There are a few things that the experienced cook prides themselves on knowing in the kitchen. Things that show that you really know your stuff – little tips and tricks that make you stand out from total amateurs. Unfortunately some of them are totally unfounded in reality. Here are a few that might surprise you…
1) Pasta should be cooked in fiercely boiling water
I’ve always been taught that when cooking (dried) pasta, the pan of water needs to be at a rapid, rolling boil before adding the salt and then the pasta, and kept that way as it cooks. Otherwise it will turn gluey, stick together, and an Italian nonna will leave a horse’s head in your bed. Well – it’s not true. You can actually put dried pasta in a pan of cold water, let it come to the boil, stir from time to time, and wait till it’s done: it’ll be just fine. Alternatively, you can add the pasta to boiling water, cover the pan, and turn off the heat. It’ll cook slowly, but it’ll cook. (How’s that for an energy-saving tip?) For more on the science behind this, check out this post in Serious Eats’ brilliant Food Lab series. Breaking this rule feels incredibly impious, but it really is true.
2) Crushing garlic makes it taste bitter / is only done by heathens
Some people get very sniffy about crushing garlic. That’s a shame, because it’s so much easier than slicing it, and doesn’t leaves your hands nearly so stinky afterwards. It’s sometimes claimed that crushing garlic makes it taste bitter. That’ll only happen if you use an aluminium garlic press. Use one made from different materials and your crushed garlic will taste and smell of nothing but delicious, raw garlic.
3) Searing meat seals in moisture
Many recipes for stews or braises call for you to seal the meat in a hot pan as the first step. It’s often said that this seals in moisture. It doesn’t. In fact, it might well do the exact opposite, as this Food Network video with Alton Brown demonstrates. So should you bother? Yes, because what you’re actually doing is carrying out the Maillard reaction, which creates a better depth of flavour. Do it right and you also get a lovely sticky goo on the base of the pan, which you can boil off with a splash of wine and add to your sauce.
4) Butter-based cakes are tastier than ones that use vegetable oil.
It’s often said that cake recipes that use butter will be tastier (richer! butterier!) than ones that use oil. This might be true, but the difference is so imperceptible that it’s very hard to pick up on (thought this will depend on the recipe, of course). Most people won’t notice much of an improved flavour. In fact, because oil is liquid at room temperature, it also makes for a moister cake. Butter does have other advantages in cakes – just remember that there’s no need to be snooty about using oil, which is also cheaper. Often, a mix of oil and butter can get you the best of both worlds. Check out The Cake Blog’s great post for more on this.
5) You shouldn’t wash mushrooms, just wipe them clean.
The theory behind this one runs that, because mushrooms are so porous, washing them will turn them into soggy little sponges. If you were to leave them sitting in water for a while, that might be the case – but generally, a quick shower under the tap will clean them easily without any adverse effects – much easier than laboriously wiping them with a damp cloth, as is often advised.
6) Only flip meat once when you’re cooking it
Playing with food unnecessarily when you’re cooking it is a sin I’m often guilty of. I think it’s born of impatience. Flipping steak or other meat, be it inside or on the barbecue, is widely considered a particularly heinous offence. I’m not sure why. Anyway, it’s nonsense. Food Lab to the rescue again! Flipping your steak regularly will give it just as good a crust, help it cook more evenly, and it’ll even cook more quickly.
7) Pork must be served well done
This myth holds true for low-quality meat, but it’s just as much of a shame to cook a good piece of pork to death as it is a steak. In previous decades there was a risk of the disease trichinosis associated with pork, but this has largely been eliminated. You can serve pork pink, and it’s delicious. Just make sure you get your (free-range, organic) meat from a top-quality butcher whom you trust.
8) Adding salt to the water you use to cook dried pulses will make them tough.
Using dried pulses means soaking them overnight (this reduces the cooking time), then boiling them for an hour or so in a big pan of water. You’ll often see recipes that direct you not to add salt to the water until the last minute, or else the pulses will become tough. It’s not true. The only thing that adding salt to the water does is make the pulses a little saltier, and that can actually be desirable. If you want to season them, you might as well add it to the water from the start. (Want the science? It’s here, and it’s hefty.)
9) Removing the seeds from chillis will reduce the heat levels in a dish
If you’re worried about a dish being a little too hot to handle, spice-wise, then you’re often advised to remove the seeds from fresh chillis. This probably will work, but not for the reasons you think. The seeds themselves aren’t at all hot – the heat is all in the white membrane that connects them to the flesh of the fruit. When removing the seeds, most people inevitably cut away the membrane as well, so it works. But if you want to make sure your chilli won’t blow you away, do take care to really get rid of the membrane. (Though maybe you should just toughen up.)
10) Things keep longer in the fridge
Well, ok – most things do. But not everything – especially not bread. I’m frankly amazed and disappointed by the number of people – good cooks too – that I see keeping bread in the fridge in an attempt to prolong its life. CEASE AND DISIST, people. Bread will go stale more quickly in the fridge. Don’t believe me? Read this.
Were any of these news to you? (Or do you still want to argue they’re true?) Any other widely-held kitchen beliefs you think you can debunk? Let me know…