Kitchen Myths

Facts and fiction about food and cooking, by Peter Aitken

Category Archives: Ingredients

Stock and broth are different

Both the terms “stock” and “broth” refer to a flavorful, savory liquid made by simmering ingredients in water for a long time until all of the flavor is extracted, then straining and discarding the solids. Meat is usually part of the recipe, but not always. Some people will insist that the two are different. Stock is made with bones, they say, and broth is not. Broth is for drinking, they claim, and stock is for cooking. It’s true that some cookbook authors make these claims, but they are not consistent–what one famous chef says is stock is another chef’s broth. Let’s face it–who cares? Good stock/broth is essential to many kinds of cooking. Bad stock/broth should be fed to the pigs.

Quinoa is a grain

Well, it sure looks like a grain and is usually used like a grain, so what’s up? Fact is, quinoa is the seed of a plant in the goosefoot family, which is not a grass—and grains like wheat, rye, and corn are the seeds of grasses. Of course this technicality does not change the fact that it is tasty and nutritious, but it might be useful in a game of trivia!

For the best tomato sauce, always use fresh tomatoes

This seems to make sense, right – I mean, fresh is always better than canned. Or is it? It turns out that canned tomatoes often beat out fresh for making sauce. There are several reasons for this:

  • The makers of canned tomatoes can grow multiple varieties with different taste characteristics and blend them for an ideal taste profile in their product.
  • The tomatoes are grown for canning near the processing plant, so they can be left on the vine until ideally ripe and at the peak of flavor – no need to account for transport time.
  • The tomatoes do not have to be bred to transport well or to look pretty on the shelf in the market. As long as they taste good, they can be delicate and ugly.

This is not to say you can’t make great sauce from fresh tomatoes–of course you can, but only if you have the ideal locally grown and perfectly ripe tomatoes. My point is that you should not dismissed canned tomato products just because they are processed. And, you do not have to buy the super-expensive imported and/or organic varieties. In fact, one of the US’s major brands beat all of those out in a taste test held by a notoriously fussy cooking magazine.

Here’s an interesting Mark Bittman article on this topic:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/17/not-all-industrial-food-is-evil/?_r=0

When steaming clams, discard any that do not open

I used to do this for years, also with mussels. Turns out it is usually a waste of perfectly good clams. An unopened clam may be bad, but in my experience they are usually fine. What I do is set the unopened ones aside and deal with them separately. In almost all cases they are very easy to open with a blunt knife and the little feller inside is just fine. When you do find a bad one, out it goes. If you find more than a very occasional bad one, you might want to buy your clams elsewhere.

As an aside, fresh clams should always be stored in the fridge in a ventilated container, never a sealed plastic bag. They are alive and use some oxygen – not much, but a sealed bag will suffocate them and then you will have a bunch of bad clams!

Roasting coffee at home is difficult and not worth the effort.

To the contrary! Since being turned on to coffee roasting a while back (after a visit to an organic coffee plantation in Nicaragua), I regret not having started sooner. If you want better, cheaper coffee for little effort, read on. If you like Charbucks – err, I mean Starbucks coffee, don’t bother.

  • Process: A coffee roaster can cost as little as $130. It looks sort of like a blender and works by blowing hot air up through the beans to agitate and roast them. Add the green (raw) beans, turn on, and forget – it’s that simple. You can vary the type of roast (light, medium, dark) by varying the roasting time and/or temperature. This process will generate some smoke, particularly when making a dark roast, so be forewarned.
  • Savings: Green coffee beans, easily available over the internet, cost in the $5-7 / pound range with a few exceptions for super-premium beans like Jamaica Blue Mountain. Beans lose 15-20% of their weight in roasting, so a pound of roasted beans ends up costing $7.00-$7.50 / pound. Compare that with the $12-15 that high quality roasted beans cost. Your savings will soon pay for the roaster and you’ll be saving money.
  • Variety: My favorite source of beans, Burman Coffee Traders, currently lists green beans from Costa Rica, Hawaii, India, Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Indonesia, Jamaica, New Guinea, Tanzania … the list goes on. Decaf beans are available as well. Plus, you can experiments with your own blends.

So, if you love coffee – good coffee that is – you might want to try roasting your own.

