Mark Bittman is to food and cooking what Neil DeGrasse Tyson is to astrophysics: Your go-to expert for making a complex topic easy to understand and a thorough pleasure. He is the author of 30 books, including a roster of New York Times best sellers, and a well-known figure to TV audiences from his Emmy-winning Showtime series and the Today Show, among other appearances.
Bittman is not just a celebrity spatula slider though, like many TV chefs. He is a special advisor to Columbia University, where he lectures on food, public health and social justice; six-time James Beard Award winner; distinguished fellow at the University of California – Berkeley, and a fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Bittman’s “What’s Wrong with What We Eat” TED Talk has close to 5 million views.
Bittman’s latest venture brings him into my realm of residential design, so I leaped at the opportunity to interview him for my Thought Leader Series. That venture is a new video series from Signature Kitchen Suite, a line of luxury appliances from the LG family (think Lexus by Toyota), called Cooking in Your True to Food Kitchen. The first installment launches this week.
In the series, Bittman will be cooking fabulous dishes from How to Cook Everything with five professional designers and the brand’s in-house chef, chatting about the equipment as well as the eats and ingredients. Here are his thoughts on the nexus between healthy food, kitchen tips and wellness design features for the heart of your home.
Jamie Gold: Your professional focus has long been the importance of healthy eating to overall health. Please share how someone should think about their kitchen as a center for healthy meal preparation in terms of how it’s arranged, equipped and organized?
Mark Bittman: To me, the most important things are decent equipment and a well-stocked pantry. If you’ve got those things, you can handle whatever comes your way. (Well, you might also need a cookbook!) I recommend investing in the right tools and equipment – from appliances, to accessories, to a great set of knives – these things will work hard for you every day and make the cooking experience more enjoyable.
For your pantry, my advice is to think about the kinds of cuisines you and your family enjoy…do you like Mexican, do you like Italian? Then start building those flavor profiles in your pantry so you have these items within quick reach. This is super simple and something you can do over time. Then of course once you have these things on hand, you’ll actually start using them in your cooking! As for organization and arrangement, you need some room, but it’s better for things to be too close together than too far apart. One or two people cooking do not need a huge kitchen.
Gold: So many people are cooking more right now because of the pandemic. What advice can you give them about simplifying healthy meal preparation in terms of cooking and kitchen tweaks?
Bittman: Know your limitations. For most of us, cooking one great thing at a time is plenty. Keep side dishes simple. There’s no need to overcomplicate things. Also weave common-sense shortcuts into your day-to-day cooking to improve your quality of life in the kitchen. Here are some of my favorite tips and techniques:
- Check out what local business support is available. It’s not what type of fish you buy, it’s more of when the fish was caught, and a fishmonger can help you find out. The same goes for butchers and bakers – rely on these experts for their advice.
- Don’t underestimate the power of a great pair of kitchen scissors. Use them to chop cooked or tender raw vegetables – especially greens – right in the bowl or pan.
- Use frozen vegetables in soups—or any dish. Minimally processed and chilled immediately after harvest, frozen vegetables are an anomaly in the frozen-food aisle—a true gift to cooks in a hurry. I always keep frozen peas and corn on hand.
Gold: If someone wants to add a non-installed element (e.g., countertop appliance, floor mat, cutting board, other) to their existing kitchen right now to help make healthy meals, what would you suggest they get?
Bittman: Depends on what you have, of course, but I do use my food processor every day. For instance, brussels sprouts are a favorite in my house and I always prep them in the food processor – it’s such a time-saver. The machine does the job in a few pulses, and the small pieces will broil in about half the time. Plus, you get more of the delicious crispy bits that I can’t get enough of, (just ask my daughters!). But if you don’t have a cutting board, you’d better start with that!
Gold: What is the most valuable cooking feature – e.g., sous vide, steam or steam-assist, induction, convection, other – that someone should prioritize in a new appliance for healthy cooking?
Bittman: Sous-vide is irreplaceable. It’s a cooking technique where food is vacuum-sealed and then submerged in water and slow-cooked at a constant precise temperature until it’s perfectly cooked. Sous vide has been the go-to method in some of the world’s best restaurants for years—and for good reason: it brings food to the precise temperature chefs look for and delivers perfect doneness, edge-to-edge, every time. And don’t worry about overcooking – it’s foolproof but will make you look like a star in the kitchen. Plus, sous vide is a healthy cooking option – vitamins, nutrients and minerals are preserved during the cooking process and you’ll enjoy flavorful, tasty results (no need for additional fat or salt!).
It’s easy to get started. You can buy small sous vide machines that you can use on your countertop and now there are pro-ranges that have sous vide built-in right in. Believe me when I say sous vide is a culinary game-changer.
Gold: What are your favorite refrigeration features and configurations (e.g., column vs French door, etc.) for healthy food storage – and why?
Bittman: Your refrigerator should provide the space for all your favorite foods while presenting them in the most convenient ways, so you’ve got quick access to the good stuff! I like a refrigerator that’s broad rather than deep, so I can see and reach everything. Adjustable temperatures are an amazing feature – compartments that can double as either a freezer or a refrigerator.
Whether a French-door, column refrigeration or whatever configuration works best for you, it’s important to remember it’s all about preservation. Food deserves to stay fresh as long as possible, so look for features that minimize temperature fluctuations. Plus, this helps in the ongoing battle against food waste.
Gold: Please share any must-haves as far as kitchen ventilation, and its importance to a healthy space.
Bittman: I can’t help you there: I’ve never had satisfying ventilation in my life.