Kitchen Myths

Facts and fiction about food and cooking, by Peter Aitken

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 – this is a good thing!

Unfortunately, many people have the misconception that any coffee labeled Fair Trade is automatically of the highest quality. This is not the case. It’s an open secret among high-end coffee roasters and drinkers 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 little or 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 best quality beans will have received more than the Fair Trade price for their crop.

There is a new coffee certification called Direct Trade that was created in response to problems with Fair Trade. It too requires reasonable prices paid to the growers, but also provides incentives for high quality coffee. You don’t hear much about Direct Trade, but you can learn more on Wikipedia.

So, if you like the taste of 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, or buy Direct Trade. Hint: it’s not at Starbucks.

A pinhole in a raw egg will prevent cracking while boiling

This myth is based on the reasonable idea that eggs crack, when being hard- or soft-boiled, because the air in the shell expands from the heat. The pinhole is supposed to release this pressure. Reasonable, yes, but tests show that a pinhole really does not reduce cracking. Rather, cracks occur either because the egg already has an invisible crack in the shell, which expands during cooking, or because the egg is being knocked about in the pan by too-active boiling.

You can keep meat moist by cooking it in a stew or braising it

This seems to make sense—cooking meat in a moist environment would keep it moist, right? Not necessarily. A major determinant of the final moistness of meat is how hot it got during cooking. So, how you stew or braise the meat is really important. Cook at a boil, where the meat may reach over 200 degrees, and it’s likely to be dry. Cook at a gentle simmer, keeping things at 180 degrees or so, and the results will be much better.

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.

Different areas of your tongue are sensitive to different tastes

I remember learning this in high school – the so-called tongue map that claimed that each of the 4 fundamental tastes were “picked up” on different parts of the tongue: bitter in the back, sweet in the front, sour on the sides toward the back, and salt on the sides near the front. This was shown to be false long ago–all areas of the tongue are sensitive to all the tastes.

And yes, there are now believed to be more than 4 basic tastes. A fifth, savory or umami is widely accepted, and some researhers argue for a sixth, piquance.

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.

All ice cubes are created equal

Most of us use cubes made with tap water, using either an ice cube tray or a built-in ice maker. They tend to be cloudy and sometimes don’t last as long as we’d like. But, ice is ice, right? Not necessarily. Home-made ice freezes from the outside in. Air that is dissolved in the water, plus any minerals (worse if you have hard water) are pushed to the center, last to freeze, where the create bubbles and haze. The resulting ice cubes contain less actual ice than bubble-free ones of equal size would, and when they melt you may find a sediment of the previously-dissolved minerals at the bottom of your glass.

To avoid this, use distilled water (no dissolved minerals) and bring to a boil briefly, then cool and freeze (the boiling drives out most of the dissolved air). You’ll get clear, sediment-free cubes that last a good deal longer. Worth the effort? Maybe only for special occasions!

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.

Drinking fruit juice is just as good as eating fruit

I recall when my daughter was playing soccer and the parents took turns bringing drinks for the kids. There were some moms who would go ballistic if someone dared offer their kid a soft drink, but would be perfectly happy for them to drink as much apple or grape juice as they wanted. Guess what, most fruit juices are just sweet, flavored water with no more nutritional value than a Coke (a bit of vitamin C is meaningless) and just as much sugar. In fact, drinking fruit juices has been linked in several studies to increased health risks and weight gain.

When you eat a piece of fruit, you get everything in the fruit – the sugar, yes, but also the fiber and other constituents that don’t make it into the juice. The fiber has the effect of slowing down the absorption of sugar into your blood stream, a good thing. This also has more of an appetite-satisfying effect, making it less likely you’ll crave a snack soon.

This is not to say you should banish fruit juices from your life. But, don’t fool yourself that they are somehow better than other sugary drinks.

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.

A craving for a specific food is your body’s way of telling you that it needs a nutrient that’s present in that food

Nice try, but you cannot use this myth to justify your chocolate or ice cream or potato chip attack! The human body just does not work this way. A craving is a psychological phenomenon, although it’s also been suggested that certain foods, such as chocolate, may trigger the release of “satisfaction” signals in the brain. Either way, however, it has nothing to do with nutrition.

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

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 58% 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 (and me!) 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 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.

When baking muffins, fill empty cups with water for even baking

Suppose you have a 12-cup muffin tin and enough batter for only, say, six muffins. This myth says to fill the empty cups with water or you’ll get uneven baking and your tin might warp. It does no harm, but it’s a waste of time and has no effect whatever on the evenness of cooking. Why would it? Even with all 12 cups full of batter, most of them are not adjacent to another cup on one or two sides and things cook perfectly fine. If your tin warps, that’s a sign of low quality, and maybe you need a replacement.

