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All About Food Myths


Searing meat seals in the juices

Seared meatBoy, I wish I knew who the dunderhead was who originally dreamed up this one. Actually, I do know. It was a German chemist by the name of Justus von Liebig, and he published the notion sometime around 1850. Although his theory was based on presumably sound principles of food chemistry, it was disproved just a few decades later, yet it continues to be preached by television cooking show hosts who really should know better. Anyone can repeat the experiment: simply take two similar pieces of meat, weigh them, sear one and don't sear the other, cook them both to the same internal temperature, then weigh them again. Time after time, the results indicate that the seared meat loses at least as much weight due to liquid loss as the un-seared piece. In fact, searing the meat actually causes a greater loss of liquid due to the higher temperatures used. However, there is no arguing that searing meat creates a lot of flavor, and that is why we do it. The next time you hear someone state authoritatively that searing meat locks in the juices, just smile and treat them like you would a small, ignorant child. The same thing goes for people who use "browned" and "caramelized" interchangeably...


"Caramelized" is just another word for "browned"

There is only one thing that chafes my hiney more than some pretentious pundit using big words when they aren't necessary, and that's some pretentious pundit using big words when they aren't necessary and using them incorrectly. For the record, "caramelization" refers to the chemical reactions that occur when any sugar is heated to the point that its molecules begin to break apart. Stated differently, sugar is the only thing that can be caramelized.

All the other browning that goes on in the kitchen involves a complicated set of chemical reactions collectively known as the Maillard reactions. These involve so many different molecules that food scientists are still trying to figure all of them out, and one of these reactions involves the caramelization of sugars. But using the terms "caramelized" and "browned" interchangeably is a little like referring to an automobile as a spark plug. Yeah, spark plugs are part of the equation, but only a small part and only one among thousands of other components.

So, when some know-it-all TV cooking show host talks about caramelizing onions, he really should be talking about browning onions. I'll grant you that onions contain sugars (as does nearly everything we eat), and that the caramelization of these sugars is one of the factors that contributes to the change in color and flavor that we all like so much, but caramelization is just one of literally thousands of reactions involving all sorts of compounds including proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, amino acids, and not only sugars.

When you burn the sugar on top of crème brulée, you are caramelizing it. When you cook anything else until it is golden brown and delicious, it is properly known as browning and not caramelizing. I recommend you use the term "caramelized" only when referring to sugar or when you want to impress television network executives with your ability to use fancy grown-up words.


A potato will absorb excess salt in a soup or stew

I thought I put this food myth to rest in my award-winning* essay "All About Salt," but it keeps rearing its ugly head, so let's take another crack at it.

When you boil a potato in any liquid that contains salt, the potato will absorb some of the salty liquid, but it hasn't actually made the remaining liquid any less salty. Think of it this way: if you drop a dry sponge into the liquid, it will also absorb some of the salty fluid, but the liquid left behind is no less salty than it was before. Do potatoes possess some magical properties that sponges don't? The answer is no. This is just another piece of folk wisdom that doesn't stand up to critical scrutiny.

* It hasn't actually won any awards, but I think it should have. Judge for yourself here.


Potato saladPotato salad will kill you if it isn't refrigerated constantly

I may have stated this myth a bit strongly, but many people believe that the mayonnaise used in potluck favorites such as potato salad, egg salad, chicken salad, and deviled eggs will become contaminated and turn toxic if left unrefrigerated for more than a few minutes.

The truth is that the potatoes, onions, and eggs in these products are more likely to harbor harmful bacteria than the mayonnaise. Commercial mayonnaise has been pasteurized and has a pH of about 4, which is a level of acidity hostile to most pathogens. In fact, the mayonnaise may actually aid in keeping the potatoes, onions, and eggs from killing us if they are allowed to sit at room temperature for a while.

This myth may hark back to the days when folks used homemade mayonnaise which may have been made with contaminated eggs. If that were the case, the mayonnaise would have provided an ideal environment for the salmonella to flourish and multiply, but no such threat exists with commercially prepared mayonnaise.

Please don't regard this as permission to allow your potato salad to sit in the hot sun for several days before serving it. Just don't panic if your picnic basket warms up a little on your way to the park.


Fruit juices are an essential part of a healthy diet

Everyone knows that fruits and vegetables are essential to a healthy diet, but the same cannot be said for fruit juices. While fruits contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber (remember, fiber is our friend), most fruit juices contain little more that water and sugar. Okay, so some of the sugar may be natural, but you would be amazed at how many fruit juices on the market contain added sugars, especially in the form of the ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup. Unfortunately, advocating fruit juices as part of a healthy diet is tantamount to touting Coca Cola as a healthy drink. Eat your fresh fruits, but leave the bottled, jarred, and boxed fruit juices on the supermarket shelves.


