6 Ways to Save Water in the Kitchen

No water was harmed in the making of this graphic

No water was harmed in the making of this graphic

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:

From John: Let the dog lick the plate clean.

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!

Richard says: Sticking to one pot or pan is key.

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!).

Larry suggests: Steaming a good green alternative to boiling – uses less water, and does not boil out nutrients in veggies, etc.

This is so true! You can steam vegetables in the microwave, too, for a side dish in mere seconds.

Lindsey says: If you are boiling two different things, you can sometimes reuse the water. Saves time and energy! ie pierogies…boil potatoes, strain the potatoes over an additional pot and re-boil that water for the pierogies.(Marta added that her grandmother would then let this water cool and use it on her plants outside, too!)

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!

Greta has a great solution to slow hot water: Our water heater takes a while to warm up, so instead of letting all that goodness go down the drain, we have a gallon jug we fill with the icky cold water until it gets nice and warm. You can lose almost a gallon of water just waiting for it to heat up! We then use that jug for other household things, i.e. watering plants and topping off the chickens’ water.

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.

From Susan: Being rural with a well and sometimes spotty electricity, I minimize use of pans to save energy and water. I rarely use much water to cook and do more sautéing of veggies

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.

Check out the previous installment: An Energy Efficient Kitchen!

Have another energy saving tip? Leave a comment below!

Comments

  1. Yay! Saving water! (Sorry in advance for the huge comment …) It’s something not all people really understand, because we reuse water. Sewage treatment plants exist for a reason, right? Why save water if it will just get treated and reused? The important thing is that resources are used to build and power these treatment plants, which is a non-water-related strain on the environment. We also use resources to get to the resources used for the plants in the first place. It’s like a big chain of dominoes. If we never knock that first one down (in this case, use water), the rest (other resources) won’t fall. For those who live in areas where we are using up water quicker than it can get treated naturally via the water cycle or artificially via sewage treatment, they will eventually have to ship water in from somewhere else. First, it will be a water source close to home, but as that gets used up, it will be a source further and further away. (There are entire cities that ship in water. It’s a real problem. I know families in rural areas that now have to do this as well.)

    As far as tips? Use your grey water as much as possible. While I don’t do this particular thing, my parents do. Use your gray water to flush the toilet by just pouring the water into the bowl. The toilet will flush from the added pressure. Save your shower water for this. Usually, you won’t need to use fresh water at all to flush your toilet, even if you take super short showers. It puts low flow toilets to shame. If you use non-toxic chemicals for showering (and nothing that contains boron), you can use this water for your plants and even your garden if you’re careful not to get it on the veggies themselves. (I have heard it’s better to only use gray water on plants half the time, with the other half fresh water. Not sure if there’s merit to this.) If you’d prefer to just use the regular toilet flusher and you’ve got an older toilet, you can put jugs or bottles of water in the tank to reduce the amount of water used per flush. If the toilet stops flushing as well, use a smaller bottle or jug and find the right amount that will work. Or use glass jars filled with rocks. Anything as dense as the water, small enough to fit without blocking anything, and that won’t corrode will work.

    One easy thing to do concerns dishes. Filling pitchers with this water was mentioned in your article. Another method is to fill up the rinsing side of the sink with this still-cold water and dip the washed dishes for rinsing. It’s not considered as safe as rinsing with hot water in the traditional way, but I’ve known people who have done this for years and never had any problems, with the exception of occasional water spots on the dishes.

    If you use a dishwasher and don’t have dogs to do the pre-rinse, use a silicone spatula to scrape off excess food and sauces. (And be careful with what you feed your dogs! The ASPCA has a handy list of harmful foods.)

    One fun thing is with potatoes! If you ever need to boil potatoes, save the water they’re boiled in. This water can be frozen and later used for baked goods and produces heavenly results.

    Turn off the water in the shower when you’re not using it. If you’re lathering up and step out of the water to do so, you might as well turn this off. If this interrupts the temperature of the water or you end up using even more water trying to adjust the temperature so that it’s comfortable when you turn it back on, there are ways to turn off the water at the shower head. There are shower heads that come with a built-in off switch, as well as shut off valves that can be installed right in between a traditional shower head and the pipe. These will keep the water adjusted to the correct temperature, and as long as you don’t spend a lot of time lathering up, the water in the pipe won’t get cold either.

    In some cities, it is illegal for waiters at restaurants to bring water without the customers asking for it. If it’s not illegal in your city, and you really want to make a difference with something so simple, start a campaign to make it so. Or even just talk with restaurant managers (very politely, of course) and see if they’ll change the policy in their restaurant. Sometimes planting a little idea in the head of somebody with power can make for a big change. If you’re at a restaurant that you know brings water without asking, and you know you don’t want it, let your server know before hand.

    Obvious ways: If it’s yellow, let it mellow. (But flush before guests come over. Be nice.) Wear pants and sometimes shirts a few times, unless you actually get dirty. Use shower towels for a whole week (or until they get smelly from not drying well). Side note – I have an ex who used a new towel every day. He was amazed when he saw my wet towel hanging to dry. I was amazed he had never encountered that before.

    Simple changes can make big differences.

    • Thank you, Katricia!