There is one scenario where putting water in the empty cups makes sense—if you have already greased them. Baking an empty, greased cup makes for hard cleanup!

Eating grilled meat increases your chance of cancer

Sorry, it just ain’t so. I say “sorry” because there are some people who seem to want grilled meat to be unhealthy—beats me as to why (perhaps it’s the “if it tastes good it must be bad for you” syndrome?). Anyway, this myth got its start because grilling—like some other cooking techniques—produces heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which are “reasonably anticipated” to be carcinogens in humans. What this means is that there is no evidence that they actually are carcinogens in humans, but someone thinks that if they keep looking long and hard enough they will find some evidence. As an example, a recent prospective study in 120,000 women found no relationship between breast cancer and eating red meat or the way the meat was cooked. “But but but,” the worry-warts will say, “HCAs cause cancer in rats and mice!” Yes, but we are not rats or mice (most of us, anyway) and what’s true for them is not always true for us. There is evidence, for example, that early humans adapted a digestive system to safely eat cooked food while rodents did not.  Also, just because a high dose of something, like the high doses of HCAs that the experimental rats and mice were given, causes a health problem does not mean that the very small doses we get in our food will also cause a problem.

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 (headache, drowsiness, palpitations, and others) 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 many cheeses, seaweed, 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 cannot eat so much that your stomach bursts

We’ve all said at one time or another “I’m so full I am going to burst.” Well, in all probability you were far from actually bursting—rupturing your stomach—but that does not mean it can’t happen (never mind Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life).

An adult’s stomach can typically hold 1 to 1.5 liters of food, the point at which you feel really stuffed and 99.9% of us stop eating. If you keep cramming it down, you’re probably safe up to about 3 liters. Above that, who knows? This isn’t something you’d want to do an experiment on! Your gag reflex won’t help because once your stomach is this distended, the muscles are stretched thin and cannot generate the force needed for vomiting. But, there are medically documented cases of stomach rupture due to excessive food intake, and it is, as you might well imagine, a very serious situation. However, except for people with certain eating disorders, it’s nothing for the rest of us to worry about.

You can scrape surface mold off of home-canned jams and they will be safe to eat

If you have anything growing on the surface of your homemade jarred jam, it’s a sure sign that the canning process did not work to sterilize the contents of the jar. You may think you can scrape it off and eat the clean-looking jam or jelly underneath, but that’s taking a chance. Molds often produce invisible,  microscopic filaments that penetrate into the food and will remain behind when you scrape the visible mold away. These filaments can contain toxins that cause illness. Not worth the chance, in my opinion.

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.

Bread becomes stale by drying out

Stale bread – yuck. The crumb (the part inside) gets hard and stiff and the crust loses any crispness it might have had.  Most people attribute this to drying out, but the opposite is in fact true. The bread is actually absorbing moisture, as shown by an increase in weight as the loaf goes from fresh to stale. The moisture absorbed by the crumb causes the starch granules to crystallize, hardening the bread. This is why the fridge is a bad place to store bread, even when it is well-wrapped, because low temperatures speed up the starch crystallization process (although freezing bread is fine because starch crystals don’t form at freezer temperatures). It’s also why a brief visit to the oven can improve stale bread, because the heat drives out some moisture and helps melt the starch crystals.

Bread can dry out, of course, but that’s another matter.

To keep coffee hot longer, add milk just before drinking

You’ve poured yourself a cup of coffee and then there’s a knock on the door – the FedEx guy. You want your coffee to be as hot as possible when you come back in a few minutes. Should you add the milk now or wait until just before you drink it? Most people would say to wait, but that’s wrong – put the milk in now. Here’s why:

  1. Dark-colored objects radiate more heat than light-colored ones, so the light coffee will radiate less heat than the black.
  2. The heat loss is proportional to the temperature differential between the cup of coffee and the room air. By adding the milk now, you have slightly cooled the coffee, reducing the temperature differential and the heat loss.
  3. If you use cream or half-and-half, the fat may lessen the evaporation from the surface of the coffee and the resultant evaporative heat loss.

All pressure cookers are created equal

Pressure cookers work because they allow you to cook food in water or steam above the usual boiling point of 100 degrees C (212 F). Under pressure that is higher than normal, water boils at higher temperatures, and these higher temperatures cook your food faster and, sometimes, better. But, how much extra pressure—that’s the question.

At normal atmospheric pressure, water boils at 100 degrees C (212 degrees F). If your pressure cooker raises the pressure by 7 PSI (pounds per square inch), the temperature goes up to 112 degrees C.  An increase of 15 PSI gives you 120 degrees, and a 37 PSI increase in pressure gives you 140 degrees C.  The higher the pressure, the faster your food will cook. There’s no practical way to measure the pressure in your cooker, so, be warned: the timing in pressure cooker recipes may need to be modified based on the characteristics of your cooker. After a few tries, you should be able to get a feel for whether your cooker is faster or slower than typical.

