When I was growing up, the most poignant harbinger of winter wasn't the smell of fallen leaves or the slowly shortening days; it was the first time I came home from school to find a pot of my mother's homemade chicken soup simmering gently on the stove. That pot would be the first of many. As long as the thermometer outside the kitchen window hovered around freezing, my mother's weekly pot of soup remained a household staple.
I've noticed much the same seasonal shift in my own kitchen. When summer's heat starts to make cooking oppressive, I turn off the oven and embrace the outdoor barbecue. But winter's chill sends me back indoors to become reacquainted with all those kitchen appliances I've been neglecting for months. Before long, I've got my mother's soup recipe out and my own stock pot on the burner.
I'm not alone in my love of hot and hearty fare on cold winter evenings. As the weather cools, the average American kitchen churns out a veritable bounty of food, and most of it – from soups, to casseroles, to holiday feasts – is of the slow-cooking variety. While all these hearty favorites are a comforting part of colder weather, the energy required to cook them represents a small but significant part of our monthly energy bill. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that cooking alone accounts for 4.5% of total home energy use, and this figure doesn't include the energy costs associated with refrigeration, hot water heating, and dishwashing. Added together, these costs mean that as much as 15% of the energy in the average American home is used in the kitchen.
That's not to say that I've given up all that great chicken soup. Instead, I've learned to use my stove more energy efficiently. Here are some of my favorite energy-saving cooking tips:
- Don't peek! When using the oven, it's tempting to frequently open the door to check on a dish's progress. But because the hot air that is contained in the oven is an important part of the appliance's cooking process, frequent peeking is self-defeating. Every time the oven door is opened, the temperature inside is reduced by as much as 25 degrees, forcing it to work even harder (and use more energy) to get back to the proper cooking temperature. If you need to check on a dish, use the oven window instead.
- Turn it down or turn it off. For regular cooking, it's probably not necessary to have your oven on as long—or set as high—as the recipe calls for. For recipes that need to bake for longer than an hour, pre-heating the oven isn't necessary. And if your stovetop or oven is electric, you can usually turn it off 5-10 minutes before the dish should be done and the residual heat will finish the job. Just remember to keep the oven door closed or the lid on until time is up. Alternately, if you're baking in a ceramic or glass dish, you can typically set your oven for 25 degrees less than the recipe calls for. Because ceramic and glass hold heat better than metal pans, your dish will cook just as well at a lower temperature.
- Give your burners a break. If you have an electric stovetop with those shiny metal reflectors underneath the burners, you probably gnash your teeth over cleaning them. However, for your stovetop to function effectively, it's important that those reflectors stay free of dirt and grime. If your reflectors are of the less expensive variety, next time they need cleaning you may consider replacing them. But don't skimp—the better reflectors on the market can not only decrease stovetop cooking times, but also save energy in the process.
- Don't neglect your crock pot. Or your microwave, toaster oven, or warming plate. Most of us have a veritable smorgasbord of small kitchen cooking appliances that we rarely use. Putting them to work more often instead of the oven or stovetop can mean significant energy savings. For example, the average toaster oven can use up to half the energy of the average electric stove over the same cooking time. Information to help you estimate how much energy your own appliances use is available on EERE's Consumers Guide to Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Web site.
- Give your furnace the day off. Winter's holiday parties are a big part of the season, and most of us find ourselves with a houseful of people at least once between now and the New Year. If your next party involves a lot work for your stove, think about turning down your furnace to compensate. The heat of the oven—and all those guests—will keep the temperature comfortable, and your furnace won't have to work so hard.
- Make contact. We've all got one in our kitchen—those warped and rounded pans that wobble when you set them on the stovetop. If you have a gas range, you can cook with warped pans to your heart's content; those of us with electric ranges aren't so lucky. Electric stovetops can only transmit heat to pans they are in direct contact with; the less contact your pan has with the burner, the more energy the stovetop will have to expend to heat the pan (and its contents). If cooking with your warped pan is taking longer than it should, it may be time for a flat-bottomed update.
Ready for more? The Energy Information Administration examines cooking trends in this article "Cooking Trends in the United States: Are We Really Becoming a Fast Food Country?" The Energy Savers Booklet, a publication of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), offers great strategies for reducing your energy usage throughout the house. It's available online.