Water conservation is one of the biggest environmental concerns I worry about. Growing up in Texas, witnessing the marked increased temperatures and decreased rainfall in my lifetime alone, it’s scary. You may have heard that Los Angeles is also now under drought alert. Look at this drought map of the US if you really want to freak your shit out. Not that I relish anyone getting their shit all freaked out, but man it chaps my hide when I see people watering their St Augustine in the middle of the summer. Even small things, like people ordering a water along with their beer at a restaurant and leaving it, untouched, really get to me. I think it’s because conserving water is something real and tangible — and easy — that we can all do every day. Besides the usual things you’ve heard (turn off the water while brushing your teeth; limit showers to 5 minutes; install low-flow toilets) here are a few more suggestions for saving water specifically while cooking and cleaning the kitchen.
Conserving water in the Kitchen
Double up. This can mean blanching vegetables alongside boiling pasta, or steaming vegetables while you cook rice. Not only do these techniques save water in cooking, they also save clean-up and time! Try this pasta primavera recipe if you want to experiment cooking vegetables and pasta at the same time. Keep in mind that most vegetables only need a minute or three for prime blanching, so add them into the water after the pasta water has come back to the boil and when there are only a couple minutes left on the pasta timer. They can all be drained together and tossed with sauce of your choice.
Steaming vegetables with rice is easily done with a rice cooker as many models come with a steamer tray that fits above the water line of the rice. Rather than starting the rice and vegetables at the same time, then removing the vegetables when they are cooked, I like to start the rice first, then add the vegetables later. This way everything is hot at once and I feel like there is less risk of burning yourself on steam or the hot metal liner of the rice cooker. To do this without a rice cooker, you’ll set up a system similar to a double boiler. Find a steamer tray, a small metal colander, or even a large sieve with a handle that fits just inside whatever pot you’re using to cook rice. Put the rice and water into the pot and cover. Bring to boil. Once boiling, reduce heat and cook simmering 5 minutes. Then lift the lid carefully and place the makeshift steamer tray on top. Replace the lid and simmer 10 minutes more until rice is cooked and vegetables are tender. You may need to experiment with your stove, pot, burner, rice type and preferred vegetables until you get the timing just right. Serve the rice with the vegetables, sprinkled with soy sauce, sesame oil, lemon or lime juice, balsamic vinegar, red pepper flakes, hot sauce, lemon pepper or furikake. If you like, add some green onions, chopped garlic and/or ginger to the rice before cooking to infuse the whole pot with aromatics.
Skimp a little (or a lot). Molto Mario might punch me in the face for saying this, but you don’t need 8 quarts of water to boil a pound of dried pasta. You just need enough to cover the pasta. There are a couple of reasons that pasta packages recommend such blasphemous amounts of water: to ensure plenty of room for movement and guard against clumping, and to help the water come back to boil faster. But the best way to ensure against sticking and clumping (no matter what your water to pasta ratio) is to stir the pasta for the first couple minutes or so until it begins to soften. The first few minutes of cooking are critical because that’s when most of the starch is released and if the pasta is left to its own lazy devices, it would just stick together into a big starchy ball. Stirring at this point keeps them separated until the starch releases completely into the water. And, as it turns out, the rate at which water returns to a boil after adding the pasta isn’t affected by a lesser volume of water (see Serious Eats link in “Resources”).
I recommend saving a bit of pasta cooking water to add to sauces, too. The starch released from the pasta acts as a binder to help whatever sauce you’re making stick better to the noodles. Just dip out a half cup or so before draining and add that to the sauce. This works especially well with thick sauces like fettuccine Alfredo. Also, please stop wasting perfectly good oil by dumping it into the water. It doesn’t prevent sticking (see: stirring, above) and it doesn’t really do anything except maybe help stop foaming-over. Using a larger pot with a smaller volume of water will also do the trick and then you’re not stuck dumping oily water down the drain.
Just drink it. Save the water leftover from steaming or blanching vegetables to add to homemade stock. Freeze it in a container, adding a bit more every time, then when you’re ready to make stock you’ve got a base already. I love making soups and stews for similar reasons, no water gets “wasted” in the cooking because it turns into delicious broth and errybody wants some.