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.

When grilling a burger, flip it only once for best results.

I am not sure where this one originated, but I hear it frequently. In fact, flipping the burger several times during grilling gives more even cooking and a more evenly browned surface. You won’t get those grate marks, but who cares? It’s going in a bun anyway. It is true that you shouldn’t press on the burger with your spatula during cooking—this just squeezes juice out, and we all love juicy burgers!

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 at 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.

Fruit should be eaten on an empty stomach

This whopper has been around in one form or another for quite a while. The dire things that will supposedly happen to you if you eat fruit with other foods are enough to frighten anyone—or more likely, send them into gales of laughter. For example, “graying hair, baldness, nervous outburst, and dark circles under the eyes.” If, however, you only eat fruit on an empty stomach you will have “beauty, longevity, health, energy, happiness, and normal weight.” Yeah, right!

The truth is that there’s nothing harmful about eating fruit with other food. In fact, for diabetics and those with fructose intolerance, eating fruit with other foods is generally better than eating it on an empty stomach.

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.

A high-protein diet is bad for your kidneys

The “rationale” behind this myth is that digesting and processing large amounts of protein puts a strain on your kidney, which are responsible for filtering the blood and removing certain waste products. This myth became more widespread when low-carb diets, which typically involve eating more protein, became popular. The only problem (common to all myths!) was that there was precious little data to support this notion. Several recent studies looked at this question and found that in people with normal kidney function, a high-protein diet did not affect kidney function. These studies were published in The International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, The Annals of Internal Medicine, and Nutrition and Metabolism.

Note, however, that one of these studies suggested that in people who already have some degree of kidney insufficiency, a high-protein diet seemed to hasten renal decline. So, if you are considering going low carb, you might want to have a kidney function test first to make sure it is normal.

Eating bananas makes you more attractive to mosquitoes

Mosquitoes are attracted or repelled by various odors, but the bananas story is false. So is the claim that taking vitamin B-12 will make you less attractive to mosquitoes. Mosquitoes home in visually to some extent, particularly in the late afternoon, and they seem to like dark colors and movement. But, smell is most important, with the carbon dioxide that you exhale being the primary factor. Other poorly understood aspects of “personal odor” an have attractant or repellent effects, and probably explain why about 20% of people are considered to be “mosquito magnets.” These are the people you want to stand next to at an outdoor party!

Rare hamburger is 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 your 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

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 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.

Kitchen Myths – What’s this Blog all About?

Many widely accepted “truths” about food and cooking are just plain false—in other words, they are kitchen myths. Learn the straight skinny here! See the About page for more information about me, your friendly myth-buster, and this blog.

Remember, these are myths–the title of each entry is the myth I am busting and is not true!

Select from the Categories list at the right or use the Search box at the top of the page to find something specific.

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?

You cannot do serious cooking in a microwave

This is one of the very silliest myths but it refuses to die out. There are a lot of people who use their microwave for nothing but boiling water and reheating leftovers and they are really missing out on a lot. I suspect that this myth got its start when microwaves were a new tool and a lot of awful microwave recipe books were published. Some people tried to use their microwave as a general purpose stove and oven replacement rather than as a more specialized tool that is well suited for some jobs but not at all useful for others. For example, you would not want to use a microwave for a roast beef, fried potatoes, or baking bread, but it works just great for things like rice, poached fish, and steamed veggies. I find it particularly handy for making polenta and risotto, with results that are every bit as good as the stovetop with much less work and worry. If you want to expand your microwave repertoire I highly recommend The Microwave Gourmet by Barbara Kafka. Another excellent book is The Moghul Microwave by Julie Sahni (Indian dishes).

Hot pan, cold oil to prevent sticking

This mantra is repeated by many people as the best way to prevent food from sticking to the pan when sautéing or stir frying. The idea is that you heat up the pan first then add the cold oil and almost immediately add the food. This works of course, so it is not a myth in that it is untrue. It is, however, false to think that this is the only or the best way to prevent sticking. What you really want is “hot pan, hot oil” and that’s what you are actually getting because the cold oil heats up almost instantly when added to the hot pan. You’ll get the same results if you heat the oil along with the pan rather than adding the oil at the last minute. In fact some cooks prefer this technique because the appearance of the oil in the pan can give you some indication of when the pan has reached the proper temperature.

There is one situation where you don’t want to heat the oil in the pan, and that’s when you need a super-hot pan for searing a steak or similar tasks. It has nothing to do with sticking, however, but with the oil burning. Your pan is likely to reach 600 degrees and that is well above the smoke point of any cooking oil, so your oil will start to smoke and decompose well before the pan is ready. My approach is to not add oil to the pan at all, but rub it on the steak – patted dry first, of course – just before putting the steak in the pan.

