The eco-friendly kitchen begins with eating green, but it doesn’t end there. Energy-efficient food preparation and cleaning habits, using equipment made from sustainable materials, and dodging toxic chemicals are also important if you want to have a truly healthy kitchen. Fortunately, making the right choices for your well-being is also good for the pocket and the planet. Our straightforward and simple suggestions for preparing earth-friendly meals–from fridge to food to cleanup–will turn you into a greener gourmet in no time.
“When it comes to kitchens, size and equipment don’t count nearly as much as devotion, passion, common sense and, of course, experience. To pretend otherwise — to spend tens of thousands of dollars or more on a kitchen before learning how to cook, as is sadly common — is to fall into the same kind of silly consumerism that leads people to believe that an expensive gym membership will get them into shape or the right bed will improve their sex life. As runners run and writers write, cooks cook, under pretty much any circumstance.” – Mark Bittman
Top Green Kitchen Tips
- Make It Last
Choose cookware and utensils that stand the test of time and won’t have to be thrown away with your leftover casserole. That means you gotta ditch the Teflon. While the debate about the health hazards of non-stick surfaces continues, there is no doubt that it has a limited useful life. Go for stainless steel or cast iron instead. Though a bit of an investment, a good cast iron skillet will last for generations. Likewise, choose sturdy utensils rather than cheap ones; low-quality wooden spoons, for example, can rot, and plastic will melt if you leave it on the stove too long. Buy high-quality knives that you can sharpen by hand, and use long-lasting cloth towels instead of paper.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to experiment with cooking, but before you go out to buy a whole bunch of gadgets that you might only use once, check if there is a kitchen library in your neighborhood. You may be able to find the appliance or tool you need with out shelling out loads of money or contributing to the further depletion of the planet.
- Energy Smackdown: Gas vs. Electric
When it comes to the stove top, it can be a tough choice between gas and electric; natural gas is a fossil fuel, but most of the electricity in the US comes from coal-burning power plants. From a straight-up cooking perspective, many cooks prefer gas because it’s easier to control temperatures; it also offers instant-on heat, and doesn’t waste much heat when the cooking is done. If you’re a gas devotee shopping for a new stove, know that the the lower the BTU output, the more energy-efficient your stove will be.
With electricity, the most efficient stoves are those that use induction elements, which transfer electromagnetic energy directly to the pan, leaving the cook-top itself relatively cool and using less than half the energy of standard coil elements. One drawback is that induction-element cook-tops require the use of metal cookware such stainless steel, cast iron, or enameled iron — aluminum and glass pots won’t work — and since the technology is still relatively, they’re generally only found in higher-priced models.
The same goes for units with ceramic-glass surfaces, which use halogen elements as the heat source, making them the next best choice from an efficiency standpoint. These deliver heat instantly and respond quickly to changes in temperature settings. (They’re also very easy to clean, which is a bonus). But they only work efficiently when there is good contact between the pan and the hot glass surface; energy will go to waste if pan bottoms are even slightly rounded. Standard electric coils — those spiral types we’re all used to seeing — by the way, are at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to energy efficiency. If you go for an electric stove, no matter which you choose, opt for the most efficiency-efficient model possible, then purchase green power to support electricity from clean, renewable sources. Don’t forget, electric stoves are a healthier option than gas stoves, which can add between 25 and 39 percent more NO2 and CO to the air in the house.
The stove you ultimately choose will probably depend on price and lifestyle, so the greenest choice you can make is really to pick the option that you’ll be able to live with for at least a decade or more, which will save on materials and resources from a manufacturing standpoint.
- First, Love Your Appliances
Energy-efficiency upgrades are coming fast and furious to many new appliances. An efficient dishwasher, for instance, can use a lot less water than washing the dishes by hand in the sink. (Check out How to Green Your Dishwasher to learn more.) But before you jump the gun and make a hasty appliance purchase, check to make sure that a repair isn’t in order. If the time has indeed come to get rid of an old appliance, note that many communities have take-back programs, helping you to properly dispose of these things, which likely contain hazardous chemicals and materials. When you replace your old-faithfuls look for the Energy Star rating, available for kitchen appliances including stoves, refrigerators, freezers, and dishwashers, then choose a sturdy model that will last and choose a simple design – you don’t need an internet connection on your oven. You also don’t need an oven exhaust, which tends to be a badly designed and ineffective appliance.
