Kitchen Myths

Facts and fiction about food and cooking, by Peter Aitken

Miracle Whip is mayonnaise

Some folks confuse the two as they are both white condiments that are often spread on sandwiches. But they are quite different.

Nope. Mayonnaise is an emulsion of fat and oil, with the fat being egg yolks, along with an acid such as vinegar or lemon juice. Salt is added and often other seasonings. By law, mayonnaise must be 65% oil by weight and the emulsifier must be egg. It’s easy to make at home, but most people rely on the commercial product (don’t get me started on Hellman’s vs. Duke’s!).

Miracle whip, on the other hand, is classified as a salad dressing. The main three ingredients are water (yes, water), soybean oil, and high-fructose corn syrup. Eggs are further down the list. It was developed as a less expensive alternative to mayo and has become very popular. But mayo it is not.

All wild rice is the same

Wild rice is a delightfully tasty grain that has many culinary uses. Its slightly chewy texture and nutty flavor make it a good match in many situations. It’s sort of pricey, though, and many people have never even heard of it. But if you want to give it a try, be aware that all “wild rice” is not the same.

True wild rice grows in shallow lakes and slow-moving streams in the north-central part of the US (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan) and adjacent areas of Canada. It has been a staple food of Native Americans for ages. It is hand-harvested and parched (to remove the husk) using wood fires. It is a medium brown color and is the more desirable (and expensive) kind of wild rice.

The other kind is not wild rice at all, really, as it is cultivated in paddies. Also, it is a genetic hybrid developed specifically for cultivation. It is machine-harvested and dried using artificial heat. It is very dark brown or almost black in color. Compared with the real stuff, it’s a bit chewier, less flavorful, and less expensive.

Both kinds of wild rice can be very tasty and used with great success in many dishes. Just be aware of the differences and shop accordingly.

Gluten-sensitive people must avoid MSG

Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is a popular flavor enhancer that has gotten an essentially undeserved bad rap on the health front (see here). One more twist to this is the truly bizarre idea that MSG is somehow related to gluten, the protein found in wheat and some other grains that causes nasty reactions in celiacs and others with a gluten sensitivity. Nope, the two are completely unrelated. A food may contain both gluten and MSG, of course, but that’s a different matter.

It’s unsafe to eat raw oysters in months without an “r” (May thru August).

A lot of people still believe this but it just ain’t so. There was some validity to it long ago, before refrigeration, when oysters headed to market were more likely to spoil because of the warm weather. And back then, oysters were wild-harvested and there was a greater chance of them being contaminated with red tide or or bacteria, which flourish in warm water. With today’s regulated farming techniques, oysters are monitored for contamination. And, of course, they can be kept nice and cold from ocean to table.

Safety aside, however, some oyster aficionados stay away from oysters from May to August because of the taste–they claim that cold month oysters are tastier and plumper. Be that as it may, don’t let the time of year deter you if you are jonesing for oysters.

Don’t store tomatoes in the fridge

For many years I actually believed this, having read it in more than one source that I consider authoritative. The cold, it was claimed, would inhibit the formation of certain flavor compounds. But recently, a well-respected cooking show/magazine did side-by-side taste tests and could detect no difference between ‘maters that had been refrigerated and those that had not. And refrigeration can help tomatoes last longer, too. Of course not-quite ripe ones should be left out to complete the ripening.

Tellicherry peppercorns come from Tellicherry, India.

This is a commonly believed myth, yours truly included (until recently). But the truth is much more mundane. The term is actually used for the largest peppercorns; they are grown on the same plant and processed just like “regular” pepper. Apparently some people find the large corns to be more visually appealing, so they sometimes command a price premium. Taste-wise, no difference.

As an aside, the city of Tellicherry is now known as Thalassery.

For better results, let steaks rest at room temperature before cooking

Some folks think that letting a steak sit out at room temperature for 30-60 minutes before cooking leads to better results. The reasoning is that bringing a cold steak up to room temperature results in more even cooking and a better crust. It just ain’t so. For one thing, the steak warms up very little during this time. And even if you let it sit out a lot longer it does not, in tests, make any noticeable difference in the results.

