The Best Gadgets for Healthy Cooking

We had a “meet and greet” with kitchen gadgets at my house last week, with close to 20 women from my new group checking things out and swapping tips. It was so fun!

I began the meeting with a big disclaimer:
Above all else, you have to decide what works for you in your situation, your budget, and your family.

Seriously let that sink in. Because every kitchen gadget you acquire will cost money and take up space in your home. I advise evaluating your own habits and priorities to see if something is a good fit before deciding you need it.

That being said, I am a kitchen appliance junkie. These toys help me get tastier dinner on the table, faster. I currently own and regularly use the following:
A 6 qt stovetop pressure cooker, a rice cooker, a bread machine, a 7 cup food processor, a vitamix, and electric wheat grinder. (And if you’re really going to get picky I’d have to ‘fess to using an electric griddle, a waffle iron, a toaster, a hot air popcorn popper, a food dehydrator, a pressure canner, a mandolin, a microwave, and a salad spinner.) Yeow. High maintenance much?

I could “make do” with much, much less. But I’m grateful I don’t have to. We’ve accumulated the above over 8 1/2 years of marriage and each is put to good use to feed our family.

When it comes to meals for my family I always have to balance:

  • Nutrition
  • Taste
  • My own time
  • My own sanity. This is related to time, but also factors in when the prep work needs to take place. If I have to be in the kitchen for an extended amount of time right before dinner, my sanity takes a hit.
  • Our budget.

The sweet spot is a moving target. It depends on whether I’m pregnant or just had a baby, how available Scott is to help with cooking or shopping, and what time of year it is. Sometimes I dial up convenience and dial down taste and/or nutrition when time is the major factor.

Example: My friend makes excellent homemade whole wheat bread but recently decided that this year, she’s buying whole wheat bread at the store. She’s losing out to varying degrees on money, taste, and nutrition but she’s scoring big on sanity. She may be able to put that time saved towards cooking better breakfasts, or maybe she needs to focus more on another area of her life right now and keep food simple (but still in line with her health goals!)

You have to run a similar mental cost-to-benefit ratio for things like cooking your own beans, grinding your own wheat, buying a food processor to make your own hummus, etc. Some changes will be worth it to you, others won’t.

My big piece of advice is to stick to your nutrition goals and let the other things fall into place as they need to right now. If your goal is to stop eating meat, then you’re likely going to need to eat a lot more beans. Just buy canned beans for now, then consider a pressure cooker. Don’t keep centering your meals around chicken and cheese just because you don’t have the time to make your own beans!

Put another way, please don’t let the quest for perfection inhibit progress. Venture into the world of healthy eating using what you have on hand, and adapt your kitchen as you go.

Pressure Cookers

The Advantages:

You can cook dried beans fast, without soaking. The temperature inside a pressure cooker reaches 250 degrees Fahrenheit (water typically boils at 212 degrees) allowing you to cook things at a higher heat. But because a pressure cooker locks in steam, you can keep the pot on “low” heat after it reaches pressure and avoid the risk of burning, and the need to scrape the bottom of the pan, etc.

Why cook your own beans? They taste better than canned beans, you can add salt at your discretion and they are a lot cheaper.

– At the meeting, we taste-tested my pressure-canned plain white beans alongside canned beans and canned beans that had been thoroughly rinsed. The difference was huge (to me at least!). Even the rinsed canned beans taste very salty and sort of like metal. The home cooked beans taste like… beans. I served my 5 year old daughter some plain beans with lunch the following day and just mixed the canned ones in with the home cooked beans. She is usually a polite eater but she made a face and told me “some of these beans don’t taste like… beans”. I kid you not. 🙂

– Often canned beans have 400 mg per half cup, or more than a half teaspoon of salt per can. Low sodium varieties are available, but can be significantly more expensive.

– You can count on making about 3 15oz cans worth of beans from one pound of dried beans. So if I buy dried garbanzo beans at $1.20/lb then that would be the equivalent of paying $.40 per can for tasty, no salt beans. If the cheapest cans of beans are $.80 at the store, that means I’m paying half price for each can by cooking them myself. We can easily use 4-6 cans of beans when we make a big meal so the savings add up fast!

Specifically for a pressure cooker, you’re going to be able to get your bean cooking down to a science instead of constantly stirring and fussing over a pot on the stove for hours. Your house is going to smell less beany, and you’re going to be able to procrastinate throwing dinner together a bit more. 🙂

Purchase Options

You have a choice of stovetop vs. electric, and you also have the choice of size.