If you’re getting a new fridge, think small. A lot of food would last longer if it wasn’t placed in the fridge in the first place. Fruit, for example goes rotten much faster in the fridge because the ethylene gas it lets off as it ripens gets trapped in the fridge. Buying a smaller fridge and putting less in it saves you lots of energy and saves your food too!
- Energy-Efficient Cooking
Preheating is almost prehistoric. Many newer ovens come to temperature so rapidly, they make preheating almost obsolete (except perhaps for soufflés and other delicate dishes). If you’re roasting or baking something that’s a little flexible when it comes to cooking time, you can put it in right away, then turn the oven off five or ten minutes early, and let dishes finish cooking in the residual heat. (Ditto for anything cooked on an electric stove top.)
Making as best use of the oven as possible — cooking more than one thing at once, for instance — is also wise. For small dishes, using a toaster oven, or reheating in a microwave will also save energy; in fact, Energy Star estimates that you can reduce cooking energy by as much as 80 percent when using the microwave instead of the oven. When cooking on the stove, using a properly sized pot for each of the stove burners also makes a difference; on an electric stove, for example, a 6-inch pot used on an 8-inch burner wastes more than 40 percent of the burner’s heat. Make sure all of your pots and pans have close-fitting lids, then use them whenever possible–including when you’re bringing boiled water up to temperature–which helps reducing cooking time and keeps heat where it belongs–in the pan. Pressure cookers are another great way to save energy, reducing cooking time by up to 70 percent. Of course, the most energy efficient cooking means leaving heat out of the equation altogether–don’t forget about salads, chilled soups, and other dishes that require little prep and can be eaten cold. There’s a large niche culture growing around the idea of raw food— don’t be afraid to try something new!
- Do It Yourself
Avoid purchasing pre-prepared, frozen foods, and make them yourself, at home; many meals are made to be frozen and reheated without any loss in taste or quality, so there’s no reason to thaw and rehydrate frozen and dehydrated foods when you can skip these steps and buy and cook fresh. As an added bonus, you also know exactly what is going in to your food, and, if you’re diligent about sourcing it, where it came from. This option also cuts out steps of your food’s lifecycle (and the associated energy in processing and transportation that comes from each step). If you have the space, take it a step further and grow your own fruits, vegetables, using your composted kitchen waste as fertilizer. Don’t stop the DIY train there, though: you can clean your counters and hand-wash dishes with white vinegar and baking soda. Instead of shelling out for bottled water, get a filter pitcher or tap filter. You could even buy a seltzer siphon or carbonator to fizz your filtered water and flavor it with homemade syrups; we recommend the Soda Club or one of its contemporaries.
- Buy Local
The food you bring in to your kitchen is just as important as the gadgets and appliances you have there, so buy local whenever you can. Food miles have risen near the top of eco-friendly food considerations, and the fewer miles from farm to table, the better. Organic grapes from Chile might taste good in the dead of winter, but consider the pollution caused by flying them to wherever you are. In addition, since they’re bereft of preservatives, biocides and many other nasties that inhabit conventional foods, organic foods can spoil more quickly, meaning that the longer your bunch of grapes is in transit, the less pristine its condition is likely to be. Whenever possible, we recommend supporting a community supported agriculture (CSA) co-op, buying from local farmers’ markets or purchasing directly from farmers themselves.
- Bulk Up
Buy in bulk and cook in bulk; just make sure you can consume what you purchase and produce! (See Waste Not, Want Not below for more details on that). Purchasing from the bulk bins mean less packaging, and fewer trips to the store, and can also mean financial savings. It’s not just for groceries, either: for example, you can buy bulk packages of towels intended for cleaning and detailing cars, and use them in the kitchen. They’re extremely sturdy and a lot cheaper than most kitchen towels (not to mention much less disposable than paper towels). Bulk cooking is a more efficient use of appliance energy and your time, (and a great excuse to throw a party), so cook up a nice big pot of soup and anticipate saving (and eating) lots of leftovers. And plan ahead; planning meals that can feed you and your family for a few days is a great way to shop efficiently and free up your precious leisure time.