So take your steak out of the fridge ahead of time if you wish–it does no harm–but if you forget, fret not.

Foods labeled “no MSG added” contain no MSG

This is legal but somewhat deceptive labeling on the part of manufacturers, likely because some people try to avoid MSG (but see below). Check the ingredients–if they include hydrolyzed soy (or vegetable) protein (HSP), then you’ve got MSG. Seems that MSG is an unavoidable byproduct of the manufacture process for HSP and in fact is the main reason that HSP is added to foods. Let’s face it, there’s no denying that MSG makes many foods taste better.

So why isn’t MSG on the label? It seems that it is not required to list things that are “ingredients of ingredients.” For example, if a product contains milk, the ingredient list does not need to say “milk proteins,” and the same for anchovies and salt.

Now onto the sidebar. Why do some people want to avoid MSG? There’s this fantastical idea that MSG is bad for one’s health, for which there is precisely zero evidence. And some claim to get “Chinese restaurant syndrome” from MSG, a phenomenon that seems to be purely psychological. You can read more here.

Tomato is a vegetable

OK, before you start rolling your eyes, I am well aware that this myth falls, for most people, in the “who cares” category. But who knows, you may find yourself on Jeopardy someday!

From a scientific standpoint, a “fruit” is the part of a plant that contains the seed(s). Thus, apples, oranges, cantaloupes, peaches, and grapes are all fruits. No surprise there! But by this definition, tomatoes, squash, eggplant, cucumbers, okra, peppers, and many other “vegetables” are fruits. True vegetables include lettuce, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, celery, ginger, garlic, asparagus, and so on.

Of course, we all use the common distinction that vegetables are not sweet and are typically eaten with the main course, while fruits are sweet and are more often eaten on their own or as part of dessert.

Don’t eat liver because it contains toxins

Many people just plain hate the taste of liver, that’s fine. But others avoid it because of the myth that the liver contains lots of toxins that have been concentrated from the blood. It just ain’t so.

The liver does in fact extract toxins from the blood, but then these toxins are converted to waste products and excreted from the body. They do not accumulate in the liver. So if you are like me and love liver, munch away! Just be sure to cook it properly, which means not overdone.

Sea salt is different from “regular” salt

Much is made these days about using sea salt in recipes, as if it is automatically better than regular salt, which is mined. Sorry, but this is not true. Fact is, all salt is sea salt–but some ended up underground after ancient seas dried up and the salt deposits were buried by geological processes. In contrast, sea salt is made by letting sea water evaporate in shallow ponds. So when a recipe specifies sea salt, take it with a grain of salt (sorry, couldn’t resist!) and use whatever you have on hand.

This is not to say that all salt–mined or sea–is the same. In some locations, the salt has, for various reasons, been infused with tiny amounts of other minerals that can change its color and perhaps its taste. For example, Himalayan pink salt is mined in the Himalayas and contains, according to the manufacturer, 84 additional minerals that make it a delicate pink color. Likewise, Malden sea salt, from England, is supposed to be unusually pure and comes in large, irregular flakes that give it different mouth feel.

Snowy white scallops are the best

Some fresh (not frozen) scallops you see in the store are as white as snow. Others are more of a pale tan/ivory color. Many people mistakenly think the whiteness means better quality. Actually, it is the reverse.

The snow white scallops are called “wet scallops” because they are soaked in a solution of water and sodium tripolyphosphate. This helps to preserve them and also causes them to absorb more water–and to turn pure white. As a result, the same amount of scallops will weigh more after soaking than before, and bring in more money.

The “dry” scallops are not soaked and hence keep their natural tan/ivory color.

Sugar makes kids hyperactive

This notion has been around since 1922, but numerous scientific studies have shown it to be false. The few studies that seemed to support this idea have been discredited and the evidence that it is false is rather substantial. There are still reasons to limit your child’s sugar, such as weight and diabetes, but  hyperactivity isn’t one of them.

