Sauteing bell peppers and onions is a healthy method for cooking these aromatic and tasty vegetables. Saute with a small amount of oil in a pan over high heat to quickly brown and soften sliced or chopped bell peppers and onions. However, the health benefits are mitigated by the type of cooking oil and the saute method. Both of these choices impact how many calories are added to the final dish.
Cooking oils and shortenings with which you saute bell peppers and onions come in a wide range, from healthy to not-so-good for you. Saturated fats, including butter, lard and other animal-based shortenings, as well as trans-fats, such as margarine, are unhealthy and contain high amounts of cholesterol. The Cleveland Clinic advises avoiding these unhealthy shortenings to saute vegetables. Instead, choose monunsaturated and polyunsaturated for cooking. These options include vegetable oils such as canola oil and olive oil that contain healthy fats and help reduce harmful choelsterol levels.
Cooking oil should be well-heated before adding vegetables to the pan. This prevents the bell peppers and onions from boiling in their own water instead of being sauteed. However, some types of cooking oils, such as corn and walnut oils, can release unhealthy and even toxic compounds when they are heated at medium to high heat. The Cleveland Clinic recommends using cooking oils that have a high "smoke point," which means the oil will not begin to release smoke unless heated to very high temperatures. Canola, sunflower and virgin or extra-virgin olive oils all have high smoke points and are safe to use for sauteing.
The amount of cooking oil used in sauteing also makes a difference in how many additional calories are part of your bell pepper and onion saute. Use a spray bottle instead of pouring the cooking oil into the pan to reduce the amount needed to evenly coat the bottom of the pan. The MayoClinic.com recommends using a non-stick pan to saute with very little or even no cooking oil. Additionally, continually stir the bell peppers and onions to evenly coat them with the oil and allow them to brown evenly without over-cooking.
Steaming vegetables lightly cooks them with the hot steam of the water or broth in the pan, and helps retain natural food nutrients. This method also prevents adding calorie-laden cooking oils to the vegetables. Partly steaming bell peppers and onions before sauteing to make them soft and tender and requires less or no oil to finish cooking them.
Sauteing quickly cooks small or thinly sliced pieces of vegetables. Wash and pat the peppers and onions dry with a kitchen towel before chopping or slicing them into bite-size pieces to avoid adding excess water that slows cooking. Add the vegetable pieces to the heated cooking oil without overcrowding the pan for easier sauteing and uniform cooking.
Nadia Haris is a registered radiation therapist who has been writing about nutrition for more than six years. She is completing her Master of Science in nutrition with a focus on the dietary needs of oncology patients.