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9 March 2022

Cutting costs in the kitchen is about more than just ingredients

We can combat energy price hikes – and become greener – by changing our cooking habits.

By Felicity Cloake

This column is for everyone trying to save a bit of energy this spring. Which is, of course, all of you, and me, and the other 99.9 per cent of Britons for whom a 54 per cent price hike in their bills is unlikely to go unnoticed. The Energy Saving Trust reports that cooking “typically accounts for 13.8 per cent of electricity demand in UK homes, with freezing or cooling food requiring a further 16.8 per cent of electricity used on average” – so here are a few ideas for trimming that number a little bit.

When replacing appliances, of course, you should look for those with a good energy efficiency rating; legally, all new white goods must display this. But it’s less green to replace goods unnecessarily. You can measure the energy consumption of your existing white goods with a simple power meter, which is available online for less than £20. If you have a smart meter, some providers are able to supply you with a detailed breakdown of your usage.

Christian Reynolds, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London, reassures me that “you don’t have to have any new kit to have a sustainable kitchen, though; you can just use what you have smarter”. Yes, induction hobs are more energy efficient than gas or electric ones, because all the heat produced goes into the pan rather than the air around it, but if you have a perfectly good gas hob, don’t feel bad: taking the energy used to produce and ship a new one into account, it would take years to break even on the investment.

Instead, Reynolds explains, you can get a 20-30 per cent improvement in your energy efficiency “just by putting a lid on the pan when boiling water”. Always use the right size of pan for both the contents and the ring you’re cooking on, to limit the amount of heat wasted to the atmosphere. Ignore instructions to cook rice and pasta in “a large pan of water” – for rice, the absorption method is quicker and produces fluffier long grains, while covering pasta with the bare minimum of water will yield a starchier liquid with which to thicken the sauce. Steam veg in a sieve set above that pasta and you’ll reduce your washing-up as well as your energy consumption.

Cook jacket potatoes or fish fingers in the microwave and then crisp them briefly in a hot oven… as long as that oven is already on for something else. (This is where that modish gadget, the air fryer, comes into its own – not only does it use less energy than a larger oven, but it heats up in minutes, making it a great tool for adding crunch to microwaved foods.)

Microwaves are invariably the most energy efficient choice, although Reynolds warns that this does depend on how much you’re cooking: large amounts of food may be better off in the oven. But otherwise, “ovens are heating a lot of air, which means that unless you fill them, they’re almost always the worst bet”. Plan ahead: if you’re doing a lasagne, add a tray of root vegetables underneath for later in the week, and a tin of flapjacks for packed lunches. Batch cooking like this will save you money on more than just ingredients.

And, unless you’re cooking something very delicate, such as a sponge cake, you can probably get away with turning off the oven when the contents are almost done – as long as you don’t leave it open for too long, your food will continue to cook in the hot air trapped inside. (Afterwards, of course, feel free to open the door and allow the heat to warm your room rather than going to waste.)

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Don’t overfill your fridge or freezer, and defrost food before cooking wherever possible. Consider investing in a slow or pressure cooker, or even a modern take on the old-fashioned hay box. The food historian Annie Gray tells me she made a “fab pig-cheek casserole” cooked for just 35 minutes on the hob followed by five hours wrapped in beanbags.

Excuse me, I feel a weekend project coming on.

[See also: Over time, humans have eaten 6,000 plant species. Now, we eat just nine]

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror