Earth Day Food for Thought: Shrinking Your ‘Cookprint’

Cookbook author Kate Heyhoe would like you to put down that organic avocado and chew on this morsel for a moment:

When it comes to being green, what you eat is not enough; how you cook it and what you cook with are equally essential to the green equation.

On the first page of her new book, “Cooking Green,” Heyhoe tells us right up that “appliances account for 30 percent of our household energy use, and the biggest guzzlers are in the kitchen.” (She refers to the oven as the “Humvee of the kitchen.”)

Author Kate Heyhoe. (Photo courtesy of the author)

As we talk about reducing our carbon footprint on this Earth Day -- and going forward -- Heyhoe, who’s based in Austin, Tex., would like us to consider shrinking our “cookprint” as well – the energy it takes to prepare food every day. In the interview notes below, she explain what the heck that newfangled word means and how the electric kettle can be your new best friend.

You've coined two terms in "Cooking Green": cookprint and ecovore. They sound an awful lot like carbon footprint and locavore, two words we've been hearing in the green and sustainable worlds. How do your words differ from what's already out there?
I chose these words because they’re more specific and accurate to my intent. Cookprint is the entire chain of resources used to create the foods you eat, including water and land, and the waste produced in the process. Carbon footprint measures carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Shrinking your cookprint includes saving water and energy, as well as reducing waste and emissions.

Being green is all about making choices. An ecovore looks at the total impact of food with fluidity, not rigidity. Our food choices are, at any given time or in any given place, in constant flux, because of changes in ecosystems, economics, and technology. Ecovores eat foods that are in harmony with the environment, both currently and for the foreseeable future, locally and globally. An ecovore’s diet pivots on a series of judgment calls based on conditions at the time and place. This season’s local salmon may be sustainable, but next year it may not (and would then not be part of an evocore diet, even though the food is local). And conversely, as we make progress, what casts a carbon footprint last week may not be an issue tomorrow. World hunger matters, too. In a global rice or corn shortage, an ecovore picks a different food to eat.

Locovores limit their foods to a specified radius, like 100 miles for instance, which is great if you live in Napa Valley but not very practical for most people, and not always very nutritious. And just because a food is local doesn’t always mean it’s abundant or sustainable. Nor is a distant food automatically offensive; most shade-grown, organic coffee does a lot to sustain the rain forest and provide farmers with a sustainable lifestyle that relies on preserving the rain forest, not destroying it. The impact of transportation also factors in, and needs to be weighed against other factors. More efficient and greener ways of bringing distant foods to the masses are developing, so an ecovore looks forward at progress, too.

You argue in the book that "being a vegan or vegetarian is not the same thing as being an ecovore." Why?

Vegan or vegetarian diets are not the same thing as being an ecovore because they typically don’t weigh in on the fluidity and flux of other global conditions, and are limited by definition to the type of food itself.

So what do you say to a homeowner (or renter) with perfectly good appliances -- get rid and start over with Energy Star appliances? What's the next greenest option? What's a reasonable green step for those with limited funds?

Obviously, don’t get rid of anything that works well and is at least moderately efficient. Energy Star appliances are as affordable as others these days. Don’t buy a new appliance unless your old one is really inefficient; and ask your city’s recycling center about the best way to recycle the old appliance.

You're saying ixnay to the garbage disposal? Why is it an environmental vice?

It wastes electricity, gasoline and water. The chewed up gunk ends up being trucked to the landfill, after being processed at the waste water plant. If you don’t compost, then throw out the waste with the trash. But try to waste less food in the first place; avoid spoilage and over-consumption. A family of four throws out 122 pounds of food each month.

Tell me why you love the toaster oven. Do you have a favorite brand or a few to recommend?

Toaster ovens consume a fraction of the fuel of a standard oven, which I call the Humvee of the kitchen. Standard ovens waste about nine percent of the fuel they use; most of the heat goes into the walls of the oven, the air, and your kitchen; not into cooking the food. Toaster ovens take less time to heat up and cool down, and their smaller capacity uses less fuel. Today’s better toaster ovens are well designed to roast chickens, cook pizzas, and broil as well as a standard oven does. New models are coming out every season, so check with consumer sites to see which perform best, and opt for convection models which cook more efficiently. In general, the lower the price, the poorer the performance, but mid-range models are typically fine.

Any kind of cooktop that seems promising on a green front?

