Category Archives: kitchen myths

Kitchen Mythbusters Vol. 2

Welcome back to Justin-Thyme kitchen mythbusters, let’s bust some more kitchen myths!!!

Kitchen myth cooking urban legend 1: Hot pan, cold oil- FALSE! This mantra is repeated by many people as the best way to prevent food from sticking to the pan when sauteing or stir frying. The idea is that you heat up the pan first then add the cold oil and almost immediately add the food. This works of course, so it is not a myth in that it is untrue. It is, however, false to think that this is the only or the best way to prevent sticking. What you really want is “hot pan, hot oil” and that’s what you are actually getting because the cold oil heats up almost instantly when added to the hot pan. You’ll get the same results if you heat the oil along with the pan rather than adding the oil at the last minute. In fact some cooks prefer this technique because the appearance of the oil in the pan can give you some indication of when the pan has reached the proper temperature.

Kitchen myth cooking urban legend 2: Heating a pan prevents sticking by closing cracks in the metal-FALSE! Most cooks know that you should start with a hot pan to prevent or minimize food sticking. You may hear a bizarre theory that goes something like this: food sticks to pans because it seeps into minute cracks and pits in the pan and then solidifies when heated, becoming stuck. If you heat the pan before adding the food, the metal expands and fills in the microscopic cracks and holes in the pan’s surface or at least makes them smaller. With fewer or smaller surface defects for the food to grab onto it is less likely to stick.

Unfortunately whoever came up with this idea knew nothing about the physical properties of metals. When metal expands due to heating, each individual atom vibrates faster and faster and thus takes up more space. The result is the same as if each atom simply got a bit bigger, and the result is that the entire piece of metal, defects, holes and all, gets bigger. Thus, if you heat a doughnut-shaped piece of metal, the outer diameter gets bigger and so does the diameter of the hole. You have probably used this fact yourself when trying to get a metal screw lid off a glass jar. Running hot water over the lid expands the entire lid and loosens its grip on the jar, making it easier to remove.

Kitchen myth cooking urban legend 3: Avoid aluminum cookware because of Alzheimer’s disease-FALSE! This myth got its start a number of years ago when medical researchers found elevated levels of aluminum in diseased tissue from the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. One logical possibility (but not the only one) was that the raised aluminum level was responsible for causing the disease. Get exposed to too much aluminum, from your job perhaps or your cookware, and you would have a better chance of coming down with this awful disease. People started avoiding aluminum cookware, and some still are – unnecessarily it turns out. Subsequent research has failed to show any connection between aluminum exposure and Alzheimer’s, and it is believed that the elevated aluminum in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients is a result of the disease process. In other words, high aluminum levels do not cause Alzheimer’s, but rather Alzheimer’s causes high aluminum levels.

Source: Alzheimer’s Society

Kitchen myth cooking urban legend 4: Myths about dried beans- There are three “facts” you’ll often hear about cooking dried beans, such as kidney and great northern beans. It turns out they are all myths.

1. You must soak beans before cooking. You can soak beans of course but the only advantage it provides is to shorten the cooking time. There’s no reason not to start cooking dry beans directly as long as you have the time to simmer them long enough.

2. You must not add salt to beans during cooking or they will not soften. Tests show that the only difference between beans cooked side by side with and without salt is that one is salty and the other is not. Some people feel that salting during cooking gives better flavor because some of the salt ends up inside the beans.

3. You must not add acid, such as tomatoes, to beans during cooking or they will not soften. Acid does in fact have an effect on beans, tending to keep the skins intact, while alkaline substances (baking soda) help the skins to break down. In both cases however the beans cook perfectly well. You can use this to your advantage, adding tomatoes during or after cooking depending on whether you want whole beans or mushy beans.

Source: How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, Macmillan, 1998.