Don’t store fresh corn on the cob in the fridge

Fresh corn on the cob is, of course, best cooked as soon as possible after picking, but that’s not always possible. How should it be stored? Many people say not to refrigerate it, but that’s a myth. Put it in the fridge – after all, the chemical reaction that causes corn to lose its sweetness is slowed down by cold, just like almost all chemical reactions. Corn can still be wonderful after a day or two in the fridge, although not as good as really fresh.

By the way, an easy and energy-efficient way to cook corn is to put the husks and trimmings in the bottom of your kettle, pile the ears on top, and add an inch of water – instant steamer! Cover and boil for 4-10 minutes depending on the corn and your preferences. By not bringing a full pot of water to the boil, you save time and energy.

Breath through your mouth to avoid crying when cutting an onion

The crying response to onion vapors has to do with your eyes, not your nose. Using a sharp knife, to reduce the tearing and bruising caused by a dull one, may help, as will refrigerating the onion ahead of time. Keeping your eyes closed will help, but you may lose a finger or two!

Tear basil, rather than cutting it, for best flavor

When a recipe calls for fresh basil, you’ll often hear chefs saying to tear it with your fingers, rather than shredding it with a knife, to get the best flavor. Sorry, but nope. The flavors in basil – like any herb – are primarily contained within the cells of the leaf. If you tear it, it tends to come apart between the cells so that less flavor is released (because it stays in the cells). If you cut the leaf, you will break open the cells (some of them, anyway), releasing more flavor. This makes the most difference when you are using the basil raw, as in a tomato salad. In cooked dishes, such as a sauce, it does not make as much of a difference because the cooking gets the flavor out of the cells.

My technique is to wash the basil, pat dry with paper towels, and remove the leaves from the stem. Stack several leaves together and roll into a cylinder, then cut crossways into thin strips.

Coffee labelled “fair trade” is the highest quality

The Fair Trade Labeling Organization was started in response to the plight of coffee growers, who often received dismally low prices for their product. If a coffee cooperative met certain labor, environmental, and social standards (among other things), their coffee could carry the Fair Trade label, and they received a higher per-pound price than they would otherwise (still a low price, but definitely an improvement). Fair trade coffee is a small part of the total coffee market, about 1/2 of 1%, but it allows socially conscious consumers to ensure that the growers of their coffee are receiving a fair shake – a good thing.

Unfortunately, many people have the misconception that any coffee labeled Fair Trade is automatically of the highest quality. Unfortunately, this is not the case. It’s an open secret among high-end coffee roasters that Fair Trade coffee is often of lower quality. After all, the requirements for earning the Fair Trade label have nothing to do with the quality of a grower’s coffee, but only with meeting the Fair Trade requirements. When the price a grower receives for coffee has nothing to do with quality, there is no incentive to work to maintain or improve quality – with predictable results.

I am all for the Fair Trade idea, I have traveled in Central America and am aware of how much work goes into growing and harvesting coffee, and these people should definitely be paid fairly. The fact is, however, that if you are fussy about the taste of your coffee, as I am, and seek out only the highest quality beans, the growers of those beans will have received more than the Fair Trade price for their crop. So, if you like the Fair Trade coffee that you buy, that’s great, but if you really want to help the growers, insist on the highest quality coffee you can find. Hint: it’s not at Starbucks.

When making a meringue, you must not get even a tiny speck of yolk in the egg whites or they won’t beat up properly

There’s a kernel of truth in this one. When you beat egg whites until they are stiff, you are actually creating a foam in which the egg white proteins form bubbles with the air you are beating in. Fats tend to collapse foams and an egg yolk contains a lot of fat, hence the origin of this “rule.” It may have had some validity when people made meringues by hand, but with today’s power mixers you’ll be able to make a perfectly good, stiff meringue even if a bit of yolk gets mixed in.

Grass fed beef is superior to “regular” beef

Well, if you like dry, chewy beef, this may not be a myth for you. That, unfortunately, is how almost all grass-fed beef stacks up against corn-fed. Y’know, people didn’t start feeding corn to steers just for the heck of it! It produces a better product. Oh, you can find people who will look you in the eye and claim that grass-fed beef tastes better, but if you look closely you might see a bit of a twitch at the corner of their mouth (for the humor-impaired, that’s a joke so don’t get all het up).

There’s no denying that there are problems with the feedlot system, from which most beef in the US comes. This involves both the treatment of the animals and environmental issues. There’s more than one side to this issue, however. The fact is, most grass-fed beef comes from South America, where vast tracts of rainforest are leveled to make pasture for the cattle. Your grass-fed steak may not actually be as environmentally friendly as you think.

