Oil and frying naturally brings out the flavor. I'm so used to it! But now I can't fry for health reasons and I can't to begin to imagine how to get satisfying results with boiling, stewing and steaming only. It's incredibly bland! To add insult to injury, fatty condiments are off limits too (ones that involve animal fat, including butter and yolks). How do I make boiled or steamed veggies and meat taste good – without fatty condiments? I may start to oversalt things, just to feel anything at all, which is bad too! Only recently have I managed to wean myself off tons of salt. I got used to lesser amounts, and it even started to taste like food. But it was fried!
The basics : salt, spices, herbs, acid.
There is an infinite variation of the above components.
Most often, you will use acid like lemon/lime juice or vinegar to bring out vegetable flavors.
Also, you can also roast vegetables in very little fat like olive oil, you can also experiment with roasted without any fat at all.
It's very common for people to report that food tastes bland after radical changes in fat and salt in their diet. It's not that the food is actually bland, it's that your brain is used to tasting a lot of salt. The good news is that you will adjust to these lower levels, it may take some time and you have to be patient.
Fat is not required for flavor, it's only one of many flavors. You can't make it taste fatty without fat or salty without salt, but you can add other flavors instead. With a low fat and salt diet your best friends are herbs, spices and chemical changes from the application of heat. Instead of deep fried breaded fish you can develop a crust on a piece of fish with a thin coating of cooking spray and a hot pan, or you can oven bake it with a brush of soy-honey glaze.
Instead of strong salt and fat use strong spices. There's a world of curries out there with varieties from across the globe, tex-mex uses plenty of strong flavors and you don't have to load these up with fat and salt to enjoy them. So, fill up your spice cupboard and look at it as an opportunity to experiment with new cuisines.
Look beyond what you’re thinking of here as available cooking methods. It’s possible to braise or stew meat dishes without any added fat for example, and this is a great way to bring out additional flavors, especially if you do a blend with something like a mirepoix or the Cajun trinity. I’ve done plenty of stews myself before with no added fat this way using relatively lean meat, and if done right they may even taste better than if you had added fat. The key here is to include things that add to the flavor as they cook. My favorite blend of vegetables for this type of thing is red onion, celery, daikon radish (sometimes called mooli, it’s a relatively mild radish that stays crunchy even when cooked, adding additional texture to the dish) and green bell pepper, all cut in roughly 1-2cm pieces.
Fermentation may also be an option if you don’t need a low sodium diet, opening up options like kimchi, sauerkraut, pickled beets, pickled herring, or lakedra. Note though that some of the options this opens up are very much an acquired taste (such as lutefisk or surströmming), but many of them can provide some interesting additional flavors to dishes.
Of course, you may not even need to cook things at all. I’m not necessarily suggesting steak tartare here, but pretty much all fruits and most vegetables are readily edible without any cooking, and it’s not unusual for them to taste better this way. If you can source good quality fresh fish in your area, you might also consider learning to make sushi. It’s not hard to do, and other than the fish you can generally get everything you need online (though I strongly recommend making your own sushi rice, it’s also very easy, and the results will typically be much tastier than store bought).
Don't cook them so long
Everyone in Britain knows the jokes about "Bonfire night is done, so it's time to put your sprouts on for Christmas". Historically, us Brits have always boiled everything to death, until it's bland, pallid and generally gross. Don't go there.
The longer things stay in the water, the more flavour you'll lose. If you cut your veg more finely, you'll reduce the cooking time (which means you get to eat sooner, yay!) and get better flavours. Baton your carrots. Shred your cabbage. Break your broccoli down to smaller florets. You'll prefer the results.
Use less water, and avoid pan lids
We all know that some of the flavour of anything comes out into the medium you put it into, right? That's literally how you make a stock, after all. And of course, some of the flavour of the cooking medium goes back into what you're cooking too.
If you use less water, whatever flavour comes out is less dissolved. If you think of soluble flavour elements reaching some kind of "equilibrium" with the water and whatever you're cooking, then the less water you have, the less you'll get dissolved. So you only need just enough to cover the veg, and no more.
