Kitchen Myths

Facts and fiction about food and cooking, by Peter Aitken

Category Archives: Ingredients

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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

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!

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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 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.

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