Returning to scratch cooking in schools: Part three

Read on for cooking tips and techniques for schools looking to use local produce in their meal programs.

Vegetables cut and spiced for roasting at a Making Michigan Recipes Work class.

Vegetables cut and spiced for roasting at a Making Michigan Recipes Work class.

A growing number of school meal programs are interested in increasing the nutrition offered by their meals and are using more local produce to help accomplish this. Many schools face challenges in transitioning a portion of their operation back to scratch cooking. This is due to a long history of policies discouraging scratch cooking and the industry marketing convenience items such as pre-cut, pre-cooked and ready to serve foods. Despite these challenges, many food service professionals are seeking ways to incorporate fresh foods prepared from scratch.

Michigan State University Extension has some school-specific tips and techniques to assist schools in preparing more of their food from scratch with local ingredients.

Cooking techniques

Steaming

  • Steaming is a moist heat cooking technique by which food is cooked by direct contact with steam.
  • Steaming minimizes direct contact with water which can leach out nutrients.
  • Properly cooked vegetables should be bright in color and have a little crunch. Vegetables should be steamed just until they have brightened in color. This generally takes no more than a minute or two. Overcooking vegetables will result in poor appearance and texture.
  • Vegetables can be steamed in both a compartment steamer and a conventional oven.
  • See the National Food Service Management Institute’s (now the Institute for Child Nutrition) video on steaming vegetables for more detailed considerations. 

Roasting

  • Roasting is a dry heat method of cooking in an oven where the food is not covered, allowing the heat to surround the item.
  • Roasting vegetables can enhance the natural sugars in certain vegetables, which often makes them more appetizing for customers, especially children.
  • To ensure a high quality dish, follow these steps for roasted vegetables:
    • Preheat the oven to 325 to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
    • Cut the vegetables into uniform shape and size.
    • Toss vegetables with oil.
    • (Optional) Season with pepper, garlic, spices or herbs. Use no more than 1 teaspoon per 50 servings.
    • Place vegetables in a single layer on a sheet pan. Do not crowd the vegetables as it will cause them to steam.
    • Bake until vegetables are tender.

Sautéing

  • Sautéing is a cooking technique where food is cooked quickly in a small amount of fat in a pan over high direct heat.
  • Sautéing has the advantage of being a quick cooking method. It does require the use of fat, which contributes to the overall fat content of the meal.
  • To ensure a high quality dish, follow these steps for sautéing vegetables:
    • Prepare the vegetables by cutting them into small, uniform pieces.
    • Heat the oil to be used in a large, flat based pan. The pan should be large enough to hold all of the vegetable pieces on one layer. If the vegetables are stacked, it will cause them to steam rather than sauté.
    • Vegetables should be continuously moved and flipped to cook all pieces evenly. 

Blanching and freezing

  • If circumstances allow, one way to extend the amount of time that you can use local produce in your meal program is by freezing the product while it is in season for use at a later date.
  • For many vegetables, blanching is necessary before freezing. Blanching is a process where vegetables are placed in boiling water and cooked for one to two minutes, then placed in ice water to stop the cooking process. Blanching stops the enzymes from continuing to ripen vegetables in the freezer, which will result in decreased flavor, nutrient loss and compromised texture.
  • Vegetables that require blanching include beans, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, carrots and Brussels sprouts.
  • Blanching tip: Use one gallon of water for every pound of vegetables that need to be blanched.
  • Additional resources:

A special pilot series of the training Making Michigan Recipes Work is being offered regionally in Michigan this summer and fall through Michigan State University Extension. This training for school nutrition professionals has been supported by USDA funding and is free, though pre-registration is required.

Returning to scratch cooking in schools: Part one

Returning to scratch cooking in schools: Part two

Related Articles