Kitchen Myths

Facts and fiction about food and cooking, by Peter Aitken

Category Archives: Ingredients

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myths about dried beans

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

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

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

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

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

You must scald milk before using it in certain recipes

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

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

You cannot deep-fry in olive oil

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

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

Alcohol in a recipe all evaporates during cooking so there is none in the final dish

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

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

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

Lobsters scream with pain when boiled

It’s commendable that people do not want to inflict pain on animals, but this one is definitely false on the first account (screaming) and probably false on the second (pain).

As for the “scream,” there’s the problem that lobsters have no throat, no vocal cords, no lungs, so how could they scream at all? The fact is that the noise is caused by air trapped in the shell. When heated it expands and forces itself out through small gaps, causing the sound – sort of like when you force air out between your tightly clenched lips to make a rude sound.

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Sushi means raw fish

Many people think that “sushi” is synonymous with raw fish. Not so – the term actually refers to the vinegared rice. This is made by dissolving sugar and maybe a touch of salt in rice vinegar and tossing with the hot, just-cooked rice. Sushi therefore refers to vinegared rice served with other ingredients which may or may not include fish (which in turn may be raw or cooked). The vinegared rice itself is referred to as shari. Raw fish served by itself without the rice is called sashimi.

Use water instead of milk when making scrambled eggs

Some people will tell you that using milk when making scrambled eggs and omelets results in tough eggs – that you should use water instead. It’s puzzling how this myth continues to propagate because it is so easy to disprove for yourself. But if you require the pronouncement of some authority, tests by Cook’s Illustrated (the “America’s Test Kitchen” people) revealed that scrambled eggs made with water are less flavorful, do not fluff as well, and are not as soft as those made with milk. Cream is better still, but that’s another story!

By the way, this advice is for eggs cooked to be moist and creamy, the way they should be. I know some people prefer the dry, fluffy style but all we can do is feel sorry for them.

All thickening agents are created equal

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

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

 Now let’s look at how the various thickening agents stack up:

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“Real” chili cannot contain beans or tomatoes

You hear this on a regular basis, mostly from Texans. The fact is that many delicious traditional (and non-traditional) chilis are made with beans and/or tomatoes. There is in fact some basis for this myth. Traditional Texas-style chili is usually made without beans or tomatoes, and it can be great, but that’s just one regional variant.

What about “Cincinnati” chili? I used to think it was meant as a variant on southwestern chili, and a very poor one at that. I learned  later that Cincinnati chili is actually a dish invented by Greek immigrants in Cincinnati and meant as a spaghetti sauce or hot dog topping. It has some chili powder in it, but also more traditional Mediterranean spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon. Learn more on Google.

Remove the seeds from hot peppers to reduce the heat

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

Adding salt to the cooking water keeps greens green

Nope. You may want the salt for the taste, but it has no effect on the color of the final product. A pinch of baking soda could actually improve color by making the water more alkaline, but because most people have water that is already a wee bit alkaline to begin with, you may not notice a difference.

You must/must not salt pasta cooking water

Now wait just a minute, how can one statement and its opposite both be false? This is because there are so many divergent opinions about salting pasta water, often strongly held, and none of them is “true” in an absolute sense. Salting does not shorten the cooking time by raising the temperature of the water (it does, actually, but by a tiny amount that makes absolutely no difference). The fact is that salting does one thing and one thing only: it makes the pasta salty (well, duh!). You have to add a good bit of salt to get any real taste effect because most of the salt goes down the drain. There you have it. You want salty pasta, add salt – otherwise, no.

But, there is one situation where I think adding salt is a good idea. For the common tomato-based sauces, the sauce can add the needed degree of saltiness to the dish. With oil-based sauces, however, we face the fact that salt does not dissolve in oil, so the sauce cannot add the needed salt (and the result is often the addition of too much grated cheese to get the desired salt level). Salting the pasta water in these situations can provide a better balance. The same is true of pasta that is destined for a cold mayonnaise-based salad.

Add oil to pasta cooking water to keep the pasta from sticking

In theory, this will work–oil is slippery, after all! In realty, almost all the oil goes down the drain when you drain the pasta and the septic tank beasties will enjoy your good olive oil. Tossing the pasta with a little oil just after draining works much better. But, most sticking problems can be avoided by buying high quality pasta (which sticks less than the cheap stuff), by not overcooking the pasta, and by making sure you are boiling it in enough water. Also, stirring the pasta for 10-20 seconds right after adding it to the boiling water makes stickiness less of a problem.

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

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

You should not store coffee in the freezer

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

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

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

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

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

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