Thursday, May 19, 2011

Myth's of the Kitchen

Myth #1: Adding salt to water makes it boil faster.

Reality: Salt actually raises water's boiling point, thus taking it slightly longer to boil, but the amount of salt a home cook would likely add is too small to make a noticeable difference. Salt will, however, add flavor to almost anything you're cooking, so it's worth the extra millisecond or two.

Myth #2: Boiling drains away all nutrients from vegetables.

Reality: While it's generally a tastier bet to steam veggies to your desired level of crispness, boiling them doesn't leach out all their benefits. Some vitamins are water soluble and may diminish, but many important minerals and fiber remain.

Myth #3: Adding oil to pasta water keeps strands from sticking together.

Reality: Oil can help keep pasta water from boiling over because it sits on the surface, but it makes it more difficult for sauce to adhere. Your best bet for non-sticky pasta is to use a large pot with plenty of water (five to six quarts for one pound), bring it to a fast boil, add all the pasta at once and stir frequently with a wooden spoon or fork.

Myth #4: Don't wash mushrooms because they'll soak up too much water and lose flavor.

Reality: Yes, mushrooms are porous, but they're also 90% water. A rinse isn't going to make a noticeable difference in the flavor of the end product, and you'll be assured that they're grime free.

Myth #5: Leaving an avocado pit in guacamole keeps it from browning.

Reality: The pit will keep any part of the guac it's touching from browning, but not through any magical chemical reaction; it's just blocking air from reaching the the dip and oxidizing. Tight plastic wrap against the surface works just as well, and covers a much larger area.

Myth #6: Baking soda and baking powder keep forever.

Reality: This one's only partially false. A box of baking soda will keep fresh 'til the cows come home. Baking powder, on the other hand loses its potency after it's opened. Count on three to six months of effective leavening, check the expiration date, and store the can in a cool, dry place that isn't the fridge. If you're worried that your soda has lost its sizzle, add one teaspoon to 1/3 cup of hot water. If it doesn't bubble, buy a new can.

Myth #7: Unrefrigerated butter will make you sick.

Reality: Salted butter won't spoil as quickly as other dairy products would if left at room temperature, as salt staves off the growth of the bacteria that causes spoilage. While of course it will spoil eventually, if you like your butter on the spreadable side, leaving it covered on the counter or in a butter bell is perfectly safe.

Myth #8: A potato will soak up excess salt in a soup or stew.

Reality: The potato will draw in some liquid, but it won't specifically attract salt or do much to counteract the flavor. Your best bet is to add more liquid, some sugar or an acid like vinegar to balance the brine.

Myth #9: All alcohol burns off during cooking.

Reality: If you heat a booze-based concoction for a few hours, the alcohol level will significantly lessen, but a quick flambe, simmer or bake only knocks the potency back by 50% or less. So, while a slice of rum cake won't get you tipsy, it's still a good idea to warn folks who don't normally consume alcohol.

Myth #10: Cold water boils faster than warm water.

Reality: Well, no. Cold water heats more quickly than warm water because the rate of heating depends on the difference in temperature between the liquid and its surroundings, but once it's caught up to the temp of the warmer water, it will take just as long to reach the boiling point.

Myth #11: Salting meat before cooking it makes it tougher.

Reality: If you crusted a steak in salt and let it sit for a very long time, then perhaps some moisture would be drawn out, but that wouldn't even necessarily be a bad thing. Meat should be patted dry before cooking so the surface doesn't simply steam. Salt seasons meat and makes for a much better flavor, so go ahead and shake it up -- preferably with a larger-grained Kosher salt.

Myth #12: Salting beans before cooking makes them tough.

Reality: No matter when salt is added in the cooking process, it won't affect tenderness. It will, however, enhance flavor. Season away!

Myth #13: You can't deep fry in olive oil.

Reality: It's not as cost-effective as canola or safflower, so restaurants don't tend to use olive oil, but it's perfectly fine to use at home. It does lose a bit of its flavor at higher heats and has a lower smoking point than some other oils, so some experimentation may be needed, but many folks swear by the flavor. Save the extra-virgin for finishing dishes or cold techniques, and stick to regular or virgin for cooking.

Myth #14: Rinse pasta to remove the starch.

Reality: Starch helps sauce adhere to pasta. For optimum coverage, cook pasta to just slightly under-done, and save a mug full of the pasta water. Mix this into the sauce and finish cooking the pasta in this mixture. Only rinse pasta if you're going to use it in a cold salad.

Myth #15: Throw spaghetti against the wall to test for doneness.

Reality: That's a cute idea, but you'll just end up with sticky walls, and you still won't know if your pasta is done. Most commercial boxes suggest a time range. Lift out a piece with a slotted spoon at the low end of the range and take a nibble. If it sticks to your teeth, it still needs time. If it's firm, but almost springy and not at all brittle, then drain and mangia!

Myth #16: Searing meat seals in juices.

Reality: Searing a steak doesn't "seal" in juices, but it does a lot to lock in great flavor. When meat meets high heat (between 300-500F), proteins on the meat's surface recombine with sugars to kick off the Maillard Reaction, which is what brings that savory flavor to a browned crust.

Myth #17: Storing bananas in the fridge ruins them.

Reality: Way back when the original Chiquita banana jingle was written, warning customers not to refrigerate their 'nanners, it was because they were sold green and wouldn't reach a state of ripeness in the cold. Modern day bananas can be ripened quickly in a paper bag, or more slowly in a fridge. The skin may darken a bit, but the fruit will be just fine.

Myth #18: Salads and sandwiches containing mayonnaise aren't safe for picnics.

Reality: Commercial mayo contains an acid level that actually allows it to act as a preservative for other ingredients in a salad. It's much more likely that the chicken, ham or eggs would spoil than the mayo. Still, for safety's sake pack chicken salad and the like in a cooler that stays below 40F.

Myth #19: Slightly pink pork will make you sick and kill you.

Reality: We're not saying you should go hog wild on pork sashimi, but trichnosis is largely a thing of the past, due to changes in pig feeding techniques. A temperature of 137-141F would be sufficient to kill off the larvae that cause the disease, but a pork roast cooked to a 160F internal temperature will still have a slightly pink center. It's safe to pig out.

Myth #20: Microwaves cook food from the inside out.

Reality: Nope. The microwaves don't so much conduct heat, as excite fat and water molecules more or less evenly throughout the food, depending on its density and composition. Some foods, burritos for example, contain more water internally than on the surface, so they may seem as if they're heating from the center, but that's not actually the case.