My friend, Tiffany, brought her Fagor 6 qt “multi-cooker” pressure cooker to show off, and I showed my Fagor Splendid 6 qt stovetop pressure cooker. We’ve each had ours for years and are very happy with them.

The electric variety is less scary than stovetop (though stovetop now has safety features that make it quite safe), it doesn’t take up room on your stove, it has a delay timer and an automatic shutoff, and it has the benefit of being a rice cooker and a slow cooker in addition to a pressure cooker. It can be more expensive, and the largest size it comes in is 6 qt. That can cook 4 cups of dried beans, which makes about 6 15oz cans worth.

The stovetop variety is very simple to use, doesn’t take up counter space, can be used as a regular pot anytime, is generally less expensive, and can easily be found at 8 and 10 qt sizes. I recommend springing for one with an aluminum disc at the bottom because it distributes heat much better than a purely stainless steel cooker. Generally you don’t want to fill it much more than halfway full and I usually only put 3 cups of dried beans in it (yielding ~4.5 15oz cans). This is not big enough for our growing family so I’m looking to invest in a second pressure cooker. That will also allow me the flexibility to cook different types of beans separately.

If I was buying one today and could afford it, I’d get a 6qt electric pressure cooker and then invest in a 10 qt stovetop cooker down the road to replace my 6qt stovetop cooker. Fagor is a great brand but I’m sure there are others!

Alternatives

– You can soak beans overnight and cook them in a regular pot on the stove. It’ll take several hours but with patience it absolutely can be done.
– You can put your dried beans in a slow cooker to cook them.
– You can buy canned beans! I still do, and keep several cans of each variety on hand for absolutely last-minute meals or sometimes when I only need a single can for something.

More to consider

– There is much debate about whether to salt beans before or after cooking, whether soaking, rinsing, adding baking soda, adding seaweed, etc. helps cut down on digestive gas. My very best advice is to deliberately try it different ways and see what works for you. Write it down! For me, I rarely soak, I don’t add anything but water and beans to the pan, and I generally rinse before I put the beans in and again after they are done cooking. Believe it or not, I’ve posted previously about gas caused by a healthy diet and the short story is: your gut adjusts and it’s no big deal.

– I won’t share any specific cooking times here, because you’ll get instructions with your pressure cooker and you’ll definitely need to do some trial and error to figure out your ideal cooking time. Write down how long you cooked the beans for, if you soaked them, whether you did quick release or let them come down from pressure on their own. Soon you’ll have you’re own personal guide for how long to cook your garbanzo beans so they’re soft for hummus and how long to cook them so they’re perfect for curries. Certainly you can plan on having unsoaked beans ready to eat in under an hour.

– I also use my pressure cooker for magic lentils (recipe in my cookbook) and for steel cut oats. I would love to use it for other one-pot meals but haven’t done much experimenting in that area yet.

Wheat Grinder

The Advantages

Grind fresh, better-tasting whole wheat flour and healthier cornmeal anytime you like. This enables you to have a healthy, long-term food storage. Although white flour has a long shelf life, pre-ground whole wheat flour has a fairly short shelf life because of its high vitamin and oil content. Whole wheat berries will keep for years … decades if packaged without oxygen.

I grind flour every week or two and just keep it in a airtight plastic container in the cupboard. (I linked to the same style as mine, but I’m not positive about the size… mine stores 7 lb of flour and that is perfect for me.)

I did not list cost as an advantage because currently it isn’t for me. Five years ago, I purchased wheat from the local LDS cannery for $.19/lb in 25 lb bags. Now? It’s $.46/lb , which is equivalent to paying $2.30 for a 5 lb bag of ground flour at the store. It seems to me you can often find whole wheat flour at the store on sale for $2.50 , so the cost saving is not large, and certainly not worth the trouble of grinding wheat or the cost of investing in a grinder.

However, the cost savings of making your own whole wheat bread is significant (upwards of $1/loaf still) and I’m told the flavor and texture is significantly better when using freshly ground flour as opposed to flour that has been sitting on a shelf for months. I still grind my own because I own a grinder and it’s worth it to me to be able to keep a lot of food on hand for my family and not depend on trips to the store every few weeks to keep making bread.

The cornmeal sold at stores is degerminated and enriched and is therefore akin to white flour rather than a whole grain. With a wheat grinder, you can just throw in popcorn kernels and get fresh, whole grain cornmeal.

Purchase Options

I’m sure there are other good ones out there, but we demoed the Blendtec Kitchen Mill and the L’Equip Nutrimill.