Induction cooktops are coming down in price, and you can buy single portable induction burners if you don’t want to shoot for a whole cooktop.

Tell me your favorite non-tea tricks/uses for the electrical kettle!

Arrange nine lasagna noodles in a glass baking dish. Pour boiling water over, cover with a baking sheet to keep the heat in, and jiggle the noodles around periodically to keep from sticking. In 25 minutes they’ll be tender; cool the water and pour over plants to repurpose it, wipe the dish dry and build your lasagna in it. You’ll save washing another pot. Follow the same process with one-inch pieces of green beans or asparagus, thinly sliced zucchini, and other vegetables, but scale back passive cooking time; usually five minutes is plenty for crisply tender, blanched veggies. Taste to test.

Do you ever ever hit up the thrift shops for used appliances?

I get plenty of samples to test, so no, but I do recommend putting used appliances to use. I also suggest holding a neighborhood appliance swap, for crockpots, rice cookers, bread machines and anything else gathering dust.

You poo-poo the long-held notion of oven preheating. Does that apply to baking too?

Baking is more tricky and not always recommended, but some recipes are being written with cold start cooking in mind. Fleischmann’s has some and I have a Cold Oven Clove and Ginger Cake in the book. Casseroles and baked potatoes start great in a cold oven.

For those just getting started on the greening-up journey, what are five things one can do off the bat to greenify the kitchen life?

* Avoid meat. A single serving of beef requires 2600 gallons of water to create, and it’s got a hefty methane output. Chicken uses 408 gallons, rice 36 and almonds 12. Eat lower on the food chain.

* Start rethinking meals and strive for the most energy-efficient cooking methods. Avoid using your oven; opt for cooktop cooking, or crockpots, or toaster oven instead.

* When cooking, prepare enough to save or freeze to eat later, or to add as ingredients in other dishes. You’ll use uses fewer resources. Beans and rice freeze great. And eat more raw foods.

* Avoid single serving containers. Buy in bulk and fill your own reusable small containers.

* Run only full loads in an Energy-Star dishwater, and you’ll use less water than washing by hand. And run electric appliances including dishwashers after 8PM; it saves energy at the source by avoiding the power “rush hour,” when more resources are strained and emissions higher.

And the next five?

* Don’t run the hot water tap unless you really need hot water; it triggers the water heater to refill and heat the replaced water, wasting fuel.

* It takes a lot of energy to bring a pot of water to a boil. When boiling a big pot of water for potatoes or pasta, multitask and cook staggered or simultaneously: blanched green beans or other vegetables, hard-cook eggs, corn on the cob, shrimp, or scoop out some of the hot water to cook (pour over couscous) or bughur wheat. Boiling water is the same temperature (212 degrees F) whether it’s raucously boiling or gently boiling. More fuel just boils the water more wildly. So turn down the heat until water is just boiling, not frenzied.

* When using the oven, bake multiple dishes simultaneously. Like roasting garlic, beets, or potatoes while roasting chicken.

* Waste less. Keep the fridge at the optimal range of 35 to 38 degrees for extending the life of fresh foods.

* Fill up empty gaps in the fridge and freezer (containers of water work well); the unit consumes less fuel.

Kate Heyhoe is the founding editor of The Global Gourmet and New Green Basics.

By Kim ODonnel |  April 22, 2009; 7:28 AM ET Eco-Bites
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In honor of earth day my 721 sheep and lambs are getting a special organic grass that increases their methane production.
My LGDs and herding dogs will alos get special meals that increases their methane production and I will have a couple hot dogs cooked over an open fire with some beans and we fart the alphabet together.

Have a great earth day but remember billions of Chinese and Indians dont care!

Posted by: sheepherder | April 22, 2009 7:34 AM

The downside of small kitchen appliances is the need to store them, but if you have the space, they are much more efficient than using the stove. I love my rice cooker because it saves time and cleanup effort. I really love my electric kettle, which I use pretty much every day, because it takes forever to boil water in a regular kettle on the stovetop -- it's just a few minutes in the electric one.

Posted by: margaret6 | April 22, 2009 8:44 AM

Newer dishwashers have a timer feature that allows you to run the dishwasher at a later time. I usually run mine in the middle of the night, when energy usage is lower and it doesn't interfere with anybody taking a shower, doing laundry, etc.

Posted by: margaret6 | April 22, 2009 9:01 AM

I second the rice cooker. And, it has the added benefit of turning itself off when the rice is done, so that it doesn't get scorched if I'm tied up in the barn.