Kitchen myth cooking urban legend 5: Don’t salt meat before cooking-FALSE! The idea behind this one is that the salt will draw out juices from the meat, removing flavor and preventing the surface from browning properly. In theory salt can draw out moisture, but in the real world it does not seem to make any difference. I have salted meat before cooking more times than I can count, including steaks for pan frying or grilling, roasts, and briskets headed for the smoker. I have never once seen any juice being drawn out by the salt. In addition, there are innumerable cooks ranging from at-home amateurs to professional chefs and cookbook authors (including the super-fussy people at Cooks Illustrated) who direct that salt be put on meat before cooking. It’s impossible to believe that if the myth were true, all these people would be blind to the supposedly dire effects.

Kitchen myth cooking urban legend 6: Stock is made from bones, broth is made from meat FALSE! This old saw has been around for ages, and self-appointed experts love to bring it up to show how smart they are. Unfortunately for them it is not correct. You will see this distinction made in a few cookbooks, so it’s not a total fiction, but it is certainly not universally correct or accepted. I’ve seen other definitions as well, such as that stock is homemade and broth comes in a can, or that stock will gel when cooled but broth will not. And what would you call something made from meat and bones – brock or stroth, I suppose! In reality the terms are used interchangeably.

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Kitchen Mythbusters!

We’ve all heard of urban legends, those plausible sounding but false stories that circulate so widely on email and news groups, such as the old lady who microwaved her cat or the Nieman-Marcus $250 cookie recipe. There are several web sites devoted to researching and exposing these fake stories. The same sort of thing happens in the world of food and cooking, although on a much smaller scale. This blog is my answer.

How do I know these are myths? Why should you believe me over someone who says that something I call a myth is in fact true? I can’t answer that question for you but I can say that all of the information in this blog has been carefully researched. I do not claim that something is true or false just because I heard it somewhere or because it seems to “makes sense.” I require that something be backed by a credible source (the key word here is “credible”) and/or that it be in accord with accepted scientific knowledge. In most cases this is also backed up by my personal experience. I certainly do not claim to be infallible but I do try hard to present accurate, verifiable information.

kitchen myth cooking urban legend 1:

Searing meat seals in the juices- FALSE!

This old saw has been around for ages, probably 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. In actuality, both the seared and unseared meat lost about the same amount of weight.

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.

Source: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, Simon & Schuster, 1984.

kitchen myth cooking urban legend 2:

Use water instead of milk when making scrambled eggs and omelets-FALSE!

Some people will tell you that using milk when making scrambled eggs and omelets results in tough eggs – that you should use water instead. It’s puzzling how this myth continues to propagate because it is so easy to disprove for yourself. But if you require the pronouncement of some authority, tests by Cook’s Illustrated (the “America’s Test Kitchen” people) revealed that scrambled eggs made with water are less flavorful, do not fluff as well, and are not as soft as those made with milk. Cream is better still, but that’s another story!

By the way, this advice is for eggs cooked to be moist and creamy, the way they should be. I know some people prefer the dry, fluffy style but that’s another matter.

Source: The Best Recipe, Boston Common Press, 1999.

kitchen myth cooking urban legend 3:

Sushi means raw fish-FALSE!

Many people think that “sushi” is synonymous with raw fish. Not so – the term actually refers to the vinegar seasoned 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. The rice itself is referred to as shari. Raw fish served by itself without the rice is called sashimi.

kitchen myth cooking urban legend 4:

Lobsters scream with pain when boiled-FALSE!

It’s commendable that people do not want to inflict pain on animals, but this one is false on two accounts. First of all, pain doesn’t just happen automatically – it is the result of specific receptors, nerve pathways, and brain regions all cooperating to convert certain physical stimuli into the perception of pain. This has all been thoroughly worked out in humans and other vertebrates. But guess what – lobsters and other crustaceans are not vertebrates and simply do not have these nerve pathways and brain regions (they don’t have a real brain at all, for that matter). In other words, no brain, no pain (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one!).

What about the “scream” that lobsters sometime emit when dropped in the boiling water? 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.

To be continued…