Store-bought food labeled uncured is actually uncured.

The simple fact is that you cannot make things like bacon, corned beef, lox, and ham without curing. The confusion arises because the US Government defines curing as treatment with nitrates/nitrites to inhibit bacterial growth, and that’s all. So food without those things is legally called “uncured.” But for centuries, curing has traditionally meant rubbing meat with salt, spices, and maybe sugar and letting it sit for a while before cooking, and that’s still what’s done. So, in the store, “uncured” means simply “no nitrates/nitrites.” And if you are worried that nitrates/nitrites are bad for health, please see Avoid cured meats because of nitrates/nitrites.

Clear vanilla extract is real vanilla

Oh no, not by a long shot. Real vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla beans in an alcohol solution until the flavor comes out, and it is unavoidably brown. The clear stuff may be made from seeds of the tonka tree, and while it may smell and taste like real vanilla it is not. And, it can contain coumarin, a blood thinner that may be dangerous for some folks. Or perhaps the clear vanilla “extract” contains synthetic vanillin which is made from paper pulp and coal tar. Best to stay with real vanilla extract, expensive as it may be.

It is unsafe to refreeze meat

It seems to be a common belief that once frozen meat has been thawed, freezing it again is unsafe. This is false. There may be some loss of quality and texture, but the refrozen meat will be perfectly safe (assuming you always follow the usual precautions regarding meat).

Baby carrots are actually baby carrots

Nope, it’s just marketing. The small, torpedo-shaped carrots you see labeled as baby carrots are actually mature carrots that had some physical deformity, such as being crooked , and therefore could not be sold whole. Some marketing genius realized that these carrots could be mechanically trimmed down and the bad or ugly parts removed, with the remaining good part labeled “baby.” Now there’s nothing at all wrong with these carrots, except perhaps the inflated price–I use them all the time. Just be aware that you are not actually getting baby carrots.

You should not cook tomato-based foods in cast iron

It’s true that acidic foods can react with iron, but who uses a cast iron pan that has not been seasoned? The coating of seasoning protects the iron from the acid, so you are OK. If you have an unseasoned pan, than that’s a different matter, but even brand-new pans are almost always pre-seasoned.

“Carolina” rice is the same as “Carolina Gold” rice

In many markets you will find bags of “Carolina” rice. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is “Carolina Gold” rice. History, or perhaps legend, tells us that Carolina Gold rice came to South Carolina in 1685 when a ship traveling from Madagascar stopped in Charleston and paid for repairs with a bag of rice seeds. These seeds were the foundation of South Carolina’s 200 year history as the leading rice producer in the US. This rice’s taste and texture set it apart from other rice and it was in great demand. For various reasons, cultivation died out around the end of the 19th century. Today, a few specialty growers keep it going and sell to the public (yes, it is expensive!).

“Carolina” rice, on the other hand, is nothing more than a trademarked brand name. The rice is not the same strain as Carolina Gold and it can be grown anywhere – Texas, Arkansas, etc. It is perfectly fine rice but is not Carolina Gold and does not have the special taste and texture.

Navy beans and great northern beans are the same

They are, to tell the truth, quite similar. But not the same. In most cases it does not make any practical difference. Navy beans are smaller yet take longer to cook than great northern beans. They feature in famous recipes such as Boston baked beans and Senate bean soup. But great northern beans taste pretty much the same. So don’t worry about which kind you have as long as you are aware of the cooking time difference.

Gluten-free foods are more healthful

We have already dispelled the myth that gluten is somehow bad for your health–aside from the small percentage of people with celiac disease this is simply not true (see here). There’s another gluten-related myth, however: that gluten-free foods are somehow more healthful than their “normal” gluten-containing counterparts. In fact, over 30% of Americans surveyed say they sometimes buy gluten-free because they believe this. But it is not so. In fact, gluten-free foods are very often less healthful because they contain less protein, fiber, and vitamins and more fat! And of course they are more expensive and usually don’t taste as good.