More interestingly though, consider what happens when you leave the pan lid off. The water evaporates, concentrating whatever is in the water. Now you actually have that going back into the veg, which is great. You'll need to watch it carefully, mind, because you can't let it boil dry.
For carrots, parsnips, swede, and any other sugary veg, this will transform your results. The cooking water actually reduces to a sweet syrup, full of the flavour of your veg, which packs flavour back into your veg. Even better though, reducing a syrup over heat is how you make a caramel, right? If you want to get super fancy, you can take your carrots out when they're cooked, caramelise the syrup a bit, and drizzle your carrot caramel back over. A little maple syrup in the water for seasoning (not flavouring!) can bring that out a bit more too.
Grill your meat
I can't imagine how you've missed this. It's the healthiest way to cook fatty meat anyway. For unfatty meat like chicken breasts, put it on foil - staying in the cooking juices will keep it moist.
Braise your meat
For braising, the meat doesn't actually sit in the water. Instead it sits on a bed of veggies and gradually bakes/steams. You need to make sure it stays moist and keep basting the meat, but it can give you really nice results. It's a good option for slow-cooking.
Boiling and steaming are not your only options for cooking without fat.
Roasting and grilling/broiling (UK versus US terminology here, I mean cooking under a very hot element) will both let you develop the rich flavours you get from malliard reactions that you won't get from boiling or steaming. An air fryer may also give you similar results although I haven't personally used one.
You can also get strong flavours using spices, herbs, and acid (e.g. vinegars, lemon/lime juice, etc).
A bit of sweetness (e.g. from sugar itself, or from sweet fruits) can also often improve many dishes, and if you caramelise it first you can use it to get a headstart on any malliard reactions you want in your meat (this is a similar principle to the tangse used in many Chinese dishes, although there the caramel is made in oil).
Don't use water to boil / steam anything: use wine to steam, beer to boil and hard liquor to flame:
E.G. on the Flemish side of my family:
frysome lean beef in butterwith some finely chopped onions
- Pepper, salt, nutmeg, cloves (use triple the amount of herbs if you want to try saltless) 1 teaspoon of mustard
- Add 2 bottles of dark Trappist beer
- boil with the lid closed until the beef starts falling apart
- serve with a mix of potatoes and shallots steamed in white wine
- mash potatoes and shallots
- Serve a big lump of mashed potatoes and make a volcano with "beef stew lava"
On the Italian side of my family, there is "Spaghetti matrimoniali" (Marriage spaghetti):
- fill kettle with the cheapest white wine you can find
- Add chives, onion, garlic
- Boil for 30 minutes (to make wine soup)
- Boil pasta (doesn't need to be spaghetti) until "Al dente"
- Drain the pasta, but keep the wine soup
Fry some more chives, onion and garlic in olive oil
- Add the
friedraw chives, onion and garlic to the pasta and serve
- Re-use the wine soup the next day or freeze it for next time (add more wine for the wine that has been lost during boiling)
Bœuf bourgignon, Coq au vin, steak flambé au whiskey, fish with lime slices flambé au gin: the possibilities are limitless...
My hack for you is: use an electric grill to achieve the satisfying taste and texture of fried foods with less oil than actual frying. (To be more specific: my initial idea was the type of grill that has a grid suspended over exposed heating elements. There are also types with integrated or exchangable plates that look like big sandwich toasters, but to get a satisfying result with these you'll have to opt for at least the mid price range because in my experience cheap devices don't produce enough heat.)
You can put meat, veggies and bread or buns on the grill without adding any fat at all. Since power consumption is roughly comparable to frying the same ingredients in a pan, the only extra cost of this method is the initial cost for the grill. If you don't like cleaning the grill, there are special sheets available (like parchment paper, but more sturdy) that you can put between the grill and the food to ease cleaning.