A calorie is a calorie is a calorie...

Actually, this one is basically true. A calorie is defined as a unit of energy, or as Wikipedia puts it, "The kilogram calorie, large calorie, food calorie, Calorie (capital C) or just calorie (lowercase c) is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius." Americans usually use the term calorie, and most other English speakers prefer the term kilocalorie, but they are both units of energy. When used in reference to food, calories represent the amount of energy provided by the food that is available to our bodies. So, from a technical standpoint, a calorie (or kilocalorie) is a calorie (or kilocalorie) is a calorie (or... you get the idea.)

However, some calories are better than others. Some of the things we eat and drink provide energy in the form of calories and little or nothing else in the way of nutrition. Foods that fall into this category include all sugars (glucose, sucrose, fructose, dextrose, maltose, and all the other -oses) and alcohol. So when you eat or drink things that are primarily sugar (most soft drinks and fruit juices) or alcohol (especially distilled liquors such as whisky and vodka), you are pumping calories into your body and receiving nothing (or very little) of nutritional value.

On the other hand, if you consume the same number of calories in the form of fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, dairy products, and even such "taboo" foods as fats and complex carbohydrates, you are consuming valuable nutrients including proteins, amino acids, phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, micronutrients, and tons of other good stuff along with the calories.

Whether you think of them as "good" calories and "bad" calories, or "smart" calories and "dumb" calories, not all calories are treated in the same way by our bodies, so even though all calories are equal in terms of energy potential, it is clear that some calories are more equal than others from a nutritional standpoint.


You shouldn't wash mushrooms because they'll soak up water like little sponges

MushroomsThis food myth has been addressed by many people in many forums, yet it persists. First of all, like most of the foods we eat, mushrooms are about 80 percent water in the first place, so would it really be so bad if they soaked up a little more water when you wash them? I think not. The simple truth is they don't soak up any more water when rinsed than broccoli does.

This was demonstrated by Harold McGee, author of "On Food and Cooking - The Science and Lore of the Kitchen." He soaked six ounces of mushrooms in water for five minutes. When he drained them and weighed them again, he found to they had gained about 1/4 ounce, or 1 1/2 teaspoons of water. The cooks at America's Test Kitchen repeated his experiment and subjected six ounces of broccoli to the same procedure as well. They found that the broccoli had gained the same amount of weight in water and reasoned that the gain in weight in both cases was due to water clinging to the surface. They both "absorbed" the same amount of water, and no one has ever warned against washing broccoli because it will soak up water.

So go ahead and wash your mushrooms before you eat them, unless you really want to add a little bit of the "stuff" they grow in to your diet. Do be sure to wash them immediately prior to using them because a little additional moisture will cause the mushrooms to become unpleasantly slimy, but that has nothing to do with absorbing water.


You absolutely, positively must drink at least eight glasses of water every day

I have already written about this myth at great length in my critically acclaimed essay All About Water, but I could hardly do a thorough job of exploring common food myths without taking a good close look at it now, could I? I thought not.

Rather than going into great detail here, I'll just give you the short version: It is true that most people require about two liters (two quarts) of water per day. What this myth ignores is the fact that most of us get plenty of water without having to drink eight glasses of the stuff. This is because all of the water in the foods we eat and all the water in the drinks we drink counts as part of that two liters. Most of the foods we eat are composed primarily of water, and most of the things we drink are almost entirely water, so getting your two liters a day is really pretty easy. For more information on the origins of this myth and the water content of some of the things we eat and drink, please see All About Water.


Salting meat before cooking will make it dry and tough

This food myth is bandied about perhaps more than any other. It's true that salted meat, if left alone long enough, will lose some of its water content and become drier and more firm in texture. This isn't always a bad thing, and it is to this process that the world owes such delicacies as ham, bacon, corned beef, salami, and pastrami. However, salting a steak, pork chop, or hamburger shortly before cooking it does nothing more than season the meat, and everyone prefers their meat well seasoned so feel free to salt at will.


Burning alcoholAll the alcohol will burn off when it is cooked

The logic behind this food myth is that alcohol, which has a lower boiling point than water, will be completely evaporated by the time the water in the pot or pan comes to a boil. It is true that ethanol (the alcohol in wine, beer, and distilled spirits) has a boiling point of only 173F (78.4C) versus 212F (100C) for water. The trouble with this theory is that a liquid composed of water and ethanol actually has a boiling point somewhere between the two. That means that both the water and the ethanol are being released as vapor at the same time when the liquid comes to a boil, and not one followed by the other. Granted, the alcohol will boil away at a slightly faster rate, but laboratory experiments reveal that some alcohol remains even after prolonged boiling. And, contrary to what you might have heard from certain TV chefs who really should get their facts straight before spouting off before millions of viewers, igniting the alcohol does not "burn the alcohol off." It just ignites the ethanol vapor that is being created by the evaporation and does nothing to speed the process up.