I own the Blendtec and so does my neighbor. It’s LOUD but can grind flour coarsely or fine and I’ve been happy with it for 5+ years. I have had to replace the rubber gasket once and bought an extra filter at the same time to have as a backup.

The Nutrimill is significantly faster and somewhat quieter and my friend is happy with it though she hasn’t used it as often or as long as I’ve used mine.

I’ve owned a kitchenaide wheat grinding attachment before (not the brand-name one, but a different one that had better reviews) and it was slower and didn’t grind as finely. It also seemed to stress the mixer motor quite a bit and since it wasn’t kitchenaide brand, it might have left me with a burnt out motor not under warranty. It also had a small hopper (place to pour wheat) so it required more vigilance to keep refilling it while grinding.

Alternatives

– Buy whole wheat flour from the store, with enough regularity that you avoid rancidity.
– You can find whole grain cornmeal at Indian supermarkets, and it’s a fair bet they carry something similar at Whole Foods.

More to Consider

– My friend pointed out that once she got a wheat grinder, she just switched over everything to whole wheat flour: muffins, pancakes, waffles, cookies, etc. and she says it’s never been a problem in taste or texture.

– In large part because I grind my own wheat, I’ve started making other whole grain things from scratch: pita bread, tortillas, buns, etc. and that adds up to significant money savings and much better taste than anything you can find at a store. You can obviously do this with store-bought flour as well, but I love being able to make all that stuff from my big bin of wheat downstairs whenever I feel like it. What can I say? I’m an independent lady.

– If you buy bread at the store, ignore everything on the front of the package and JUST read the ingredient list. Read it carefully and be picky. We eat a lot of bread at our house and I want to make sure I’m comfortable with everything IN the bread I’m eating.

– A mention of my homemade dough conditioner caused a stir at the meeting so I promised I’d reference it here. You’ll find the recipe in this old post, along with a detailed discussion of other ingredients for whole wheat bread baking. Please note that the post is 4 years old, however, and feel free to post any questions in the comments.

Food Processor

The Advantages

Cut down on vegetable chopping, slicing, and grating time. Make your own peanut butter. Make your own vegetable bouillon to stash in the freezer. Make your own hummus.

Purchase Options

There are a variety of brands and sizes available. I use a 7 cup cuisinart myself, and my neighbor demoed her 9 cup cuisinart.

Although I often find myself doing things in batches because I like to cook a large amount of food, I’m happy with a 7 cup size (9 would be fine also). It’s pretty trivial to dump out and then start again. The disadvantage to buying a large one (you can get a 14 cupper!) is that food processors don’t work very well at chopping a proportionately small amount of food. I’ve found you have to have “enough” of something to really get it whirring around in there.

My other friend brought her manual food processor she picked up at a garage sale: The Kitchen King Pro. I wouldn’t recommend that one for peanut butter 😉 but it did a great job dicing up a quartered bell pepper and my friend loves it for making salsa especially.

Alternatives

– A good knife and a cutting board takes you a long way with healthy cooking. In fact, more often than not I won’t use my food processor to chop unless I am going to later use it to slice or grate as well, because it’s one more thing to clean up.
– Buy pre-chopped. My local grocery store sells frozen, pre-chopped onions, green bell peppers, and mirepoix (onion, celery, carrot) for $1/lb on sale. Convenience may win the day at certain periods in your life.
– Borrow. If you only need to use it on specific occasions, say to process fresh herbs to freeze in the summer, to make a year’s supply of frozen vegetable bouillon, or to can homemade applesauce, then just borrow a friend’s for a day or two and crank out everything on your list. Then forget about it for a year.

Other Things to Consider

– Food processors are not great at things that are too liquidy. You’re better off with a blender or an immersion blender. They also are a bit cumbersome to pour from, so they aren’t ideal for blending up hot soups for that reason alone.
– They have a reputation of being a pain in the neck to clean. Here’s what I’ve found: If I rinse it out right away, it’s nearly effortless for fruits and vegetables. If I leave it until after dinner, then I’m stuck trying to scrape dried carrot bits out of all the crevices and it’s a chore for sure. I timed myself cleaning out peanut butter right after I made it yesterday and it took a whopping 4 minutes. Sometimes the dreading is worse than the doing when it comes to dishes for me. 🙂