Organic food does not contain pesticides

If only. Fact is, there are numerous toxic pesticides (insecticides, herbicides), both natural and synthetic,  permitted on organic crops, with the full blessing of the organic certification agency. This includes pyrethrins, nicotine, spinosad, and copper sulfate. And some organic farmers are pressuring the FDA to allow additional pesticides. Don’t get me wrong, many nasty chemicals are indeed banned in organic farming, and that is surely a good thing for the farm workers and the environment. But don’t be deluded into thinking that organic food is pesticide-free.

Drinking coffee helps sober you up

This myth is so embedded in our culture that it may be impossible to get rid of. How many hundreds of films, TV shows, and books show us a drunk person being fed “strong black coffee” to get them sober. But it just ain’t so.

Being “drunk” with the attendant loss of mental and physical abilities and loss of judgement is directly related to the amount of alcohol in your system. Once you have had a drink (or two, or three, or eight), the amount of alcohol in your system slowly decreases due to metabolism of the alcohol by several enzymes including aldehyde dehydrogenase and alcohol dehydrogenase. Coffee does nothing to speed these processes. Drink all the coffee you want, you’ll be just as drunk in an hour as if you had not. But … and here’s the rub … the caffeine in coffee tends to make people feel more alert and more in control even though they are just as drunk and just as impaired. So, they think they can do things that they really cannot, driving being the prime example, and they go out and cause an accident.

So, if you have a drunk person on your hands, don’t give them coffee. Give them some ibuprofin and a big glass of water (hangover prevention) and put them to bed.

Sushi requires a special kind of rice

At the heart of sushi is the rice – not raw fish as some people mistakenly believe (see my related post here). In a nutshell, medium-grained rice is cooked and, while hot, mixed with a vinegar/sugar/salt mixture. After cooling, the sushi rice is used to make the sushi.

Some unscrupulous companies have perpetuated the myth that you need a special kind of rice to make sushi, and I have seen small bags of “sushi rice” for sale at outrageous prices. Fact is, the rice use for sushi is the same medium grained rice used for many other purposes in Japanese cuisine. You do not need to pay extra for “sushi” rice. Our favorite is Kokuho Rose brand, closely followed by Nishiki. These are California-grown and are every bit as good as the much more expensive Japanese imports. They are widely available, you can even get the Nishiki through Walmart! So, don’t waste your money on overpriced rice!

On a related note, short-grained rice is not used for sushi–it’s actually medium grained that is used. Many people call it short as it is indeed shorter than many other rices, such as jasmine and basmatti. Real short grained rice is shorter still with grains that are almost round. Short grained rice is sold as sweet or sticky rice.



Avoid cured meats because of nitrates/nitrites

Nitrates and nitrites have been used for centuries as part of the meat curing process (bacon, corned beef, sausages, etc.). They inhibit bacterial growth (particularly the deadly botulism bacterium), improve taste, and give the meat a nice color. But there’s been this “anti-nitrate” movement for a couple of decades now, claiming that nitrates cause cancer and all sorts of nasty stuff. They even pressured Whole Foods into not selling any nitrate-containing meats. The evidence for this health danger? None. A huge number of studies have been done, and while a few suggest a possible problem the large majority have found no negative effects of nitrates on health. But of course the “anti-nitrate” folks always focus on the few studies that support their preconceived ideas and ignore those that don’t.

And think about this: many vegetables contain nitrates, as does much drinking water. Fact is, the Centers for Disease Control has estimated that 90% of the nitrates we consume come from these sources and not from cured meat. Eat a few meals with  arugula, butter lettuce, celery, or beets and you’ll get more nitrates than from several hundred hot dogs. But I don’t see Whole Foods removing those vegetables from their shelves.

