans for the freezer. Or, on roast chicken night, roast two instead of just one, and use the extra bird later in the week for chicken pot pie, salad, hash, or lunchtime sandwiches.

•   If you need to thaw foods, do so completely, and for food-safety reasons, in the refrigerator.

•   Know how long your oven takes to preheat so you are ready when it is.

While you’re cooking

•   A good-quality pot or pan has a bottom that’s flat or, ideally, very slightly concave (so that when it heats up, the metal expands and thus the bottom becomes perfectly flat). Particularly with electric stovetops, the heating element is much less efficient if the pan doesn’t have good contact with it. Boiling water for pasta in a cheap pot with a warped bottom can use 50 percent more energy than if you use a flat-bottomed pot. Likewise, a warped baking or cookie sheet isn’t going to work efficiently in the oven.

•   On an electric stovetop, the entire coil of a burner heats up, and using a 6-inch pan on an 8-inch burner, for example, will squander more than 40 percent of the heat produced by the burner. That’s why you should always use the right-size burner for a pan. With a gas burner, you can control the size of the flame, but you should know that cranking up the heat so that the flames are licking the sides of a pot is wasteful as well. No matter whether you are cooking with gas or with electric, make sure you center the pan on the burner. That may sound painfully obvious, but it is one of the most common (and consistent) mistakes students in cooking school make. Trust me, I’ve been there.

•   Put a lid on it! On a pot, I mean, when boiling water or bringing something to a simmer; without a lid, it can take up to three times as much energy. Take a pot of water you’ve put on for pasta, for example. As it heats up, more and more water vapor is produced above the surface. “That’s because more and more of the surface molecules gain enough energy to leap off into the air,” writes Robert Wolke, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, in What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained. “The increasing amount of water vapor carries off an increasing amount of the energy that could otherwise go into raising the water’s temperature.... The tighter the lid, the more hot molecules are retained in the pot and the sooner the water will boil.”

•   When using the oven, foods will cook more quickly and evenly when air can circulate around them, so don’t lay foil on racks to catch drips. (If you absolutely must, then keep it as small as possible and avoid covering the heating elements.) If cooking more than one thing at a time, stagger the pans or baking sheets on upper and lower racks.

•   That oven light and glass window in the door are there for a reason, so only open the door when absolutely necessary. Each time you do, the temperature inside drops 25 to 30 degrees, and you’ll slow down the cooking time. (The smaller the oven, the quicker the temperature will drop.) 

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