The disadvantage is that the food items need to be a minimum size in order to not fall through the grid. Some things like fried eggs or pancakes are also not rally practical to do on a grill, even if you have a sheet for it. I would rather fry / bake such things in a non-stick pan with a tiny amount of vegetable oil.
Flavacol is my solution to this issue; it's the stuff that they put on popcorn in the movie theaters that makes it so much better than you can make at home. It's an artificial buttery flavoring, with no fat or calories. It DOES have salt, so you can't use it indiscriminately if you can't have that much salt, but substitute it for the amount of salt that you CAN have, and it will give you a buttery flavor that will trick your brain into thinking you're having fat. I have used it to make a fat-free frosting with nonfat Greek yogurt, and you would have sworn you were having buttercream!
There is a healthy and easy way to cook meat (there are meats that have to be cooked for long in a stew, not this kind), which in Spain it is called "to the iron", which it relies on adding a few drops of olive oil in a non-stick pan preferably, wipe it with kitchen paper or a silicone brush all around, taking out the excess, and add meat (chicken breast f.e, steak, whatever) once the pan is hot. You can also cook veggies like this, but they will take some time. The oils you can see in the picture are the own ones from the meat.
For veggies, I never liked boiling. It takes a lot of the flavor, vitamins, minerals, ETC with the boiled water. Like boiling anything. I discovered this utensil quite some years ago, and it has been for sure one of the best kitchen discoveries so far. It's not promotional for the brand, there are for sure more brands or utensils like this, but I've only seen this one: Lekue
Add veggies, add water depending on the veggies (I've only done it with pumpkin because of specified in a recipe), and microwave X minutes. Works for frozen veggies as well. I have done it so far with green beans, green asparragus, aubergine, zuchinni, pumpkin, potatoes, sweet potatoes. Want extra flavour? Add garlic powder / whatever spice you want to the veggies or to the water laying under the siliconne platform where the veggies stand. And the flavour of veggies cooked like this is extremely flavourful of the veggie itself.
I do a fair bit of stews with veggies and a little bit of meat in pressure cookers and lately an InstantPot. Never been a big fan of frying anything or having lots of salt.
First, I'll assume that you're having to move from "frying" to not-frying, but that you can still use say a teaspoon or so of olive oil or the like.
Brown the meat in the pressure cooker first with a minimal amount of oil, or maybe none. Use spices liberally at this stage.
Take the meat out, brown some select veggies and scrape off the browned bits of the meat. I typically pre-microwave onions, chopped carrots, garlic, leeks, etc to make them sweat so that they brown rather than burn when put in the cooker. Your goal is to develop more flavor.
Add water/water/beer as prescribed and the bulk of the veggies and meat.
Now a lot of stew recipes recommend an "umami bomb", like soy sauce, or worcestershire to develop a deeper flavor. Most of the recommended ingredients are fairly high in salt, so off-limit but you can also experiment with vinegar. See some ideas.
Salt is a mixed blessing. In reasonable doses it adds flavor. But like sugar, it is often the first ingredient people reach for. As you use less of it, you will perceive the taste of salt a lot more. It's not uncommon for me to find some restaurant dishes over-salted.
If you're watching your salt intake, be careful not just what you yourself put into what you are cooking, but rather what is already in the ingredients you buy. Artisanal bread for example may have a lot but is not required to display quantities (at least in Canada).
Basically, modern processed foods dump salt in the most unexpected places, often for no clear reasons.
Good health to you.
Using the microwave for veggies works well. I even cook potatoes this way. Cut the veggies up into bite sized pieces, add a little water to the bottom of a glass dish with a lid and season with a spice mix available in your grocery store or you can mix your own. Commonly used mixes can contain onion powder, garlic powder, black pepper and then smaller amounts of other spices, such as basil, but can include many others. You can look for spice mixes from McCormick or Mrs. Dash. Do not overcook. You can get times for microwaving foods online. Most veggies take around five minutes, longer for potatoes, about 10 minutes on high so I cook potatoes separately. Be careful removing the lid that you don't burn yourself with the steam that escapes.