For hard-cooked eggs it is best to start with cold water

For years I have made hard-cooked eggs by putting them in a pan covered with cold water, bringing to the boil, then covering and letting sit off the heat for 20 minutes. The eggs cooked fine but they were sometimes very difficult to peel, particularly as I always use very fresh eggs from the farmers market. The problem was that the thin membrane just under the shall would sometimes stick to the egg white like glue. I recently found out that the problem with this technique is the relatively slow heating of the egg, which encourages that membrane to stick to the white. In contrast, rapid heating lessens the sticking, so putting the eggs into already boiling water is better from the peeling standpoint. But boiling like that can cause cracking because the eggs bounce around, so better yet is to steam the eggs.

Bring 1 inch of water to a boil in a saucepan. Put the eggs in a steamer basket and lower into the pan, then cover. Steam for 13 minutes then cool as peel as usual. I think you’ll appreciate the difference!

Removing bones is called “deboning”

I wince to hear some people, including a lot of people who should know better, use the term “deboning” to refer to removing the bones from a fish, chicken, or whatever. Do you “depeel” a banana, “descale” a fish, or “dehusk” a coconut? No, duh. The correct term is simply “boning” – the “de” prefix is an unneeded and incorrect prefix. This may sound like “grammar nanny” crap, but why speak like an ignoramus if you don’t have to?

You shouldn’t use cold eggs in baking

For most items, such as cakes and muffins, using cold as opposed to room temperature eggs makes no difference in the results other than requiring a slightly longer cooking time. For cakes that use beaten egg whites as a leavening ingredient, however, cold eggs don’t whip up as well and the resulting cake does not rise as well.

In recipes, all salt is the same

If only it were so! Salt is an essential ingredient in so many dishes, that’s just the way human taste works—we like salt (but not too much). With too little salt, savory dishes just taste flat and uninteresting. But over-salted – blech!

The problem is that all salt is not the same. Some salt is saltier than others when measured by volume, strange as that sounds. This is because different salts have different size crystals, and smaller crystals pack tighter than larger ones. So, a tablespoon of standard table salt (the stuff in the cylindrical container) weighs more than a TB of Morton kosher salt, which has larger crystals. And a TB of Diamond Crystal kosher salt weighs less than the Morton’s. It’s the weight that matters, of course. Sea salts vary because they are all different. So, here’s a guide to equivalents:

1 TB standard table salt equals:
1 TB + 1 scant teaspoon Morton kosher salt equals:
1 TB plus 2 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt.

So what do you do when following a recipe? Some just specify “salt” while other specify “kosher salt” without saying which brand (and I am sure there are other brands I have not tried). It’s best to play it safe and undersalt—you can always add more but it is deucedly difficult to take it back! For dishes that are difficult or impossible to salt later, such as terrines, sausages, and meatloaf, it’s worth the trouble to cook a TB or so of the mixture to taste for seasoning before completing the process, and then adding salt if needed.

It’s better to keep fresh fish in the fridge rather than on ice

We all know that fish must be kept cold at all times before it is cooked or it will deteriorate quickly. Some people think the fridge is the best place for this, but in fact it’s better to keep the fish on ice. Why? Ice melts at 32 degrees, so a pile of crushed ice that is slowly melting is at that temperature. In contrast, a fridge is typically kept at 35 to 40 degrees. This may seem like a minor difference, but with high quality fresh fish – which is always pretty expensive – it can make a difference. The fish must never directly contact the ice, so in a plastic bag and covered with ice is best. The same goes for other seafood such as shrimp and scallops.

Pasta was brought back from China to Italy by Marco Polo

Nice story, but false. Marco Polo’s journeys to the far east occurred in the late 13th century, while the the earliest known written reference to pasta in Italy – Sicily specifically – dates from the year 1154, over 100 years earlier. There’s no reason to doubt that the Chinese had their own noodles, but the folks in Italy were making and eating noodles long before Marco Polo.

