A not so ‘dam­ag­ing’ hearty meal

How to cook a more sus­tain­able Sun­day roast


THE SUN­DAY roast is an in­sti­tu­tion for many fam­i­lies across the globe. Fam­i­lies come to­gether to share a meal, which more of­ten than not, is cen­tred on a joint of roast meat, tra­di­tion­ally lamb or beef.

The health im­pli­ca­tions and en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts of our diet have be­come a reg­u­lar dis­cus­sion topic, with sus­tain­able di­etary ad­vice rec­om­mend­ing that we re­duce meat con­sump­tion and in­crease our con­sump­tion of plant-based pro­teins, fruits and veg­eta­bles. But what does this mean prac­ti­cally: how can we eat for health and sus­tain­abil­ity on a day-to-day ba­sis?

Some ad­vo­cate shift­ing to a fully plant-based veg­e­tar­ian diet. Many peo­ple are re­sis­tant to this level of di­etary change, how­ever.

Many are opt­ing for “meat-free Mon­days” or meat-free lunches. Mess­ing with the Sun­day roast, how­ever, is a step too far for most. But given the meal’s fo­cus on huge chunks of meat and en­er­gyin­ef­fi­cient cook­ing meth­ods, it’s im­por­tant to con­sider.

So how might we cre­ate a more sus­tain­able Sun­day roast? im­pact of the en­tire meal. This is due to the large quan­ti­ties of wa­ter, land and feed re­quired to pro­duce meat.

Pur­chas­ing sus­tain­able and eth­i­cally farmed meat with lower en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts can re­sult in small en­vi­ron­men­tal sav­ings.

How­ever, to re­ally re­duce the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of meat, we need to eat less of it.

The por­tion sizes for roast meats de­pend on the recipe used and can vary widely. Many roast beef recipes sug­gest be­tween 125g-800g per per­son. These are very large por­tions in­deed.

In the UK, di­etary guides sug­gest eat­ing less than 70g of red and pro­cessed meat a day.

Such large por­tions of beef can be partly ex­plained by the need for left­overs in tra­di­tional recipes. But in to­day’s busy world, left­overs can eas­ily be­come food waste.

In 2014, 8% of beef pur­chased by UK house­holds be­came food waste. Over half of this was avoid­able, caused by the cook­ing, serv­ing or pre­par­ing of too much food, or left­overs not be­ing used in time.

With this in mind, our sus­tain­able Sun­day roast re­quires small por­tions – say 125g per per­son, mean­ing 50-70g for lunch and a man­age­able amount for left­overs the next day. A fur­ther ben­e­fit of cut­ting meat por­tions for a sus­tain­able roast is that it will have a shorter cook­ing time, mean­ing less en­ergy, and re­duced associated en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts.

Cook­ing is the other main con­trib­u­tor to this. The oven is an in­ef­fi­cient way of cook­ing meat at hot tem­per­a­tures and for long pe­ri­ods of time.

The en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of roast­ing a joint of meat in an oven for over an hour con­trib­utes 20-30% of the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts of the en­tire meal.

To make mat­ters worse, over­cook­ing roasts – for an ex­tra 41 min­utes, for ex­am­ple – adds fur­ther im­pacts through point­less en­ergy use.

So as well as re­duc­ing the amount of meat served, we might also use new meth­ods to cook a sus­tain­able Sun­day roast.

Re­verse sear­ing in­volves sear­ing the joint of beef in a pan and then trans­fer­ring it to a low heat oven or a slow cooker, un­til the in­ter­nal tem­per­a­ture of the joint is be­tween 55-60°C (the tem­per­a­ture that medium-done beef is cooked to).

De­pend­ing on the en­ergy ef­fi­ciency of your oven or slow cooker, re­verse sear­ing may well have a lower im­pact than tra­di­tional cook­ing.

Cook­ing sous vide, mean­while, in­volves plac­ing a joint of beef in a vac­u­umed plas­tic pouch or bag, and sub­merg­ing this in a heated wa­ter bath for sev­eral hours un­til the in­ter­nal tem­per­a­ture of the joint is be­tween 55-60°C.

The joint is then un­wrapped and placed in a hot skil­let to sear its sur­face. Al­though this may sound like a lot of work, the method gives the cook to­tal con­trol of the tex­ture and flavour and can use less than half the en­ergy of a tra­di­tional oven method.

By com­bin­ing sus­tain­ably sourced meat, a re­duced por­tion size and mod­ern cook­ing meth­ods, we could re­duce the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts of a Sun­day roast by over half.

The good news is that, if even an en­vi­ron­men­tally dam­ag­ing meal such as the Sun­day roast can be made a lit­tle more sus­tain­able, it should be pos­si­ble to cre­ate ap­petis­ing yet sus­tain­able ver­sions of many other pop­u­lar dishes too.

Chris­tian Reynolds, Knowl­edge Ex­change Re­search Fel­low (N8 Agri­food), Univer­sity of Sh­effield

This ar­ti­cle was first pub­lished on The Con­ver­sa­tion

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