Making a Low-Carbon Christmas Dinner

Luxury Kitchen Tile

Here’s everything you need to know to make a delicious, eco-friendly holiday roast.

There’s an unspoken rule that you don’t talk about the calorie count of a Christmas dinner. While passing around a plate of roast potatoes, it would take a brave host to point out that the average person consumes around 5,200 calories per day, according to one calculation – more than double the recommended intake.

So perhaps analysing its environmental impact isn’t exactly festive either. However, after a year of headlines about the climate emergency, water shortages, and the global collapse of biodiversity, you may feel compelled to act. What if you could serve a Christmas dinner so spectacular that no one notices it’s also environmentally friendly?

Whether you’re a purist or an innovator of new culinary delights, Here’s how to have a very Merry Christmas while minimising environmental damage. After all, what could be more appropriate than assisting in ensuring that future generations – at least in northern parts of the world – can still hope to wake up to a dusting of snow? As an added bonus, many of these suggestions will assist with the current cost of living crisis.

The meaty main, by Isabelle Gerretsen

Because I dislike turkey, I opt for roast chicken for my Christmas dinner. The meat is a “low CO2” animal product, with a lower carbon footprint than beef, lamb, pork, or cheese. It emits 5.7kg of CO2e per 100g of protein, which is approximately nine times less than the impact of beef (49.9kg of CO2e) and two times less than the impact of cheese (10.8kg of CO2e) (Read more about the lowest-carbon protein).

After doing some research, I quickly realised that roasting my chicken in the oven is the least sustainable method of cooking due to its high energy demand and lengthy cooking times. In this instance, I’d have to roast the chicken for 1 hour and 30 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius (356 degrees Fahrenheit) in a fan oven. It’s a very inefficient method of cooking because you’re warming up not only the food, but also the surrounding air and the oven itself.

Instead, I decide to slow cook my chicken for three hours. After brushing the chicken with butter, I cook it sous vide, which involves placing the meat in a vacuum-sealed bag and cooking it at a low temperature for several hours. I set my slow cooker to 58 degrees Celsius (136F).

Slow cookers are among the most energy-efficient appliances, emitting very little greenhouse gas despite their lengthy cooking times. An electric slow cooker consumes 50% less energy than a stovetop slow cooker.

After three hours, I take the chicken out of the bag and place it in a hot pan. I cook the chicken for five minutes, skin side down, on a high heat. Then I set it aside for five minutes before serving it to my friends with roast potatoes and vegetables.

Another low-energy option would have been to use an air fryer, which uses roughly half the energy of cooking a roast in an oven and is also much faster and less expensive to use. Overall, I’m very pleased with my low-carbon chicken. I prefer it to oven-roasted chicken because the skin is crispy and the meat is tender (sometimes it gets a bit dry when I cook it in the oven). I am confident that this simple cooking method has contributed to the reduction of emissions from my Christmas dinner. However, I am concerned about the single-use plastic that I end up throwing away after preparing my meal. If you prefer turkey, this method should work for that as well.

The tipple, by Zaria Gorvett

It’s a work night, so I’m feeling rebellious as I pour 1.5 litres (50.7 oz) of supermarket own-brand cider into a pan. If the editor is reading this, please understand that I am simply following the recipe…

I’m making mulled cider, and no, I’m not going to drink it all this evening, especially since it’s only 5 p.m. and the recipe calls for eight servings. I, like most people, had never given the carbon footprint of alcoholic beverages much thought until now – it’s a bit of a mood killer. But someone has to do it, and a quick search through an emissions database makes me feel appropriately guilty.

Eggnog, of course, is one of the most popular Christmas drinks around the world. A creamy drink with origins in mediaeval Europe, where monks may have invented it. I can’t find a specific emissions calculation for this drink, but adding animal products like eggs (0.85kg Co2e if free range) and cream (2.14kg Co2e) will significantly increase it. The same is true for coffee liqueur with cream, which has a significant carbon footprint if its availability in supermarkets at this time of year is any indication (3.39kg Co2e per kg).

This is not a problem for me because I am a vegan. But soon after, I make a truly disturbing discovery. Sherry, objectively the most festive alcoholic drink – and certainly not just for grandmothers – emits 4.27g Co2e per kg, which is higher than some of the worst offenders, such as pork and sausages. Port drinkers will be relieved to learn that its emissions are unknown, though both fortified wines appear to have similar effects.

Many cocktails are also out, especially those with fruity ingredients from distant lands. According to one study, pina coladas have the highest emissions (6.9g Co2e per kg), though traditionalists may argue that this is a scandalously non-Christmassy choice in any case. In general, Beer (0.6g Co2e per kg) and red, white, or rosé wine have the lowest greenhouse footprints of any alcoholic beverage (1.87g Co2e per kg).

The former isn’t exciting enough, and the latter appears too decadent for a low-carbon dinner, so here I am with my 1.5 litres of cider (1.1g Co2e per kg). Too late, I realise that thinking about it probably negates the marginal emissions savings – fortunately, no one appears to have done the analysis yet.

It is surprisingly simple to make. I simply pour in the cider, along with apple juice, cinnamon, cloves, sugar, and satsuma zest – the recipe called for orange, but I already had some increasingly suspect vintage satsumas, and the first rule of low-carbon cooking is to avoid waste. Then I continue to stir until I detect the delectable aromas of clove and cinnamon rising in the steam. To serve, I simply pour it into my most goblet-like glass, reminding myself that after about 15 minutes of simmering at around 78C (172F), I will have only evaporated about 40% of the alcohol – mulled cider is still decidedly alcoholic.


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