Avoid cholesterol-containing foods to promote heart health

Among some folks, it is an article of faith that one should avoid cholesterol in the diet to lessen the risk of heart disease. So, foods such as eggs, liver, shellfish, butter, and cheese were on many people’s restricted or avoid list. That’s too bad, because research over the past decade or so has shown pretty conclusively that there’s no association between dietary cholesterol and heart disease. It is true that the amount and types of cholesterol in your bloodstream are connected with heart disease, but cholesterol metabolism is a very complex matter and blood levels are affected by many factors, but not by dietary cholesterol (except in so-called hyperresponders, a very small percentage of the population). So, you still may want to limit cholesterol-containing foods if only because they tend to be high-calorie, but there’s no reason to shun them over concern with your cholesterol levels.

The paleo diet is rational

The paleo diet is one of the latest fads to hit the world of dieting. It is supposedly based on eating only foods that our ancestors in Paleolithic times, some 12,000 years ago, supposedly would have eaten. Thus, the diet permits meat, fish, fruit, most vegetables, nuts, and plant-based oils (such as olive and avocado) while excluding dairy, grains, cereals, legumes (beans, peanuts), processed oils, processed sugar, alcohol, and coffee. The idea behind the diet is the claim that our bodies had, by the end of the Paleolithic, evolved to survive on the foods available at the time and are not designed to process foods that were introduced since then. There are many fatal flaws in this whole idea.

The most serious flaw is the assumption that evolution “designed” us to be an ideal match for our environment and diet 12,000 years ago. This is completely wrong, as any high school biology student should be able to tell you. Evolution doesn’t “design” anything, all it does is favor the continuation of genes that are associated with leaving more offspring. Thus, a caveman who was sickly and died at 25, but left 12 children, was an evolutionary success and his genes would continue in the population. In contrast, another caveman who lived a healthy life to the age of 60, but left only 1 or 2 children, was not a success in evolutionary terms. In other words, the notion that Paleolithic folks were ideally adapted to their diet is pure nonsense. As long as their diet allowed them to leave children, that was enough.

A second serious flaw is the diet’s assumptions about what foods people did and did not eat back then. There is, for example, quite a bit of evidence that Paleolithic humans ate grains and legumes, but these foods are forbidden by the diet. In fact, there is evidence that humans were cooking and eating tubers and other starchy vegetables as much as 300,000 years ago. Paleo humans did not eat peppers, tomatoes, avocados, potatoes, pineapple, or blueberries (among others) because these are new world plants that were not available during Paleolithic evolution. Yet the diet allows them all. Dietary flexibility was a hallmark of humans and one reason for our evolutionary success—we did not evolve to eat certain specific foods, we evolved to eat pretty much anything. Would anyone care to argue that Paleolithic humans in the sub-arctic zones, the rain forest, the plains, and the tropical coastal regions ate the same or even similar diets? I don’t think so.

A third flaw is the claim by diet proponents that human genetics have not changed in any meaningful way since Paleolithic times and therefore the human digestive and metabolic systems cannot have adapted to deal with “new” foods. This is flat-out false. It is well documented that human genes have changed in response to the introduction of dairy into the diet and to the development of agriculture, with the greater availability of wheat and other grains. While on the subject of genetics, it’s impossible to understand why humans have multiple copies of the gene for amylase, an enzyme whose sole purpose is digesting starches, if starchy foods had not been an important part of the human diet for a long time.

That’s strike three, I believe!

As if we needed a strike four, the life expectancy of humans in Paleolithic times was somewhere in the mid-30s. Is theirs the diet you want to eat? Of course, many other factors have contributed to the increase in life expectancy, including improvements in medicine, public health, and nutrition. Oh wait, did I say nutrition? You know, like eating grains, legumes, and dairy?

There are good aspects to the paleo diet, namely the avoidance of overly processed foods and of excess carbs and sugar (emphasis on excess). But, there’s nothing “paleo” about these ideas, they are part of many dietary regimes. So if you want yet another trendy fad diet to waste your time and money on, be my guest and go paleo.

Gluten is bad for your health

Gluten is a protein found in wheat and related grains (barley, rye, bulgur, farro, kamut, spelt, triticale, and according to some people, oats). Gluten gives bread dough its elasticity and helps it to rise. Gluten has been getting a bad rap lately, a rap that is undeserved. Unfortunately, it has become trendy to avoid gluten, and all too many people leave their brains in neutral and buy into all the scare-mongering that has grown up around gluten (much of which, needless to say, comes from people trying to sell you gluten-free products).