Specific Uses

– I slice summer squash, mushrooms, celery, and carrots. It is blindingly fast at this and does a fabulous job. If I need something sliced very thinly and evenly (like for the ratatouille or zucchini carpaccio referenced in this post, or a summer squash torte, we use a mandolin)
– I grate apple, carrots, rutabaga, and zucchini.
– I grind peanuts to make peanut butter (just take unsalted, dry roasted peanuts and process them until they get creamy. Store in a airtight container like these and keep it on your counter for a few days or in your fridge for weeks. No more trying to stir in oil! I buy peanuts when they are on sale for $2/lb and stock up. Then I make peanut butter once a month or so.)
– I grind rolled oats to make oat flour for pancakes, etc.
– I make my own vegetable bouillon a few times a year, and then never have to buy or make broth for cooking.
– I make my own homemade skins-on, no sugar applesauce by washing apples, roughly chopping them, cooking them down a bit and then food processing them and canning them.
– I make my own hummus and save boatloads of money and lots of empty calories over buying the oil-laden stuff at the store. I actually use my little coffee-mill to grind up raw, unhulled sesame seeds instead of buying tahini. Then I dump the ground up seeds in the food processor with garbanzo beans, lemon juice, salt, water, and whatever else I’m in the mood for.
– I make my Pop ’em treats in my food processor and I recently discovered a killer recipe for them.
– I run my spaghetti sauce in the food processor (though my vitamix would work fine). I tend to load a lot of vegetables in a pot, saute them, and then add tomatoes and blend it up before I simmer. That way my girls aren’t eyeballing every chunk and I can put whatever I please in it. It all turns red and delicious by the end. 🙂

Woah, there

After writing this post, it sure reads like healthy cooking means you have to “do it all”. Don’t be alarmed! Consider the following meal:

Burritos: Your old way of eating
You might serve white flour tortillas, seasoned ground beef, grated cheese, salsa, sour cream, and some chopped tomato or shredded lettuce.

You had the option of making your own tortillas, seasoning your own meat rather than using a packet, making your own salsa, grating your own cheese, shredding your own lettuce… even making your own sour cream had you chosen to. Maybe you did one or two of those things, none of them, or all of them. The nutritional outcome is fairly equivalent. The cost in time and money was variable and the payoff in taste and satisfaction variable as well.

Burritos: Your new way of eating
You might serve whole wheat tortillas, vegetarian refried beans, sauteed fajita vegetables (onion, bell peppers, summer squash, and/or mushrooms) with seasonings, salsa, shredded lettuce, maybe some sliced green onions or chopped fresh cilantro.

You could make the tortillas or buy them. You can buy canned refried beans, or buy canned plain beans and “refry” and season them yourself, or you could cook beans from scratch. You might shred your own lettuce or buy it in a bag. You might chop your own vegetables to saute or buy them pre-sliced, or skip the fajita veggies altogether if you’re in a hurry. You can grow your own cilantro, buy it at the store, or skip it. You can make your own salsa or buy it in a tub at costco (like we do). Of course, you can also buy any of the above “organic” and often even at a farmer’s market for extra credit. 😉 The nutritional outcome in any of the choices is fairly equivalent and FAR AND AWAY SUPERIOR to your old way of eating. The cost in time and money is variable, as is the payoff in taste and satisfaction.

Healthy eating doesn’t require you to be a gourmet cook, nor spend extra time in the kitchen.

However, I have found that the longer I eat this way, the more satisfaction I find in cooking healthy, from-scratch food for my family so I’ve gradually changed the way I make our meals. I used to buy canned refried beans, now I make my own from dried beans and seasonings and other vegetables. You need to do what works for you and your family, but I want to encourage you to take the plunge and start making the healthy changes you envision. The details will work themselves out with time and practice.

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About beanland

Scott is a family practice doctor and Anne is a full-time mother and teacher to three beautiful girls and one boy.
This entry was posted in Healthy Eating, Healthy Group, Life as we know it. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Best Gadgets for Healthy Cooking

  1. Jennifer Ott says:

    This is so helpful and great! We are already vegetarians, but I am still feeling overwhelmed by the changes (I just didn’t cook with meat for 2 years). Not using dairy as a stand-in has stumped me! I cook dry beans quickly by putting them in my crockpot on high, covering with boiling water, and letting cook. Often they are done in 4-6 hours. Thank you for all your work typing this out; I wish I knew you in person and could come to one of your meetings!

    Like

  2. Laura says:

    Now I’ve got to go shopping…thanks, Anne 😉 Seriously though, I’ve been living without a food processor for over a year now and it’s time to get a new one! A pressure cooker has also been on my to-buy list and you’ve given me ample reason to spring for it 🙂

    Like

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