Growing up in the Water Winter Wonderland known as Michigan, I should have had more fondness for the idyllic natural surroundings of my home state. Sadly, my father poisoned that well by dragging me off to some of Michigan’s most remote forested areas, frequently forcing me to miss my early 1990s Little League playoff games in the process. Just imagine it: You play the entire season in order to earn your spot in the playoffs, and then you have to explain to your teammates that you couldn’t contribute to a championship run (and we always lost) because of when your dad opted to schedule the annual camping trip. It was maddening.
Pre-teen sports disappointments aside, one of the memories that sticks out most from those outdoor forays with my dad was our total reliance on kettles filled with boiling water. As soon as we made it to a campground, my father or my uncle would collect water from a mobile source, and immediately bring it to a boil in a pot. That water could be cooled and added to canteens as the next day’s primary water source, poured into plastic bags full of dry oatmeal in order to render it edible or used to heat up military-style MRE pouches.
I recognize that part of the point of the endeavor was to force ourselves into a man-versus-nature scenario, but I never imagined that so much of our strategy for combating nature hinged on our ability to boil water and fashion it to suit a wide range of purposes. My major takeaway from those miserable ordeals was this: Being able to locate a water source was a good start, but if we couldn’t boil it, we were toast.
Of course, boiling food is almost never the best way to prepare it, but when you’re locked deep within the woods of Northern Michigan and you imagine that wolves and black bears are closing in from all sides, you do what you have to do.
What’s the problem with boiling food?
Boiling food is a rather destructive process. By submerging a potential comestible in water and cranking up the heat until the water begins to boil, the water-soluble nutrients contained within that food item begin to leach into the water. This results in the micronutrient values of several foods being very different at the point of consumption than they were at the point of selection.
Specifically, if you chose a food product on the basis of its lofty vitamin C value, vitamin B complex (e.g., thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, etc.) or water-soluble minerals like iron, zinc, calcium or magnesium, the act of boiling that item will cause these micronutrients to be carried off by the water. This means that boiling vegetables for long enough can result in them being transformed into what are essentially low-calorie husks of fiber, and not much else.
So if you have a bevy of food-preparation methods at your disposal, sticking your food in a pot and boiling it will be among the worst choices you can make if you desire for it to maintain the maximum percentage of its micronutrients. In essence, if the fire burns and cauldron bubbles, the food will toil, and the vitamins will be in trouble.
If boiling is so awful, why did we ever boil food to begin with?
Because boiling food is a rather destructive process, and at very distinct moments in history, that destructive capability has been the most reliable solution humans had for combating illness and disease. For example, prior to the mid-1900s, typhoid was an absolute scourge on the American populace. During the Civil War, 43.5 percent of the 186,000 illness-derived deaths inflicted upon the Union Army were attributed to typhoid. Later in the century, during the Spanish-American War, one-fifth of all soldiers serving in Cuba were stricken with typhoid.
By then, boiling was already understood to be the most readily available, low-cost means for average citizens to contend with germs of all kinds, and for purifying water in general. In addition, meats and vegetables were frequently cooked simultaneously for the sake of saving time, and also for capitalizing on limited cooking opportunities. In fact, many traditional mixtures of foods — like the classic Irish pairing of corned beef and cabbage with potatoes and carrots — are combined in a pot and boiled for several hours at a time.
Inducements to boil water were constant in the newspapers of the era. For example, in July 1890, The Pittsburgh Dispatch stated unequivocally, “The germs of tubercular diseases — that is, consumption — are killed by 10 minutes boiling. The typhoid bacilli and the producing kinds are harmless when the water has been brought to the boiling point and allowed to cool slowly.”
The article continued with the opinion of a Dr. Carnegie that some rare forms of bacteria remained resistant to bacteria beyond 20 minutes, with certain strains remaining alive unless they were boiled for a full hour. One of the indirect implications of the statement was that readers should boil all of their potential potables for a full hour to be on the safe side, but the additional statement that “putrefying solutions of meats, vegetables and earths produce the worst possible waters” would certainly have reinforced the notion that boiling your food into a state where it was unrecognizable — figuratively nuking it — was the only way to be sure of bacterial avoidance.
This thinking was especially prevalent with respect to typhoid. Washington’s Evening Star newspaper reported in 1902 that “the germs of typhoid fever are believed to enter the body only through food and drink.” The article continued by stating: “Excreta from patients suffering from typhoid fever may find its way into rivers, lakes, springs or wells used as sources of drinking water, or used without boiling to wash milk cans or to dilute milk, flies may carry the infection to food already cooked or which is to be eaten raw, or to milk or to drinking water; the contents of cesspools containing discharges from typhoid fever patients, and used for fertilizing vegetables such as lettuce, celery, watercress, etc., which are eaten raw, may produce typhoid fever in the consumers of such vegetables.”
The article goes on to say, “Boiling water may be used as a disinfectant by adding to the material to be disinfected no less than four times that quantity of boiling water.” In essence, both the addition of boiling water to food items and the submerging of food items in boiling water were the only methods that most people had at their disposal for preempting the germs that caused potentially debilitating diseases.
But do we need to boil food today?
By the time your food lands in your hands, it’s usually been prepared or processed in highly sanitized environments, and then appertized, pasteurized or otherwise disinfected to whatever food safety standards have been imposed by the FDA. Moreover, modern grocery stores have food-handling and preservation requirements that our ancestors of the 1800s couldn’t have imagined, not to mention the ability to wash food in clean running faucet water and then store it in our own home refrigeration units. As such, boiling for the sake of disinfection is wholly unnecessary under most circumstances.
Certainly if you’re preparing a soup or a stew on your stovetop, you’re firing up a pot of hot coffee or you’re just one of those weirdos who gets off on watching a pot boil, boiling is going to be an absolutely critical step in your preparation process. However, in this day and age, boiling is more of a nutrient killer than a life saver.