Adding salt to a pot of beans will make the beans tough

I have heard this from several otherwise reliable sources, and it just isn't true according to Harold McGee, author of "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen." He explains that acidic ingredients such as tomatoes will react with compounds in the skins of beans and make them tough. However, the only effect of adding salt is to make the beans cook considerably faster. Go ahead and salt your beans whenever you want with no fear of negative consequences.


Adding salt to water will make it boil faster

I don't know who dreamed this one up because it's not only wrong, it's downright backwards. Adding salt to water actually raises the boiling point a little, so it takes the water a few seconds longer to reach a boil. We add salt to water in order to flavor the foods we are boiling, so unless you prefer your foods salt-free, go ahead and add salt. Some misinformed pundits will tell you that it is important to add the salt at the last minute, but neither the salt, the water, nor the foods about to be cooked care when the salt is added. I always add it when I put the pot on the stove as a matter of habit so I don't have to worry about remembering whether I have added the salt or not when it comes time to add the food—I would rather admit to having a less-than-perfect memory than over-salt my food.


Leaving an avocado pit in a bowl of guacamole will prevent the guacamole from turning brown

GuacamoleIt's amazing to me that this myth has been around for so long because it's so easy to disprove. Go ahead and try it and see what happens. Brown guacamole, anyone? The guacamole will turn brown no matter how many avocado pits you put in it. This is caused by certain compounds in the avocado reacting with oxygen in the air. One way to minimize this reaction is to add some acid to the mixture, and it's always a good idea to add a little lime or lemon juice to your guacamole anyway. But the best way to prevent your guacamole from turning brown is to cover it by placing a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the guacamole.



Pork must be cooked until it's well-done

Back in the days when pigs were fed garbage, some pigs became infected with the round worm Trichinella spiralis left in the droppings of rats and mice that were also eating the garbage. Uncooked garbage was banned as pork feed in the United States in 1980, and since then fewer than ten cases of trichinosis have been reported annually-and most of those came from eating contaminated wild game. While many people prefer their pork well-done (probably because that's the way they have always eaten it), it is perfectly safe to eat pork that is still slightly pink. The trichinosis cysts are destroyed when the meat is cooked to a temperature of 137F (58C) or when the meat is frozen for at least 20 days. The USDA now recommends that whole cuts of pork (as opposed to ground pork) be cooked to an internal temperature of 145F (63C), at which point it is slightly pink and moist.


Boiling vegetables destroys all the nutrients

You might have heard your grandmother say that boiling vegetables destroys all the nutrients, but she wouldn't have said that if she had access to a modern chemistry laboratory. If Grandma had a lab she would have known that, while some vitamins might leach into the water and be lost when the vegetables are drained, most of the other nutrients (i.e. carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and minerals) are unaffected by boiling. In fact, modern food science now knows that some vegetables are actually better for us if they are cooked. For example, the amount of lycopene in tomatoes and the amount of beta carotene in carrots both increase with cooking. Cooking also neutralizes some of the bitter (and slightly toxic) alkaloids that many plants produce as a defense against being eaten. The best way (your grandmother's lab would have shown) to cook vegetables from a nutrition standpoint is to nuke them in the microwave, with steaming and boiling following close behind.


Adding oil to pasta water will keep the pasta from sticking together

This one is just plain wrong. Keep in mind that the pasta is at the bottom of the pot, and the oil is floating on top of the water. Even if a little oil comes into contact with the pasta when it is added to the pot, the oil will wash off immediately and float back to the top of the water. Because the oil does funny things to the surface tension of the water, it will help prevent the water from bubbling up and boiling over, but if your pot of pasta is boiling over and the pasta is sticking together, then you are doing one thing wrong-use a bigger pot and both problems will go away.


You shouldn't store bananas in the refrigerator

BananasBeliefs about refrigerating bananas range from "refrigerating bananas will spoil them" to "storing bananas in the refrigerator makes them toxic." Both sentiments are erroneous. Bananas ripen quickly at room temperature, and I think all of us have had a banana go past the ripe stage into inedible territory seemingly in the blink of an eye. The smart thing to do is to pop your bananas into the fridge when they are at the stage of ripeness you prefer. The cooler temperature will slow the ripening process and you'll get several more days out of your bananas this way. Be warned that the skin will turn black (and I suspect this was the reason for the myth), but the banana inside will remain much as it was when it entered cold storage.


