The Joy of Cooked Food
We often hear that heating foods destroys nutrient content in vegetables and meats. But as a raw foods obsessed culture we’ve forgotten what used to be common, if not innate, knowledge amongst cooks. Cooking is critical to the extraction of various medicinal properties in many foods.
In fact, there’s a whole world of alchemical processes that occur when we combine water, acids and heat, which result in the release of minerals and nutrients otherwise bound up and unavailable to our bodies.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting you give up raw veggies and fruits. Salads, smoothies and the like, also have their place in the rotation of foods that we nourish our bodies with. But if you’ve been tormenting yourself with the idea that raw foods are healthiest and artificially limiting your intake of soothing cooked foods, consider yourself officially set free.
Wise Traditions & Herbalism
Because I come from Poland, I’ve been lucky to have always had some connection to traditional cooking practices. Fermented foods, raw meats, wild mushrooms and real bone broth – all of these foods associated with the wise traditions of our ancestors have been a part of my lifelong food culture. As I began to seek healing in my late-twenties and became familiar with the Weston A. Price Foundation and Nourishing Traditions folk cooking practices and the knowledge of healing foods that I’d had access to my whole life, suddenly jelled.
Traditional cooking methods are very much linked to herbalism. Plant foods and meats alike, can be prepared in ways that optimize the release of specific healing constituents while preserving others. These processes transmute raw foods into delicious, edible medicines. And although healing foods such as chicken soup have stood the test of time, the healing properties of certain cooked foods are no longer anecdotal knowledge. The alchemy of cooking and its resulting extraction of medicinal constituents is a science. (1, 2)
The overlap between traditional cooking practices and medicine making became apparent to me this year while I’ve been a student of the Herbal Medicine Making Program at the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. It’s been an enriching experience and much of the information below is owed to the medicine making curriculum.
Though I’m an experienced cook, I am merely a student of introductory herbalism. This simple guide is meant to give you a sense of cooking times and methods best to follow for medicinal potency of daily meals. Because we’re drawing parallels between medicinal cooking traditions and herbalism, I’m only going to touch on water based and vinegar extraction methods in this post.
In herbalism water is one of several solvents used for extraction. Hot water in particular is known as a powerful solvent for minerals, prebiotics, mucilage, and a majority of medicinal constituents. This is why bone broth based vegetable soups are known to be so extremely nutritious.
Root vegetables like burdock, sweet potatoes, beets, onions, garlic, and many others, release prebiotic compounds like inulin, fructo-oligosaccharides, and other oligosaccharides when simmered in hot water. These probiotics are an indigestible dietary fibre/carbohydrate. They resist digestion in the human small intestine and reach the colon where they’re fermented by, and feed the gut’s vast colonies of microflora. (2)
Mucilage is another extraordinarily therapeutic substance produced by many plants and extracted most effectively by water. According to Juliet Blankespoor of Chestnut Herbs, mucilage is a type of soluble fiber biochemically comprised of a polar soluble glycoprotein and an exopolysaccharide. In herbalism making teas from demulcent herbs such as slippery elm, marshmallow, comfrey and licorice will yield a powerful dose of mucilage.
In cooking, starchy roots and tubers such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, burdock and yams will be your best source of mucilage and its hypoglycemic, antimicrobial, and antioxidant properties. Eating foods rich in mucilage will promote improved mucosa in the gut as well as enhanced digestive enzyme activity.(3) This means that mucilage can help build a healthy gastric and intestinal mucosa, also known as the gastrointestinal barrier, allowing for more efficient absorption of nutrients as well as a healthy barrier to keep pathogens from reaching the blood stream. Without a healthy gastrointestinal barrier the gut becomes permeable and the body susceptible to auto-immune diseases and allergies.
Hot water as a solvent, plays a key role in extracting these medical properties from roots, tubers and other vegetables. These benefits are mostly lost when veggies and herbs are roasted or pan fried. I’m a huge fan of baked veggies, but it’s a fact that no culinary tradition has referred to roasted veggies as a medicinal food! However grandmothers around the world – those who have a knowledge of traditional cooking – will promptly serve brothy soup when a healing meal is in need. As you see, this tradition is rooted in innate wisdom.
Short Decoctions for Roots
In herbalism this method is usually used for extraction of medicinal constituents found in dense plant parts such as roots, berries, barks, non-aromatic seeds and nuts. Using boiling water mineral salts and bitter principles of the plants infuse into the solution.
- Bring the liquid to a boil and reduce to a simmer, on medium-low heat.
- Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes tops.
- Keep the pot covered with a lid so that volatile oils released from aromatic compounds don’t evaporate.
- Best for roots, berries, barks, nuts and non-aromatic seeds such as milk thistle.
This medicine making method can be applied when cooking healing soups and stews that contain root vegetables. Many root veggies like burdock, parsnips, celeriac, beets, daikon and herbal roots like ginger, turmeric and garlic are known to have both culinary and medicinal uses.
By following the basic principles of the decoction method, the broth of your soup will be infused with medicinal constituents drawn out during decoction. Consumed with the fiber and vitamin rich flesh of the veggies, will make for a healing dish that offers immune building properties as well as nutrients that support a healthy gut.
Long Decoctions For Bone & Mushroom Broth
Whenever possible, I like to simmer my bone broth for 24 hours or more. The long cooking time at a low temperature, together with the acid from apple cider vinegar, help to slowly draw out minerals and collagen from the bones, flesh and skin. For full details on bone broth read my recipe and post on Basic Bone Broth.
Mushroom broth also benefits from a longer decoction. The long and low simmer, of about 5 to 6 hours, is key to extracting healing long chain polysaccharides from medicinal mushrooms. You will achieve a potent broth this way with either fresh or dried mushrooms.
To make a mushroom immune tonic soup, try Mountain Rose Herbs for a reliable source of dried medicinal mushrooms. Use any combination of these mushrooms for general immune support: Reishi, Shiitake, Maitake or Chaga.
Aromatic compounds in herbs are volatile, so they are best extracted with this gentle method that helps to preserve their medicinal properties. The process simply requires that you steep herbs in hot water, observing these details:
- Steep for 10 to 30 minutes.
- To extract the most medicinal constituents steep for 30 minutes. Anything beyond that is unnecessary.
- Steep in a lidded pot, to prevent evaporation of medicinal properties found in the volatile oils.
Aside from making teas, you can use this infusion method when adding leafy herbs like oregano, thyme, parsley or cilantro to a cooked soup or stew. Once you’ve finished heating the dish, simply mix in the fresh herbs, cover with a lid and let them infuse into the broth.
You’ll not only benefit more from the medicinal aspects of these culinary-cum-medicinal herbs, but you will add a great deal more flavor to your dishes. If you add leafy herbs early on in the cooking process, when the aromatic oils evaporate, so will the flavor. With steeping you get to have your medicinal cake and eat it too.
Vinegar & Acid Extractions
Vinegar is another solvent commonly used as a tincturing agent in herbalism. You’ve probably come across herb infused apple cider vinegars like the oh-so delicious Fire Cider. This is a great example of a vinegar tincture, but flavorful vinegars like Fire Cider don’t just add a boost of heat and flavor to your meals. Herbal vinegar tinctures are teeming with a concentration of minerals extracted from the herbs with which they were infused.
Similarly, when acids are used in combination with a decoction cooking method, they will help to gently draw out minerals, like calcium, iron and magnesium, from both plant and meat based foods. Acid also helps hydrolyze collagen into a soluble form, which is why it’s an important part of traditional bone broth recipes.
In addition to apple cider vinegar other sources of acids that can play a role in making delicious and mineral rich culinary creations include tomatoes, wine and certain fruits.
Final Words of Encouragement
If you love brothy veggie and meaty stews as much as I do, I hope that you too find relief in understating the medicinal benefits of these blessed dishes that call out to you. Let the knowledge that properly cooked foods support a healthy body, serve as inspiration to revel in eating more heart, soul & gut warming meals!
- Chicken soup inhibits neutrophil chemotaxis in vitro. Rennard BO1, Ertl RF, Gossman GL, Robbins RA, Rennard SI. Chest. 2000 Oct; 118(4):1150-7.
- Chicken Soup Inhibits Neutrophil Chemotaxis In Vitro*. Barbara O. Rennard, BA; Ronald F. Ertl, BS; Gail L. Gossman, BS; Richard A. Robbins, MD, FCCP; and Stephen I. Rennard, MD, FCCP.
- Fiber and Prebiotics: Mechanisms and Health Benefits. Joanne Slavin. Nutrients. 2013 Apr; doi: 10.3390/nu5041417. PMCID: PMC3705355.
- Roots and Tuber Crops as Functional Foods: A Review on Phytochemical Constituents and Their Potential Health Benefits. Anoma Chandrasekara, Thamilini Josheph Kumar. Int J Food Sci. 2016. doi: 10.1155/2016/3631647. PMCID: PMC4834168.