You can’t make a good cup of tea in the microwave

Some people claim that you cannot make really good tea by boiling your cup of water in the microwave and then putting in the tea bag. The problem is that only the top layer of water is boiling – water in the lower part of the cup is not hot enough yet and so the tea will not infuse properly. Perhaps—but the problem is easily solved by letting the water boil for 5-10 seconds before removing it from the microwave and adding the tea bag. This ensures complete mixing and heating of the water and your tea will be just fine.

Note, however, that some tea experts claim that you do not want to use actively boiling water (212o) because it damages the flavor of the tea. I was informed of this by a reader named Erik Lynn – for black tea you want 195 degrees, for green tea 175 degrees, and for herbal tea 205-210 degrees. To be honest, I really can’t tell the difference, but apparently some people can.

However, be aware of a potential safety issue. Water can get superheated in the microwave. In other words, its temperature goes above the boiling point but it does not actually boil. This is usually the result of using a container with a very smooth surface that lacks the minute rough spots that trigger boiling. When you then pop your tea bag into the water it boils all at once and can leap out and burn you. Of course if you wait for the water to boil in the MW, as I have advised, this will not be a problem, but you should be aware of it.

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.

Don’t salt meat before cooking

The idea behind this one is that the salt will draw out juices from the meat, removing flavor and preventing the surface from browning properly. In theory salt can draw out moisture, but in the real world it does not seem to make any difference. I have salted meat before cooking innumerable times, including steaks for pan frying or grilling, roasts, and briskets headed for the smoker. I have never once seen any juice being drawn out by the salt. In addition, there are innumerable cooks ranging from at-home amateurs to professional chefs and cookbook authors—including the super-fussy people at Cooks Illustrated—who direct that salt be put on meat before cooking. It’s impossible to believe that if the myth were true, all these people would be blind to the supposedly dire effects.

If you use enough salt and let it sit long enough you will draw out moisture. But the real question is: does this reduce the quality of the final product? Not in my experience. Of course you must pat off the accumulated moisture with a paper towel before cooking if you want the meat to brown properly. In fact, drawing off some moisture may well concentrate the flavors and lead to a better result.

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.

Cold water boils faster than warm water

This is another myth that falls into the “suspend the laws of physics” category. That hasn’t happened yet in my kitchen, and if it has in yours then you can probably get on TV. Seriously, to illustrate how ridiculous this idea is without getting into physics and formulas, think of it this way. If you put cold water on to boil, at some time before it boils the water will have become warm. Let’s say it takes time “A” for the water to go from cold to warm. Then after some additional time it will boil – call the time it takes to go from warm to boiling “B”. So, the time it takes the cold water to boil is “A + B” and the time it takes the warm water to boil is “B.” If this myth were true then time “A + B” would be less than time “B” and there’s just no way this could be no matter how many martinis you’ve had. Read more of this post

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.

Microwave cooking is radiation and makes foods poisonous

Yes, microwaves are radiation, just like the light from the sun, the warmth from a cozy fire, or the signal that brings you radio shows. But, it is nonionizing radiation, which means that it has no effect on food other than heating it up. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the truly dangerous ionizing radiation that is associated with atomic bombs and nuclear power plants.

Microwave cooking destroys nutrients more than other cooking methods

It’s true that cooking reduces the level of some nutrients, but this is true of all cooking methods. It’s the heat that does it, and with boiling or poaching there’s also the fact that some nutrients are leached out into the water. Microwaves pose no special risk to nutrients and in fact may preserve more of them because cooking times and temperatures may be lower than with conventional cooking methods. Yes, I know that there are many web sites claiming that microwaves destroy nutrients, but they are wrong. Ask these people about their scientific background, may I suggest.

You cannot do serious cooking in a microwave

This is one of the very silliest myths but it refuses to die out. There are a lot of people who use their microwave for nothing but boiling water and reheating leftovers and they are really missing out on a lot. I suspect that this myth got its start when microwaves were a new tool and a lot of awful microwave recipe books were published. Some people tried to use their microwave as a general purpose stove and oven replacement rather than as a more specialized tool that is well suited for some jobs but not at all useful for others. For example, you would not want to use a microwave for a roast beef, fried potatoes, or baking bread, but it works just great for things like rice, poached fish, and steamed veggies. I find it particularly handy for making polenta and risotto, with results that are every bit as good as the stovetop with much less work and worry. If you want to expand your microwave repertoire I highly recommend The Microwave Gourmet by Barbara Kafka. Another excellent book is The Moghul Microwave by Julie Sahni (Indian dishes).

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