Foods cooked in aluminum cookware will rot your brain

Okay, I may have overstated this one a bit, but there is a widespread belief that the small amounts of aluminum that enter our diet from aluminum cookware are responsible for Alzheimer's disease. It is true that elevated levels of aluminum have been found in the brains of some Alzheimer's patients, but there is no evidence that the aluminum caused the disease. In fact, it appears that the elevated levels of aluminum that one team of researchers found were due to a faulty testing procedure, and when extra precautions were taken tests showed that the brains of Alzheimer's patients have no more aluminum than the general population. Keep in mind that aluminum is the most abundant metal in the Earth's crust, and there is a little tiny bit of it in just about everything we eat and drink-it even composes part of the dust in the air we breathe. Scientists are quick to point out that if aluminum were a major factor in the development of Alzheimer's disease, it is likely that many more people would suffer from it due simply to the pervasiveness of aluminum. The bottom line is there is no reason to shun aluminum cookware, aluminum foil, aluminum cans, or even antiperspirant deodorant (have you ever checked the active ingredient there?) because of adverse health effects.


Throw a strand of spaghetti against the wall and, if it sticks, it's done

Whose idea was this, anyway? Go ahead and try it. You'll find that, in addition to making a mess of your wall, the spaghetti will stick when it's undercooked and overcooked as well as when it's cooked just right, so you've proved nothing. The only sure way to know when pasta is done is to taste it, and what's so hard about that? I mean, would you throw a spoonful of tomato sauce against the wall to see if it has enough salt? No, you would taste it, wouldn't you? I swear some food myths must have been dreamed up by someone suffering from brain damage. Sheesh.


Butter will spoil if not refrigerated constantly

This myth probably gained currency because other dairy products are quick to turn bad. That's because other dairy products contain proteins and water, two essential elements if bacteria are to grow and multiply. Since butter is almost 100 percent fat, harmful bacteria find little to sustain them. Granted, butter will eventually go bad no matter how it is stored, but it is more likely to go rancid (the effect of oxidation caused by exposure to air and light) rather than spoil due to bacterial contamination, so go ahead and let your butter sit at room temperature if you plan on using it any time soon.


Fresh foods are healthier than processed foods

Depending on the process in question, processed foods are often at least as nutritious, if not more nutritious than their fresh counterparts. Frozen fruits and vegetables, for example, are typically picked, processed, and frozen at the peak of their perfection, whereas the fresh produce on your supermarket shelves has often been picked out of season, then jostled about for days or weeks before it finally arrives in your store. Many of the vitamins in fresh fruits and vegetables are depleted by the time they reach your dinner table, no matter how carefully they were handled in transit. Some nutrients are actually increased during processing (the lycopene in tomatoes, for example), and some processed foods are nutritionally enhanced in order to provide health benefits unavailable from the unprocessed products. Iodized salt, vitamin-D milk, and many enriched breads and breakfast cereals are examples of foods that are actually improved by processing.


Baking powder and baking soda will last indefinitely

Actually, this one is half right. Baking powder is a mixture of chemicals which produce carbon dioxide when they react with each other, and this reaction is hastened by the presence of water. Unfortunately, this reaction is also hastened by the moisture in the air, so the clock starts ticking as soon as you open the box of baking powder, and you'll be lucky if it lasts more than six months. To test your baking powder, dissolve a little bit of it in some warm water. If it fizzes, you're good to go. If it doesn't fizz, toss it and replace it. Baking soda, on the other hand, will last indefinitely if stored in a cool, dry place.


Pasta should be rinsed after it is cooked

Wrong, absolutely wrong. Rinsing pasta after it is cooked will wash away the thin layer of starch that is clinging to it, and that starch is necessary if you want your sauce to cling to the pasta. This same layer of starch is what makes pasta stick to itself when it cools, so rinse your pasta only if you are planning to reheat it in boiling water before serving (an old restaurant trick) or if you plan to serve it cold, as in a pasta salad. Otherwise, rinsing your pasta is strictly forbidden.


© 2009 Worldwide Recipes. All rights reserved.

About "The Chef"
Joe BarksonJoe Barkson has been writing and publishing under the pen name "The Chef at Worldwide Recipes" since 1998. He came to food writing late in life following checkered careers in computer marketing, graphic design, and teaching high school Spanish. A lifelong interest in food and cooking ("I've been eating since I was a baby," he is fond of saying) was nurtured by extensive international travel during his formative years, and this accounts for the emphasis on world cuisine in his choice of recipes and themes. Twice married and currently happily single, he lives in rural Georgia with a hyperkinetic schipperke that answers to Cooky when the mood strikes him.


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