Kitchen Myths

Facts and fiction about food and cooking, by Peter Aitken

Category Archives: Odds and Ends

Drinking coffee helps sober you up

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

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

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

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A pressure gauge on your propane tank is useful

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

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

Vegetarians can eat seafood

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

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

Sharp knives make cutting your fingers more likely

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

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

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

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

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

Slamming the oven door can ruin a soufflé

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

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.

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.

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.

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!

Store tomatoes in the fridge for best flavor

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

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

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

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.

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!

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.

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!

Organic food tastes better? Not always.

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

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

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

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.

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. Read more of this post

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 in vinegar (usually 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.

A box of baking soda in the fridge or freezer absorbs odors

This is a very clever and successful marketing ploy by the baking soda people, but the fact is that baking soda is very poor at absorbing odors. It seems to make sense, however, so lots of people have spent untold billions of dollars to put boxes of baking soda in their fridge or freezer to no effect. Activated charcoal would work much better but is expensive. Better to wrap your food and clean the fridge once in a while.

“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, 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.

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