Also, steam veggies and potatoes instead of boiling them. It only takes a little water, you don't leach out the vitamins, and everything tastes better. You can also save the water for soup stock, or water your plants with it. I have an electric steamer and two stovetop steamers, one multilevel. You can get it going, and then turn it off for most veggies, and for harder stuff like potatoes or carrots it still takes less time than boiling.

And, hey, summer's almost here. It's salad season - no need to cook anything.

Posted by: lsgc | April 22, 2009 11:11 AM

1. After my dishwasher flooded twice in a week, I don't think I'll ever run it in the middle of the night - if we hadn't been there to stop it the damage would have been much much worse.

2. I'm expanding my kitchen - who knows when I will get to buy an oven again - I have my heart set on a gas range w/double oven - I see what's said about ovens being inefficient - but think that if I use the smaller oven for most things I should be saving some energy. True or a rationalization????

Posted by: MariaC18 | April 22, 2009 11:46 AM

I wish she had mentioned the pressure cooker, which cooks things quickly and at a fraction of the energy use of traditional methods.

Posted by: mlscha | April 22, 2009 12:26 PM

I would like to add the following to this discussion:

1. We are assuming many foods need to be cooked that do not. An extreme example is that we could be eating sprouted wheat berries instead of bread, or pasta, and save all the energy associated with grinding and cooking the berries. Salads and fresh fruit are the simplest raw foods that come to mind.

2. Let's not forget solar cooking. There are many websites that describe making a solar oven from a cardboard box, black paint, aluminum foil and a piece of glass. Then your meal cooks (in the sun) without additional energy input.

Basically, if we had to do something physical to generate the energy, such as gather firewood, or pedal a bike to produce the energy we consume, we would long ago have found ways to cut back on energy waste. Some of those ways involve thinking outside the box.

Posted by: myrtoashe | April 22, 2009 1:15 PM

I've found I can get along quite well without a refrigerator or airconditioning. I unplugged mine a couple of years ago and haven't looked back. My electric bill runs about $16 a month.

Posted by: brewstercounty | April 22, 2009 1:57 PM

We've been doing more and more raw foods (DH's blood pressure is normal again, hooray!) and have only used the Vitamix, dishwasher and fridge for over a month now.

(I'm also surprised at the lack of mention for the pressure cooker and solar oven in the article.)

Posted by: sarahabc | April 22, 2009 5:24 PM

I learned that a fuller freezer and an EMPTIER refrigerator were most efficient, but you suggest filling both. Hmmm....

Posted by: SilverSpringer1 | April 22, 2009 6:49 PM


Posted by: realgrrl | April 22, 2009 7:03 PM

I second the efficient tools: rice cooker that turns itself off, moderately fancy toaster oven, food dehydrator, crockpot (maybe? it is on for a long time). But only get these if you're going to use them frequently (or get them second hand) otherwise the waste of manufacturing outweighs the savings in cooking.

I strongly second the pressure cooker suggeston. In fact I'm going to shout it: PRESSURE COOKER! I got a lousy old one from freecycle, and even that saves a lot of time, money, and energy. It cooks a potroast in 15 min. It cooks risotto in 7 minutes. It cooks dry beans in 10 minutes. Dry beans are so much better than canned: they taste better (I find cooked canned beans to be mealy and overcooked), they're less expensive, there's less packaging and less energy used in transporting them. Did I mention home-cooked tastes better than canned?

I also want to mention the convection oven, for when you want to use a real oven. A convection oven has a fan, which circulates the hot air around the oven. This makes preheating go faster and eliminates hotspots so cooking goes faster or at a lower temperature.

I know not everyone is a fan of preheating. Through trial and error (lots of error!) that it's needed for baking but usually not for cooking. Preheating heat the metal of the oven as well as the air, which means that you lose less hot when you open the door. This loss makes a big difference when making baked goods, not so much for roast broccoli or a timbale.

Posted by: fitday19550 | April 23, 2009 11:14 AM

the other thing to mention is using the oven in the summer time while you're running your air conditioner. so you're trying to cool your house down at the same time you're heating up your kitchen. we have a rule in my house: if the air conditioner is on the oven stays off. yes, it does limit what i can cook but it makes me think about how i use energy.

i'm going to have to try a pressure cooker.

Posted by: quark2 | April 23, 2009 12:18 PM

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