      These are awesome! Great tips about the toilet flush water. We used to do that when I was a kid, but I’d kind of forgotten about it. Especially helpful for people on wells or like us, who just pumped water right out of the lake and sometimes the pipes froze or the pump broke.
      AND potato water! Yes! I’ve heard of that but maybe only tried it myself once, but I don’t bake much. Still, that’s a fantastic idea for repurposing water with a purpose.

      In high-level drought times in Austin, there is a rule that you have to ask for water (most restaurants abide by it and have signs on the tables telling customers they have to request) which is why is so much more annoying when people DO ask for it and don’t drink it. I hope that maybe the restaurants use leftover water to water potted plants, but I know that’s a long shot.

      That is CRAZY that your ex used a new towel every time! I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who did that! Did he grow up with a maid? Or in a towel factory? ;)

      Thanks so much for writing with all these ideas! They are all little things, but they add up and they aren’t hard to do.

  2. The Other Randy says:

    Living alone, it would be obscene for me to use a dishwasher. My method might not be practical for more than two people, but I never fill ANYTHING with sudsy water first. Instead, I put everything needing washing into an empty sink with the big stuff such as pans at the bottom and use a scrub brush that has a soap dispenser built into the handle. If it happens to be one of those nights when I get a pan dirty, I will generally rinse plates and glassware letting the rinse water fall into the pan and then using the brush on the pan and rinsing it last. Occasionally, I might need to use maybe a quarter of a cup of water to loosen food from the plate, but generally I don’t use any water at all to wash and only a little to rinse.
    Also, most kitchen faucets put out way too much water pressure. You can reduce water use by simply getting under the sink and turning the two knobs down so that they are open only about a quarter of the way. Your mileage may vary.

  3. Use stage 1 restrictions all yr long instead of just in times of drought.

  4. THis is probably going to sound weird lol but it was a great idea and it keeps my water bill very cheap so i know it saves water. We have four little boys in my house and in n effort to reduce water consumption we bought a five gallon bucket that we leave in the bathtub. i give my boys a shower out of it and five gallons usually washes two at a time if you do it just right. MY kids are still getting clean without using a whole lot of water so win win. i have a large bowl that i fill with soapy water to wash dishes and i only fill it when it is full that way i am not dumping out water because it got cold. i make rice and cook my veggies in it usually. I only wash when my washer is full. So anyways i got off topic haha. but the five gallon bucket idea really works and it does not use as much water as a bubble bath would and i feel it is more hygienic than a bath because you are not sitting in your own dirt. :)

  5. I posted this on facebook… and got a lot of interest right away. Yes, because of the weird way our jet stream is working, Southern California’s snow peaked mountains are just patches of ice and mud. That’s bad. The good news though? Our governor is giving away twenty million gallons of our fresh water per well to FRACK NATURAL GAS… so we can fill the atmosphere with even more drought causing heat for all of us to share! :/

    • Texas is doing the same thing. Though I’m sure if you did a rough poll of the citizens: Do you want water or natural gas more?
      The answer would be water 90% of the time.
      But it’s not really about us. :(

  6. Christine says:

    It matters not where you live, we should all do what we can to conserve. I live in upstate NY where we have had a curbside recycling program in place for more than 20 years. When I go to my home state of Montana to visit where there is no program it drives me batty to see people throwing recyclables in the trash. It also makes me crazy to see people use water as if there is an endless supply available. I am fortunate to live where we do not have drought conditions, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be smart about our water usage. Loved all of the tips!

  7. All great tips. When I do canning, I save all the water in my giant processing pot, let it cool to ambient temp, and pour it over my thirsty plants in the backyard.

  8. We are very fortunate that it’s impossible to waste water here. Our supply is flowing out of a mountain spring and what we don’t use goes down the mountain to the creek below. Still a good flow when we’ve been in a drought. Wish we could send you some.

    • You are lucky to not have to worry about it like we do here, but it’s still a good idea to be conscientious of water conservation, no matter where you live.

  9. The Other Randy says:

    National Geographic just put up a water footprint calculator here http://bit.ly/1gvBZfC It was a real eye-opener for me. Changing what you eat might make a much bigger difference for the world’s water supply than changing how much water you you pump through your home’s plumbing. For example I was stunned by how much water it takes to grow the coffee beans it takes to make one gallon of java. It takes a lot more water to raise beef than it does for either poultry or pork. There’s a lot more fascinating info you might find out from taking the interactive questionnaire.

  10. The Other Randy says:

    As a big fan of using containers especially made for steaming food in a microwave, I’m surprised I never thought to check out those made for cooking pasta. The Amazon reviews for this one are about as universally favorable as I’ve ever seen for a product. http://www.amazon.com/Fasta-Pasta-The-Microwave-Cooker/dp/B000YT2XOI/ref=sr_1_1?s=kitchen&ie=UTF8&qid=1405699336&sr=1-1
    This seems to me to be a double win: less water and less energy. This particular one might diminish in usefulness as you scale up the amount and size of pasta, but it seems to me that if you were making a pasta salad you could work out the timing and water amount for cooking a large amount of, say fusilli, in a large plastic bowl, drain the water (saving it for another use, of course) and then use the bowl to make the pasta salad (one less additional thing to wash).

  11. small changes can yield big results:)

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