Just-squeezed lemon and lime juice taste the best

I used to think so until I read that experienced bartenders like to let the juice sit for 3-4 hours after squeezing for best flavor. A test by Cooks Illustrated verified that letting the freshly squeezed juice sit, covered, in the fridge for 4 hours (but not much longer) gave a “more mellow yet complex flavor.” Doesn’t work with other citrus juices, however. In fact, orange juice is best squeezed just before serving for best flavor because sitting for even a few hours can permit the formation of limonin, a harmless but bitter-tasting compound.

Brightly colored vegetables have the most nutrients

Some intensely colored veggies are indeed packed with nutrients, think for example of leafy greens like kale and chard. But, a pale countenance is not necessarily a sign of nutritional poverty. White beans (navy, great northern) have as much fiber and protein as, say, kidney beans. White cabbage has lots of vitamins, calcium, iron, and fiber. White cauliflower is packed with antioxidants. Don’t judge a veggie—or a fruit, for that matter—by its color.

Store tomatoes in the fridge for best flavor

Makes sense, right? Cold preserves food and slows down flavor loss for other foods, why not tomatoes? Turns out they’re unusual.

Flavor development in tomatoes depends on enzymatic activity that continues throughout the ripening process, even after picking. Chilling inhibits this process, resulting in less flavor. Chilling – meaning temperatures below about 55 degrees – also can affect the texture in unpleasant ways. Store your ‘maters at room temperature.

Of course, many commercial tomatoes are so tasteless to start with that the deleterious effects of refrigeration won’t be noticed!

Brightly colored vegetables have the most nutrients

Some intensely colored veggies are indeed packed with nutrients, think for example of leafy greens like kale and chard. But, a pale countenance is not necessarily a sign of nutritional poverty. White beans (navy, great northern) have as much fiber and protein as, say, kidney beans. White cabbage has lots of vitamins, calcium, iron, and fiber. White cauliflower is packed with antioxidants. Don’t judge a veggie—or a fruit, for that matter—by its color.

Kosher meat is higher quality

This all-too-common belief seems to make sense. Wouldn’t a company that is preparing products to meet religious restrictions also use more care and attention in the entire process, and meet more stringent standards when it comes to humane animal treatment, cleanliness, and so on? Nice idea, but not true. “Kosher” means nothing more than “kosher,” which means pretty much only that there are no forbidden creatures (for example, your kosher hot dog is just beef, no pork), the animals were slaughtered a certain way, and that meat and dairy products are kept strictly separate (there’s a whole lot more to Jewish dietary laws, but these are the basics). Being kosher does not mean the animals were raised humanely or sustainably, that health safety standards were rigorously followed, that the meat is fresher, or than the workers were treated fairly. All these things may be true of kosher meat, but there’s no guarantee. There are, of course, many kosher meat products that are very high quality, but the same is true of non-kosher products.

Brown eggs are more nutritious than white eggs

In fact, you can’t judge an egg by its cover, or some such. The color of an egg’s shell has nothing to do with the quality of what’s inside but rather is related to the color of the hen’s feathers and earlobes.

Raw vegetables provide enzymes that promote healthy digestion

Sorry, no, never, nyet, fuggedaboudit. Raw plants do contain enzymes that are broken down by cooking, but (1) These are plant enzymes that have no function in the human body, and (2) Enzymes in raw food will be broken down by the digestive process anyway. Furthermore, those places that promote “live” enzymes are just feeding you a bunch of hogwash in order to separate you from your money. An enzyme is just a chemical (a protein, to be exact). It can no more be “live” than a tube of toothpaste.

Compared to sugar, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is worse for your health

Note: I added some new information to this post on August 3, 2012.

Regular table sugar, or sucrose, (also called cane sugar) is made of equal parts of two simpler sugars, glucose and fructose. When digested, it immediately breaks down into these two components and that’s what your body absorbs: glucose and fructose. HFCS has the exact same constituents in a slightly different proportion: the most common HFCS, used in soft drinks, contains 55% fructose and 45% glucose (hence, high fructose). So, ingesting HFCS instead of table sugar gives you a wee bit more fructose and a wee bit less glucose. Big whoop. To listen to some people, HFCS is the end of civilization as we know it! Yet, many studies have been conducted comparing HFCS to table sugar, and they have failed to turn up any real difference in their effects on the body, including insulin, triglycerides, blood glucose, or appetite-related hormones.

