Culinary Myths Part 1

I was chatting with a friend of mine the other day talking about a cookbook. I told her that one of my pet peeves about some cookbooks is that they perpetuate culinary myths. She encouraged me to write a Cooking Tip on this and so, Elisa, this series is dedicated to you.

Culinary myths are directions and guidance that have been passed down from chef to cook to all of us without anyone questioning them and no one really testing them to see if they are true or not. Many will not harm your cooking but they are often unnecessary and time-wasting steps. Some of the myths that have related to a particular topic, I have addressed before in those particular Tips. In this series of Tips, I put them in one place. This Tip will relate to myths that concern meat.

Bring your meat to room temperature before cooking

Even very well-respected chefs will tell you this. In fact, I was recently reviewing a very interesting technique-oriented cookbook that had been published only three years ago that emphasized this. These sources will tell you if you do not let your meat set out of the refrigerator and come to room temperature, it will cook unevenly. I was taught this and always believed it until recently.

In one of my favorite books, The Food Lab by J. Kenji López-Alt, he actually puts this directive to a test. As he notes, it is true that your meat will cook more evenly if it is at room temperature before going in the pan. However, allowing it to sit on your counter for a half-hour won’t get it to room temperature.

To test this, López-Alt cut a refrigerated 15-ounce New York strip steak in half. He put one half on the counter and the other went back into refrigerator. When it came out of the refrigerator, the steak’s internal temperature was 38°F with his kitchen’s room temperature registering at 70°F. He then proceeded to take temperature readings every ten minutes.

Most chefs will recommend a “setting” time of 20 minutes. At that time, the steak’s reading was 39.8°F. After 1 hour and 50 minutes, the steak was only up to 49.6°F. He called it quits after two hours. Proceeding to cook the two steaks side by side, he found they came up to their final cooking temperature at nearly the same time. They also showed the same relative evenness of cooking as well as searing the same.

The author of AmazingRibs.com did a similar test with similar results. The upshot is that this is an unnecessary and time-wasting step. There are better ways to get the result you want such as making sure your meat is dry before searing it and salting it and allowing it to rest uncovered in the refrigerator for at least a few hours or overnight. See next myth for that discussion.

Don’t salt your steak until after it is cooked

Many will tell you that you should not salt your steak until after it is cooked to prevent drying it out and ending up with a tough piece of meat. It turns out that this one is very wrong.

Once again, The Food Lab shows how salting your meat far ahead will lead to a much tastier and moister result. It is true that when you salt a piece of meat, it will begin to draw out moisture. To get a good sear, you will then have to blot the meat dry, taking most of the salt with you. If, however, you leave it setting for at least 45 minutes (or for better results, overnight), the “brine” that has accumulated on the outside will be reabsorbed, leaving the meat’s surface dry and carrying the seasoning inside the meat.

According to Samin Nosrat in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, salting ahead of time gives the salt plenty of time to diffuse evenly throughout the meat. Also, she states the salt will dissolve the protein strands into a gel, allowing them to absorb and retain water better as they cook. She recommends seasoning the meat the day before cooking or at least in the morning or afternoon.

This recommendation, according to López-Alt, does not extend to burgers. He cautions that those should be salted just before cooking. Although not without significant criticism, here is his testing and reasoning. If you read through the comments, you will find disagreement. On the other hand, Cooks Illustrated agrees with López-Alt. One last proponent of only salting just before cooking is found in this experiment by GenuineIdeas.com.

You should wash your chicken before cooking

This has been one bit of advice passed down through the generations as it was thought to decrease the chance of food-borne illnesses. Even Julia Child recommended this. However, it is not true and may even increase the chances of spreading bacteria.

According to a 2019 study by the USDA, washing poultry can easily spread bacteria to other surfaces and foods. The study showed that of the study participants who washed their raw poultry, 60% had bacteria in their sink afterwards and 14% still had bacteria in their sinks after they attempted to clean the sink. A full 26% of participants transferred bacteria from that raw poultry to their salad lettuce. However, of those that did not wash their raw poultry, 31% still managed to get bacteria from the raw poultry onto their salad lettuce. That speaks to the need for thorough handwashing and sanitizing of surfaces that come into contact with raw poultry.

Their recommendations were threefold:

  • Prepare uncooked foods before dealing with the poultry.
  • Thoroughly clean and sanitize any surface that has potentially touched or been contaminated with poultry juices.
  • Cook the meat to the proper temperature as this will kill any concerning organisms.

Searing meat will seal in juices

This myth comes from the theory that the crust that is formed from searing will help the meat to retain moisture. However, this crusty barrier is not waterproof or even water-resistant. The best advice is to cook your steak gently and finish with a high heat sear. It will cook more evenly and produce a juicy and flavorful result. That final sear, though, is not for searing in juices but for producing a flavorful crust. If anything helps to “seal” in juices, it is allowing your meat to rest after cooking before cutting into it.

Bone-in steak is more flavorful

I hear this one commonly. It is one of the reasons we are told to buy bone-in meat. The Food Lab put this one to the test by cooking identical pieces of meat – one was bone-in, one had the bone removed but tied back on and the third had the bone removed but when tied back on, he put a layer of foil between the bone and the meat, presumably to prevent any supposed flavor transfer. They all tasted identical. That being said, there are other reasons you may want to buy bone-in meat but those are for another Tip.

Do not flip your meat very much, preferably only once

People who have tested this have found that multiple flipping actually causes the meat to cook much faster and more evenly. This includes López-Alt but is also echoed by Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking. In the latter, he states that if you really want grill marks, only flip once or twice. But, if texture and moistness are more important, flip every minute. As he explains, neither side has the time to absorb or release large amounts of heat, meaning the meat will cook faster and the outer layers will be less overdone. When a food editor from the Los Angeles Times tried this method, he found that indeed the meat cooked more quickly, more evenly, and also developed a nice brown crust. In addition, he found the “one-flip” rib-eyes seemed to curl during cooking whereas the one flipped more frequently came off the grill flat.

Well, that is enough of the meat-related culinary myths. Stay tuned for more myths in Part 2.