It’s true that about 1% of people have a true gluten allergy (celiac disease), and consuming even small amounts of gluten can cause these people great distress and serious medical problems. For the rest of us, however, there is nothing to worry about. After all, gluten has been part of the human diet for some 10,000 years, and there is not a single shred of legitimate medical evidence linking gluten to autism, Alzheimer’s, or any other health issues. Really, not a shred! Some folks claim to have lost weight with a gluten-free diet. Well duh, if you don’t eat any bread, bagels, cake, or pasta, that will happen! Some folks claim to simply “feel better” without gluten, but that’s a subjective response that may be more the result of eating a lot fewer carbs without being directly related to gluten at all. It’s also the case that when eating gluten-free, it’s very easy to short yourself on the fiber, vitamins, and minerals that are found in gluten-containing grains.

So, if you want to be trendy by avoiding gluten, go right ahead, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you are getting any health benefits.

GMO food is harmful to your health

GMO (genetically modified organisms) refers to crops, such as soybeans, corn, and cotton, whose genome has been modified in the lab to provide some advantage, such as herbicide resistance, improved nutrition, resistance to insect pests, improved yield, or reduced water needs. When GMO food crops were first introduced in 1996, there was perfectly understandable concern that there might be some health consequences from eating foods made with GMO ingredients. However, since then many studies and a lot of real-world experience has shown these worries to be unfounded. Hundreds of millions of people have eaten an untold number of meals containing GMO ingredients, and there has not been a single documented case of anyone’s health suffering as a result – NOT A SINGLE CASE! As a result of this and other evidence, dozens of scientific organizations have declared GMO food to be as safe as any other food – these organizations include the French Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, the European Commission, the Royal Society, and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Yet, opposition to GMO foods on health grounds remains widespread. It’s hard to figure out why, other than the all-too-common human propensity to ignore facts and believe what feels good (or what fits in with their conspiracy theories, such as the hare-brained idea that the above-listed scientific societies are in the pay of Monsanto). The opposition is also fueled by charismatic hucksters such as Vandana Shiva who travel around spreading lies and distortions about GMO food and making up “facts” as it suits them. Unfortunately there seems no end of gullible people ready to swallow this nonsense (for example, GMO foods cause autism, Alzheimer’s, suicide of farmers, cancer, allergies, and so on.). There is no evidence for any of these claims.

This is not to say that there are no legitimate concerns related to GMO crops, such as industrial farming, monoculture, corporate ownership of seeds, and loss of genetic diversity. There is also growing concern over the heavy use of the herbicide Roundup (a GMO crop that is Roundup-resistant allows the herbicide to be sprayed freely to kill weeds). The ingredients in Roundup have been linked to cancer in a recent World Health Organization report, and the product has been banned in many countries, but not the U.S. These are separate issues, however, unrelated to the (nonexistent) health risks of eating GMO food.

Update: While GMO foods seem to present no health dangers, a new report (October 2016) indicates that they are not bringing about the predicted benefits of higher yields and lowered pesticide use. Comparing the US and Canada, where GMO crops are widely used, with western Europe, where they are banned, no yield benefits from GMO crops were seen. Insecticide use in the US/Canada has decreased, but it has decreased even faster in France. And while herbicide use in the US/Canada has shot up, it has decreased in Europe. So, the “great promises” of the GMO revolution have yet to be realized, except perhaps for seed and herbicide manufacturers’ bottom lines.

A pressure gauge on your propane tank is useful

Many folks have paid for a pressure gauge on their propane tanks in the mistaken belief that it tells you how much propane is left. Me too, I got one before I figured out that it is useless. How come? High school physics class to the rescue!