The HFCS alarmists also overlook two interesting facts:

  • The most common type of HFCS, called HFCS 55 because it contains 55% fructose, is used primarily in soft drinks, and it is supposedly evil because it contains too much fructose. Yet, there is also HFCS 42, used in some beverages, baked goods, and processed foods) which contains 42% fructose and 53% glucose – more glucose than fructose. Somehow they are both equally evil, according to the alarmists, one because it contains too much fructose and the other because it contains – what, too little fructose? Oh please!
  • Honey, beloved of health food fans, contains more fructose, relative to glucose, than the worst HFCS – 38% fructose and 31% glucose, approximately. I don’t recall hearing about any anti-honey campaigns, do you?

This does not mean that HFCS is good for you! It just means that it is no worse than cane sugar. More and more evidence indicates that the problems with sugar are not the type of sugar you eat, but the amount. Overdoing it on organic honey is just as bad as eating too much of any other source of sugar.

What about taste? Some people claim that, for example, soft drinks made with cane sugar taste better than the HFCS versions, and they’ll go to great lengths to get it, such as driving to Canada to buy cane sugar Coke. I can’t tell the difference, but perhaps some people can.

Organic food is better for your health

I am all for organic food and buy it whenever I can (as long as the price is not too outrageous). But, I do so out of concern for the environment and for the farm workers. There is, to my knowledge, no scientific study that shows harm to people from eating non-organic food (if you know of one, please let me know). In fact, a close examination of the organic food movement shows some strange inconsistencies. For example, nicotine, naturally occurring in tobacco, has long been known to be toxic to humans, but it is permitted as an insecticide on organic food because it is a “natural” product. The same is true of other toxic natural pesticides such as rotenone and pyrethrum. Yet, synthetic pesticides with demonstrably lower toxicity are banned. Go figure!

It’s also a myth that organic foods retain more of their nutrients—the best evidence says that this is not the case. It’s also been claimed that organic foods are produced with higher safety standards and are less likely to have, for example, e. coli contamination. Nope.

Another myth is that organic food comes from small, family-run farms and buying it helps support the individual farmer as opposed to the huge corporations. Nope again. The big corps have jumped on the organic bandwagon in a big way, which is a good thing, but organic is no longer the province of the small farmer. In fact, at our local (and excellent) farmers’ market, a majority of the vendors, all small local farmers, do not sell produce that is officially organic because of the hassles and expense of getting the organic certification.

So, buy organic by all means if you want, but do it with a knowledge of the facts.

MSG is bad for you

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is an amino acid that was originally isolated from seaweed. It was found to provide a flavor that was neither sweet, salty, sour, or bitter (the 4 traditional basic tastes). This savory taste, called umami, is not really a flavor in itself. Rather, MSG makes food taste better—it is a flavor enhancer. It rapidly gained popularity as an additive in many restaurant and processed foods.

Then came “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” so-called because people would complain of various symptoms after eating at Chinese restaurants, where MSG was a popular additive. Subsequent to this, a raft of scientific studies failed to turn up any shred of evidence for a health effect of MSG, and in fact people who vociferously claimed to be MSG-sensitive have proven unable, in double-blind studies, to reliably tell whether food has MSG in it. Plus, there’s the fact that Parmesan cheese and tomato paste, among other foods, have high levels of glutamate and no one gets a “syndrome” from them. So, stop worrying about MSG and enjoy your lo mein!

You feel drowsy after Thanksgiving dinner because of the tryptophan in the turkey

No so, but there’s a nugget of truth in the origin of this myth. Tryptophan is an amino acid, and it—or specifically the isomer L-tryptophan—does in fact have the documented effect of inducing sleep. But, you have to take L-tryptophan on an empty stomach, without any other amino acids or proteins, for it to have this effect. I don’t think the terms “empty stomach” and “Thanksgiving dinner” belong in the same sentence! Also, other foods, such as chicken, pork, and cheese, contain as much or more tryptophan than turkey, and you don’t hear people claiming that these foods cause drowsiness.

It’s true, however, that tryptophan may be involved in feeling drowsy after any large, carbohydrate-rich meal. It’s not the tryptophan in the food, however, but the tryptophan that’s already in your body. Eating a lot of carbs causes insulin production, which in turn reduces the blood level of some other amino acids. As a result, the relative concentration of tryptophan in the blood is increased, which leads to more synthesis of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which makes you drowsy. That’s the theory, anyway.

