Kitchen Myths

Facts and fiction about food and cooking, by Peter Aitken

Category Archives: Techniques

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.

Searing meat seals in the juices

This old saw has been around for ages, partly because meat cooked over low heat will exude liquid while meat cooked over high heat—seared—appears not to. When you cook meat, the collagen fibers contract and this squeezes liquid out of the meat regardless of the cooking temperature. With high heat, the liquid boils away immediately and you never see it, while at lower temperatures the liquid accumulates in the pan.

Searing, or more specifically browning, is important because of the Maillard reaction. When the proteins and sugars in meat are exposed to high heat (searing) a large number of chemical reactions take place, resulting in the creation of lots of new flavor elements. It is these flavors, both in the browned surface of the meat and in any pan juices that result, that make searing such an important step in some recipes.

Another reason for this myth may be because searing meat that will be stewed, roasted, etc. does indeed give much better results. It has nothing to do with sealing in the juices, however. Careful experiments were performed in which identical pieces of meat were cooked with and without searing. If searing did seal in juices, then the seared meat would lose a smaller percentage of its weight during cooking than the unseared piece and thus be heavier after cooking. In actuality, both the seared and unseared meat lost about the same amount of weight.

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