Cooking Tips · Techniques

Culinary Myths Part 2

In last week’s Cooking Tip, we talked about Culinary Myths concerning meat. In this Tip, let’s investigate a few non-meat myths.

Alcohol cooks off during the cooking process
This is one of those myths that is partially true and partially false. You will often read that as you cook a dish to which alcohol has been added that it will be cooked off leaving little to no alcohol in the final dish. However, a study done by the US Department of Agriculture showed that even after baking or simmering an item for 30 minutes, 35% of the alcohol remained. After 2½ hours, 5% still remained. Adding alcohol to a boiling liquid and removing it from the heat resulted in 85% of the alcohol still in the dish. Even flaming the alcohol only caused 25% to dissipate; 75% of it was retained. Here is link to a chart that summarizes this study.

If cooking with melted butter, add olive oil to prevent burning
It is true that butter has a much lower smoke point than olive oil. The former is 350°F whereas the smoke point of olive oil can vary from as low as 325°F to a high of 460°F depending on what kind it is.

The myth is that if you combine butter and olive oil, you will be able to get the flavor from the butter but raise its smoke point so it doesn’t burn as easily. J. Kenji López-Alt put this to the test as explained in an article on Serious Eats. Heating butter by itself, he observed whiffs of smoke at 375°F. When he did the same with grapeseed oil, it didn’t start to smoke until 490°F. Finally, he heated up a mixture of the two and noted that smoke started at 375°F, the same as butter alone. He explained that it is the milk proteins that are the culprit and those are the same whether on their own in a pan or mixed with another oil. You might say they are the “lowest common denominator”. You may still want to cook with butter for its flavor but realize what is going on and what to watch out for.

Never rinse mushrooms or they will absorb too much water
I’m sure you have read this or been told this by someone. In 2009, on the blog Cooking Issues by the International Culinary Center, they claimed to debunk this myth. They cooked two batches of mushrooms side-by-side. One was washed in water and the other was just brushed off. They noted that although the mushrooms did take on water, it all cooked off in the hot pan. More importantly, in a taste test of these mushrooms, the tasters could not tell the difference. Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking agrees saying that since mushrooms are already mostly water, a rinse-off will not make them soggy. They both did agree that you should not clean them until just before cooking. For more on mushrooms, see this Cooking Tip.

Always cook pasta in a large amount of water
Almost every pasta recipe starts with “heat a large pot of salted water to boiling.” There are various reasons for this ranging from “pasta needs room to move around and cook properly” to “the pasta won’t stick as much”. But, is this true? López-Alt tested cooking pasta found that the pasta cooked just fine in just enough water to keep it covered as it expanded. He even found he didn’t need to keep the water at a good boil to get it to al dente. A nice simmer was enough. He does recommend stirring it a few times during the first couple of minutes to rinse off excessive starch and prevent sticking.

Harold McGee (On Food and Cooking) wrote an article in The New York Times about his pasta cooking experiments and he found he could cook pasta just fine in far less water than usually recommended. He even found that he could start the pasta in cold water rather than waiting until it reached a boil. He did note, though, that this method takes a bit more stirring. Lidia Bastianich agreed with the less water but not with starting it in cold water.

Add oil to your pasta water to prevent sticking
Have you ever added oil to a pot of water? What does it do? It floats on top; that is what it does. Remember, oil and water do not mix. That is why vinaigrettes without emulsifiers must be shaken up before using. The oil and water separate. If that is true, it is easy to see how adding oil to the pasta water is not going to do anything. To prevent your pasta from sticking, just stir it at the beginning and maybe now and then as it is cooking.

One thing oil does do is to prevent the water from boiling over. Of course, if you just simmer your pasta as discussed above, you do not have this worry.

On the same topic, do not add oil to your pasta after draining. The only thing that does is to coat the pasta in such a way that the sauce doesn’t stick.

Never put your cast iron in soapy water
All the “dos and don’ts” of cast iron care keep many people from using these great pans. The truth, though, is that the care is much easier than “experts” say. One of the most commonly repeated pieces of advice is to not put your pan in soapy water. Most experts disagree with this and say that today’s gentle soaps will not harm your pan. Once the seasoning has built up, you may also use gentle scrubbing along with the soap. It is not recommended, though, that you allow your cast iron pan to soak in water. Make it the last thing you clean. Thoroughly dry it and heat on the stovetop until hot. Follow this by rubbing the pan very lightly all over with an unsaturated cooking fat, like canola, vegetable, or corn oil. Buff it well to remove any visible oil. Repeat this process after every use and cleaning. One caveat, do not put it in the dishwasher.

There is only one way (or only one good way) to do something
I encourage you to have a bit of healthy skepticism when a chef or cookbook tells you their way is the only or the best way to do something. Rarely is that true. Let me give you a small example that concerns peeling ginger. If you do a search on peeling ginger, time after time you will get “experts” telling you to use a spoon. When I did a search, this was the first hit from Better Homes & Garden – “This Is the Only Way You Should Peel Ginger”. The entire first page of results all recommended this ONLY way and that is to use the side of a spoon. Sure, it works but is it really the ONLY way or is it even the BEST way? I much prefer to use a serrated peeler. It is easy and efficient. So, am I wrong? According to all the search results, I am. However, I like my way and will stick to it.

Do you have a favorite way of doing something that doesn’t agree with the experts? As long as it is doing the job, is not dangerous and gets great results, I say “Go for it!” There is rarely one way to do something in the kitchen and those that tell you there is are just perpetuating one more culinary myth. Now, just don’t tell my husband I said that. I will watch him doing something in the kitchen in a way that is different from the way I would do it and just shake my head. However, in those situations, I must say that my way is usually better!

Do you have a favorite Culinary Myth to share with others?
Just let me know.