- Waste Not, Want Not
On average, the kitchen generates the most waste of any room in your house; for one of the main reasons, look no further at the excessive packaging on supermarket shelves. But fear not, it’s not as hard as it may seem to cut back on waste. Step one: refuse excessive packaging by taking your own bags, buying fresh, unwrapped produce, and thinking carefully about how the purchases you’re making are wrapped up. Step two: avoid over-sized portions; if you are regularly throwing food away then you are buying, and cooking, too much. Step three: reuse what you can, like old glass jars or bottles, grocery bags, and packaging you can’t avoid. Step four: compost any uncooked organic waste (including cardboard and paper), and don’t fret if you don’t have a garden on which to spread your yummy humus. Even in big cities, many local farmers markets and organizations will gladly accept your compost. After all this, if there’s anything left over, be sure to swing by the recycle bin before tossing anything in the trash.
- Green Kitchens Can Be Clean Kitchens
The list of what goes into regular petrochemically-based dishwashing liquids, detergents, floor and surface cleaners and other household cleaning products is enough to turn anyone’s stomach. Fortunately there are plenty of natural cleaning companies out there producing non-toxic, biodegradable, plant-based detergents (see our How to green your cleaning routine for more details). And as we mentioned in the Do It Yourself tip above, you can always create your own cleaning products using everyday ingredients such as vinegar and baking soda, which combine to make a great all-purpose, non-toxic cleaner.
- Remodeling? Recycle
Of course, making your old kitchen work for you is the greenest option of them all, but there comes a time when even the greenest folks need to upgrade or replace. If you are in the market for a new kitchen, turn first to salvage and antiques. They don’t make ’em like they used to, so look for kitchen fittings, floors, paneling, and cabinets that have had a previous life, are unique and have already stood the test of time. If you’re trading things out, be sure to offer them on Freecycle or Craigslist before kicking them to the curb.
If reclaimed materials won’t do the job for you, there are plenty of green options for new materials too. Green countertops made of recycled paper and yoghurt pots, to bamboo and cork flooring — be sure to do your homework about the options available and their environmental impact (remember, all bamboo is not created equal) and stay tuned to the Green Guides for more remodeling suggestions!
Green Kitchens: By the Numbers
- $30 billion: Money saved by Americans using ENERGY STAR appliances, lights, and windows in 20013, saving the energy equivalent to 277 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
- 70 percent: The amount of household and yard waste that can be composted rather than thrown in the trash.
- 70 percent: The reduction in cooking time and energy use from using a pressure cooker to cook your food.
- 12 percent: The percent of household energy use that comes from cooking in Western Australia; compare that to 67 percent in Ghana.
Sources: ENERGY STAR, Del Norte Solid Waste Management Authority, Fagor Pressure Cookers, Government of Western Australia’s Sustainable Energy Development Office, Government of Ghana’s Ministry of Energy.
Green Kitchens: Getting Techie
Pressure cookers are sealed cooking pots that do not permit air or liquids to escape below a certain preset pressure. Because the boiling point of water increases as the pressure inside the cooker increases, a pressure cooker allows the liquid in the pot to rise to a temperature higher than 100 °C (212 °F) before boiling, thus speeding up cooking times considerably, according to Wikipedia.
Solar ovens are insulated boxes with a transparent lid, allowing the sun’s rays to heat up the inside of the box like a greenhouse. They sometimes also include reflectors that concentrate solar energy, thereby increasing temperature in the oven. Solar ovens are often promoted by humanitarian organizations in areas where deforestation is an issue, but they are gaining popularity in the developed world as well, where they are garnering a reputation for creating intense, bold flavors that can only come from slow, careful, sun-powered cooking.
Chest freezers, the old-fashioned kind with a horizontal lid, are much more efficient than their vertical counterparts. One of the main reasons for this is that heat rises, and cold air falls, so when you open the door of a regular freezer, the cold air just falls out. Air in the chest freezer, on the other hand, stays put when the door is opened. Freezers can be made even more efficient by being kept in a cool place, such as an outdoor storage room, basement or garage, and they can even be clad with extra insulating material.
Slow cooking with crock pots is a great way to cook in an energy efficient manner. Once the crock pot is brought to temperature, its insulation can keep it hot for up to 6 hours. Talk about saving on the electricity bills! Slow cooking is also a great way to produce delicious food.
With reporting by Manon Verchot