In the tank, the propane is mostly liquid. At the top of the tank, above the liquid propane, is gaseous propane. When you open the valve, some of the propane gas is released, and some of the liquid vaporizes to maintain what physicists call the vapor pressure – the pressure at which liquid and gaseous propane are in equilibrium. As long as there is some liquid propane in the tank, this pressure remains the same (although it does vary with temperature, being higher when the temperature is warmer). Whether 95% full or 5% full, the pressure is the same. Only when there is no more liquid propane in the tank will the pressure shown on your gauge drop. You can tell how much propane is left by weighing the tank, but that’s a bother. You can also tell by feeling the side of the tank when it is in use (when your grill is on). At some place the tank will be colder below, warmer above. That’s the level of the liquid propane. Bottom line? Keep an extra tank on hand.

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.

Vegetarians can eat seafood

I have met more than one person who claims to be a vegetarian, but happily chows down on fish, scallops, and other seafood. Sorry, this just won’t wash. Fish are animals, and by definition a vegetarian does not eat animals. No, Virginia, a clam is not a vegetable!

Of course there is nothing wrong with eating seafood, it is tasty and healthy. But, it is not vegetarian. If you eat seafood but no other animals, then you are a piscaterian.

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

When steaming clams or mussels, 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 shellfish. 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!

Sharp knives make cutting your fingers more likely

A sharp knife cuts more easily, so this make sense – right? But, it is not true. With a sharp knife, cutting is easily done and nothing needs to be forced. And it’s the forcing that causes cuts, when you have to press down hard and the knife slips onto your finger. Ouch! With a really sharp knife, your cutting can be smooth and relaxed, with less danger of cuts. So, keep your knives sharp!

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. There are also drum smokers that heat the beans in a rotating drum.
  • 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.

Adding salt makes water boil faster

In fact, the opposite is true – dissolved salt raises the boiling point of water. For the amounts of salt used in cooking, however, it is a tiny amount, a fraction of a degree, and you needn’t be concerned about it.

Slamming the oven door can ruin a soufflé

A soufflé is a delicate creation that rises due to expanding bubbles in beaten egg whites. A sudden shock such as the oven door slamming will, supposedly, cause it to collapse. While this may be a nice plot twist, tests show that it isn’t true – your soufflé will survive a slammed door just fine, as will delicate cakes.

Heavy cream and whipping cream are the same

I was quite interested to find out that this is not only false, but it is defined by US Government regulations. Whipping cream must contain at least 31% butterfat but no more than 36%, while heavy cream must contain at least 36% butterfat. What does this mean to you, the cook?

When making whipped cream, heavy cream takes longer to whip but lasts longer once prepared (losing its peaks and becoming watery). In contrast, whipping cream whips faster but does not last as long.

A more important difference may be between creams that are pasteurized vs. those that are ultra-pasteurized. Both treatments kill bacteria and extend the shelf life of the cream, but the ultra procedure uses a much higher temperature. The result is cream that lasts longer (in the unopened container) but does not whip as well or taste as good. Look for local, pasteurized (not ultra-pasteurized) heavy cream that is free of additives.

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.

Breathe 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!

Adding a raw potato can reduce saltiness in a soup or sauce

A potato will absorb little or no salt, so this just does not work. Adding more unsalted liquid and other ingredients is about the only solution to this problem.

Acidic marinades make meat tender

Many people believe than an acidic marinade – one containing wine, vinegar, or citrus juice – will make meat tender. In fact, the opposite is often the case. Acid interacts with the proteins in the meat, causing the protein molecules to pack more closely together and thus squeezing liquid out of the meat. The result? Tough and dry steak, chicken, or what have you. What’s more, extended exposure to acid can cause the surface of the meat to become mushy because the proteins start to break down. The rule, then, would be to keep acidic marinade periods short, but then of course the flavor won’t get into the meat very well. My approach is to rely on non-acidic marinades.

The fact is, marinades in general don’t have nearly the effect that many people think because the flavors just cannot penetrate beyond a millimeter or two at the surface. Salt and water in a marinade can penetrate deeper, and the benefit of most marinades is the result this factor.

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