Other reasons for feeling drowsy after Thanksgiving dinner (or most any large meal):

  • After a large meal, particularly one rich in carbs and fats, your body directs more blood flow to your digestive system and less to the brain.
  • Thanksgiving dinner is often accompanied by a glass or three or eight of wine. Need I say more?

So, snooze to your heart’s content after Thanksgiving dinner, but don’t blame the turkey. Just be sure to wake up in time for sandwiches!

Fresh seafood is always better than frozen

Most seafood lovers always head to the fresh fish counter and never go near the frozen seafood case. Why? Because fresh – that is, never frozen – seafood is generally considered to be higher in quality. This is a misconception. It’s true that high-quality fresh seafood is the gold standard, meaning that it has been handled properly, kept at the proper temperature, and isn’t too old. Unfortunately, most of the “fresh” seafood sold in this country does not meet this standard—you see some pretty sad looking specimens for sale! In contrast, much of the frozen seafood is frozen right on the boats, soon after being caught, or maybe as soon as the boat returns to port. The result can be very good quality fish or shellfish, better than the tired old fillets at the fish counter. So, don’t turn your nose up at it.

Don’t wash raw mushrooms because they will absorb water

Mushrooms naturally contain a lot of water, up to 90% by weight according to some sources. This makes them difficult to sauté properly because they will give off that water and end up stewing, at least until the water cooks off. But, they won’t absorb more water if you wash them. Of course, some water may adhere to the gills, but that can be shaken or dabbed off.

Kosher salt tastes better than “regular” salt

Many cooks and recipes specify that kosher salt be used. Why? Truth be told, because it’s trendy, mostly. Kosher salt is relatively pure sodium chloride, and so is the usual table salt that is available in every supermarket and half or less the price. If you think you can taste the iodine in iodized salt, buy the uniodized version and save some money.

I do like the larger grains of kosher salt because when cooking I prefer to grab salt with my fingers to add to a dish, rather than using a shaker, and the larger grains don’t stick to my fingers as much. But, I am not fooling myself that my food tastes better as a result.

By the way, kosher salt is really misnamed. It is not “kosher” in the sense that observant Jews can eat it, but can’t eat other salts. It’s true name is “koshering salt” because it is traditionally used to salt meats in the kosher butchering process.

You must cook pork to well-done for safety reasons

The long-held opinion that pork should be cooked thoroughly is based on the transmission of the parasite trichinella spiralis, whose larva can be present in pork meat (also in wild game). The cooking kills the parasite. But, it’s been known for a long time that the trichinella larvae are killed at temperatures considerably lower than required for well-done. Old habits die hard, however, and countless pork roasts have been cooked to leathery toughness as a result.

Many professional chefs and home cooks have long known that pork with some pink remaining in the center is perfectly safe. Now, the USDA is finally wising up—they have changed the recommended internal temperature for whole cuts of pork from 160 degrees Fahrenheit to 145 degrees, with a 3-minute rest period after removing from the heat. Note that the 160 degree temperature is still recommended for ground pork.

Is rare hamburger dangerous? It depends.

A lot of attention has been given to the dangers of eating a burger that hasn’t been thoroughly cooked. There’s good reason for this. Commercial ground beef is made in factories in huge batches, and a single burger can contain meat from dozens or hundreds of individual animals. The chance of bacterial contamination making it into the supermarket package not insignificant, and this is a risk that many people don’t want to take. In fact, some states have banned restaurants from selling burgers that are not well-cooked. Too bad, because real burger aficionados know that the best tasting burgers are cooked to medium at most.

Is there a way around this? Yep—grind your own beef. If your ground beef comes from a single chuck or sirloin roast (or a mix of the two, my favorite), there’s a vastly smaller chance of contamination. You must observe proper procedure, making sure your grinder is spotlessly clean and keeping everything cold, of course. Buy your meat from a reputable, high-turnover retailer. There’s no absolute guarantee against contamination, of course, but the risks are much, much lower this way and your can enjoy a juicy, pink-in-the-center burger again.

Organic food tastes better? Not always.