Reuse. Much kitchen water can be reused to water plants or even pets. Water used for rinsing produce, for example. When I wash heads of lettuce or bunched of spinach, my favorite way is to fill a large bowl with water – not hot, not cold, just, meh temperature – and drop the leaves into it. Swish around quickly, making sure the leaves are separating. Lift out with your hands into another large bowl. Take that first rinse water with all it’s dirt and grit outside and pour it on your garden or potted plants. Add water now to the second bowl and swish around again. Lift out into a colander and dump the second round of gritty water into the garden (or even water your compost pile; compost needs water, too!). Now you should have a colander of cleaned leaves with no water wasted in the process. Try this yummy spinach recipe and read more about my washing technique.
You can reuse kitchen “gray water”, too. Which brings us to ways to save water while cleaning:
Dishes. A trick my grandma taught me is to keep a plastic tub inside your sink while washing dishes. Fill it up with hot soapy water and use that bucket to wash, rather than leaving the water running the whole time. (A large pot or bowl works, too!) Depending on the size of your tub, you’ll only only use maybe 2 gallons of water total compared to 2 or more gallons PER MINUTE! This first round of soapy water isn’t good to pour on your garden, so you pour it down the drain. However. The second round, the rinse water, is totally fine. Rinse the dishes under running water, catching it in the tub. When the tub is full, use the “gray water” on your plants outside. This is the best reason to use an earth-friendly, phosphate-free, plant-based dish soap.
Please stop rinsing. Unless your dishwasher is an antique, rinsing dishes before putting them in is unnecessary and maybe even harmful; it’s definitely a waste of water and your time. Dishwashers and dishwashing detergents are made to remove food and oils from dishes. Without some debris to work on, the machine and detergent are just working on each other. If your machine doesn’t seem to be getting things clean without pre-rinsing, double check your loading arrangement. Make sure to put the larger dishes and platters around the outside of the bottom rack; face plates towards the center so their dirty sides are towards the spray arm; put glasses and plastic containers on the top rack; make sure no bowls are facing downward because that will block the water spray. Also check for water deposit build up on the spray arm holes and make sure the drain isn’t blocked by a forgotten fork or an adventurous GI Joe. When choosing the cycle, most often you’ll just want to use the regular one. To save more energy, set it to “air dry” but open the door as soon as the machine goes off. The heat inside the machine will cause the dishes to dry almost immediately as the steam escapes. Just like when you put drained, boiled potatoes back into the hot pot to dry them out.
Recycling. I got into a fight with a boyfriend once about recycling. He claimed that since Texas has more land than water, it was actually more ecological to throw recyclables into the trash (and therefore a landfill) rather than use more water rinse them before recycling. While he had a point about land > water, I still could not believe the words I heard coming out of his dumb mouth. In many cities, you really don’t need to rinse out cans and jars before recycling! I mean, sure, it’s bad to throw out a half-full can of refried beans or a pickle jar full of leftover brine, but for the small amounts of residue left in most recyclables, rinsing is not always required. Plastic recycling has a lower tolerance for “contaminants” than metal or glass, so those may benefit from a rinse to get off excess gunk. Check with your local program to find out specifics. Single-steam programs tend to request rinsing more often than separate stream programs. If you do need rinse before recycling, reuse leftover dish washing water to give them a swish. (Note: City of Austin’s recycling page states that rinsing is required. I’ve got an email out to them to find out if that is current information.)
Reader submitted ways to save water in the kitchen:
While this grosses certain people out, we do it all the time and in fact it’s one of the most fun parts of having a dog I think: No more washing dishes! I kid. Of course we wash them, after the dogs have done their job. The dogs only have two jobs: guarding the house and licking plates and I’m not about to let them slack off!
This is a great way to save both energy and water consumption! Try a one-dish meal like posole, beef stew, or minestrone soup. Stir fry is also a quick option that only uses one skillet (assuming you have leftover rice to toss in!).
This is so true! You can steam vegetables in the microwave, too, for a side dish in mere seconds.
What an excellent example of creative thinking to save resources. You could do this when blanching various vegetables, too, by using a slotted spoon to remove them from the water rather than straining in a colander. A pasta insert would make this trick even easier to pull off!
I cringe when I think of all the not-hot water that gets wasted waiting for the hot water, especially in the winter! Be sure, too, that unless you really need hot water, you only turn on the cold tap.
Sautéing also adds flava!!! This reminds me of recipes I’ve read from parts of the world where historically water has been harder to come by than olive oil (Israel, for example). Vegetables like artichokes and carrots are often slow-cooked in oil, and I hear that deep-frying in oil originated in Mesopotamia.