I am all for eating organic food. It helps the environment, it’s better for the farm workers who aren’t exposed to toxic pesticides, and I would just as soon not eat artificial chemicals with my meal. But, does it taste better? Not necessarily. Being organic or not has no relation to the taste of a food—when it comes to flavor, some organic food is great, most is OK, and some is pretty poor. The same goes for non-organic foods. So, use organic ingredients by all means if you like, but don’t expect it to make your meals taste better.

It used to be true, back in the early days of the organic food movement, that organic foods were higher quality. This wasn’t because they were organic, however. Originally, all producers of organic food were small, dedicated farmers who devoted great care to their products and sold only locally, so things were in fact likely to be fresher and tastier. Now, however, the corporate giants have gotten into the field in a big way, and this is no longer the case.

Aside from the color, cremini mushrooms are no different from the white ones

Your taste buds will give the lie to this myth. The brown cremini have a deeper and more mushroomy flavor than the white mushrooms. Choose based on the needs of your recipe.

On a related note, did you know that portobello mushrooms are nothing more than large creminis?

Never put bananas in the refrigerator – they’ll become inedible

The skins will darken, but refrigeration slows ripening of bananas the same as it does other fruits. The insides will be fine.

Foods such as chicken salad made with mayonnaise are prone to quick spoilage

Another old wives’ tale (or old husband’s if you prefer). Mayonnaise, because of its relatively low pH (in other words, it is acidic) will actually help prevent spoilage. The pH (level of acidity) of commercial mayo in the US is required to be 4.5 or below, and that is very uninviting to spoilage bacteria. When chicken salad or something similar spoils, it is the other ingredients spoiling, not the mayo. When going on a picnic or setting out a buffet it is important to keep foods cold, but there’s no reason to avoid mayo.

The avoidance of mayo in some situations likely got its start back in the days when mayo was almost always homemade, and homemade mayo typically is a lot less acidic than today’s commercial product.

Myths about dried beans

There are three “facts” you’ll often hear about cooking dried beans, such as kidney and great northern beans. It turns out they are all myths.

  1. You must soak beans before cooking. You can soak beans of course, but the only advantage it provides is to shorten the cooking time. There’s no reason not to start cooking dry beans directly as long as you have the time to simmer them long enough.
  2. You must not add salt to beans during cooking or they will not soften. Tests show that the only difference between beans cooked side by side with and without salt is that one is salty and the other is not. Some people feel that salting during cooking gives better flavor because some of the salt ends up inside the beans.
  3. You must not add acid, such as tomatoes, to beans during cooking or they will not soften. Acid does in fact have an effect on beans, tending to keep the skins intact, while alkaline substances (baking soda) help the skins to break down. In both cases however the beans cook perfectly well. You can use this to your advantage, adding tomatoes during or after cooking depending on whether you want whole beans or mushy beans.

Note, however, soaking can help reduce the “gas attack” effect that some people experience after eating beans. Bring dry beans and water to a boil, remove from heat, and let sit for an hour. Drain, add fresh water, and continue cooking. This removes some of the chemicals in the beans that cause the gas.

If you put the pit in the bowl, guacamole won’t turn brown

The surface of guacamole turns brown by reacting with oxygen in the air. The guacamole that is directly under the pit won’t turn brown because the pit prevents air from getting to it. Otherwise, the oxidation process turns the exposed surface brown, just as it does on apples and other fruits. You’ll have much better luck protecting the surface from air by pressing aluminum foil or plastic wrap on it.

You must scald milk before using it in certain recipes

This myth has some basis in fact. Raw milk (milk that has not been pasteurized) contains enzymes that can interfere with the thickening action of milk and the rising of bread. The scalding destroys these enzymes. Today, almost all the milk that is sold has been pasteurized, a process of heating the milk to destroy bacteria. This has the same effect as scalding the milk, so by the time you buy the milk those nasty enzymes are already gone. Unless you milk your own cow, you can skip the scalding.

Scalding can however be beneficial if you are making yogurt or other cultured milk products. Even pasteurized milk contains some bacteria, and they can compete with the yogurt culture and affect the result. By heating milk to 180 degrees you eliminate most of these other organisms and give the desirable culture bacterial a clean slate to work with.

You cannot deep-fry in olive oil

Olive oil has a lower smoke point that most other oils and as a result many people think you cannot use it for deep frying. Balderdash! This would be news to many Italians including the famous TV chef Mario Batali. Olive oil’s smoke point is about 375 degrees and most frying is done below that. Also, just because an oil smokes a little does not mean it is ruined.

Using olive oil for deep frying is undoubtedly expensive. The least expensive olive oil is, in my experience, about twice the cost of other oils that are used for frying such as peanut or canola. Plus you should discard the oil after a single use because the low smoke point means that the oil degrades more during that first use. So, you may never actually want to use olive oil for deep frying, but it is most certainly possible – and can give terrific results for some recipes!

When you add alcohol to a recipe it all evaporates during cooking so there is none in the final dish

Here’s another “common sense” myth that turns out to be false. Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water so it should all evaporate first, right? Nope – that’s not the way it works. The alcohol will evaporate faster than the water but there will still be some left after even extended cooking. The text below shows just how much alcohol is left after different methods and periods of cooking.

  • Alcohol added to boiling liquid & removed from heat: 85%
  • Alcohol flamed: 75%
  • No heat, stored overnight: 70%
  • Baked 15 minutes, alcohol stirred into mixture: 40%
  • Baked 2.5 hours, alcohol stirred into mixture: 5%

The bottom line is that no one is ever going to get tipsy from alcohol in a cooked dish, but people who want to avoid all alcohol for religious or medical reasons need to be aware that some alcohol will remain even after long cooking.

All thickening agents are created equal

A common technique in cooking is to use a starch to thicken a liquid such as a gravy or sauce. Wheat starch (flour) and corn starch are perhaps the most common, but potato starch, arrowroot, and tapioca are also used. Does it matter which one you use? Most definitely. These agents differ in five ways.

  1. Flavor: does the thickening agent add its own flavor to the sauce or is it neutral in taste?
  2. Thickening power: just how thick can you go?
  3. Consistency: the molecular structure of some starches results in long strands that can give the sauce a stringy texture.
  4. Stability: will the sauce remain thick with long cooking or will it thin out?
  5. Appearance: is the resulting sauce clear or opaque?

 Now let’s look at how the various thickening agents stack up: Read more of this post

Remove the seeds from hot peppers to reduce the heat

False, but true in a way. The heat in hot peppers comes from a chemical called capsaicin, and most of the capsaicin is contained in the pith, the white material that holds the seeds in place. The seeds actually contain very little. So, you could remove just the seeds from a pepper and affect the heat not at all, but because most people remove the pith along with the seeds, they get the desired result. Although, hot peppers are supposed to be hot, so why would you do this? Another mystery!

A worm in an ear of corn means you can’t eat it

The corn, not the worm! The corn earworm, Helioverpa zea, is the larva, or caterpillar, of a moth. They are almost always one per ear, and inhabit the tip of the ear, feeding on the kernels. I have seen a lot of people at the local farmers’ market rejecting ears of otherwise excellent corn because there’s a worm. What a waste! Organic corn usually has a worm, because spraying with toxic insecticides is the only way to prevent them. All you need to do is cut off the tip of the ear, removing the worm and the damaged kernels, and you’ll be fine. I’d much rather eat an ear of corn that had a worm removed than one soaked with insecticides.

You should not store coffee in the freezer

Oh pish-tush! For medium to long-term storage (more than a couple of weeks) this in fact the best place to store coffee. Coffee goes stale mainly because the oils in the coffee (I am talking roasted coffee, whole beans or ground) react with oxygen in the air and go rancid, giving the coffee a stale taste. One way to prevent this is to seal the coffee away from air—this is why coffee in cans and some bags is vacuum packed. The second way is with cold, which slows down chemical reactions. Cold, freezer, duh!

The reason I have heard for not storing coffee in the freezer is that it can absorb odors from the other food. Well, I dunno about you, but I wrap things tightly before they go in the freezer. Even if my leftover garlic and limburger tart comes unsealed, the coffee will be in a jar or zip-loc bag.

There is one situation when freezer storage may not be a good idea, and that when the weather is very humid and your kitchen is not air conditioned. Because moisture condenses on cold surfaces, there’s the risk of the coffee becoming moist when you take it out of the freezer to use. This would likely affect the coffee.

When sautéing in olive oil, use extra virgin oil for the best flavor

We all know that extra virgin olive oil has the best flavor. But, it turns out that these flavors pretty much all vanish when the oil is heated to sautéing temperatures. If you still want to use olive oil, for the health benefits perhaps, save your money and use a cheaper refined oil, saving the extra virgin for salads, dipping bread, and other non-heated uses. If you want that lovely olive oil flavor on cooked foods, drizzle a bit of the good stuff on after cooking.

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