No one knows for sure exactly when the art of cooking started, but we do know, from archeological evidence, it was soon after the first deliberate use of fire by Neanderthals. It was undoubtedly when the first cooking myths were started as well. Cooking myths get passed down, from father to son, mother to daughter, generation after generation, for so long that many are taken as incontrovertible facts, no matter how much evidence to the contrary is produced. As a result, in the modern world of science and technology, there is still a plethora of common cooking myths.
How these myths get started is also a mystery. It is possible that some started out as legitimate health concerns. At one time, in Europe, tomatoes were considered a deadly poison. They were partially right….the leaves of the tomato plant are a very toxic poison to humans (they are a member of the Sumac family), but the fruit is delectable. Likewise with the dietary bans on pork by many religions. Pork carries a parasite that causes a severe medical condition in humans called trichinosis. However, it is easily avoided by simply cooking the meat to an internal temperature of at least 160°F. This kills the little hitchhikers. If they’d only known, many famines could have been avoided. Dietary bans on scavengers and other foods have a similar origin. Another possible reason is that many (most) cooks, especially professional ones, are very possessive of our recipes and techniques. When forced to part with a recipe, it is common to leave out, or change an ingredient. I would be surprised if some of these myths hadn’t started out as deliberate misinformation to throw off competition.
Here are some of the more common cooking myths:
Searing Meat Seals In The Juices – you can disprove this simply by watching the meat while you are cooking it. Observe, the juices flowing from the meat, and the color will tell you when it is done. Without flowing juices and fat, gravy would be impossible (and for many of us, so would life, as we know it). What searing does do is to create many chemical high-heat reactions with the various proteins and enzymes in the meat. This results in many new flavors that would not be possible otherwise. Let me taste any hamburger, steak or other piece of grilled meat and I can tell you whether or not it has been seared. Searing creates a new depth of complexity to any food on a grill. But it most certainly does not seal in any juices. If that were true, then the meat would explode, because liquid expands as it gets hotter. It has to go somewhere.
Oil And Water Will Not Mix – complete nonsense. How else would we get gravy, Hollandaise Sauce, Mayonnaise, or any of the other wonderful things that come from my favorite place in the world…the kitchen? Granted, it does take a little manipulation, and the addition of an emulsifier (usually an egg), but oil and water can be made to mix. What happens is that the proteins in the egg, mostly the yolk, bond to both the oil molecules, and the water molecules, gluing them together.
Green Vegetables Lose Color When Over-Cooked – this is another partial truth. Under normal circumstances, immersing green vegetables in hot water will cause an immediate expansion of the cellular structure, causing a release of gases which allow more of the chlorophyl to be visible. This makes them appear greener. Further cooking allows the chlorophyl to leach into the water, causing the vegetables to lose some color. This can be easily prevented by either adding a bit of baking soda to the water, making it more alkaline, and slowing the reaction down, or by cooking at a lower temperature for a bit longer. Another way to prevent it is to add ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) to the soaking water before cooking, and allow the vegetables to soak in it for 20-30 minutes before cooking. This also slows down the reaction, as well as improving the texture of the cooked vegetables.
Leaving The Seed In Guacamole Will Prevent It From Turning Dark. This is one of the most persistent myths around. Anyone who has ever tried this knows it is false, but the myth still persists. Guacamole, avocados, bananas, apples, potatoes, and similar fruits and vegetables will all turn dark when exposed to air. This is because they contain an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase. When exposed to oxygen, this enzyme creates new chemical bonds, causing red-brown pigmentation. This is what turns the flesh dark. The way to slow this reaction down is to add an acid, such as lemon, lime juice, or vinegar. This changes the chemical environment within the fruit, or vegetable, and prevents the reaction.
Putting Oil In The Cooking Water Will Keep Pasta From Sticking To Itself – If you watch when you do this, you will notice that the oil floats on top of the water. It has no effect on the pasta whatsoever, and will wind up going down the drain. A tragic waste of perfectly good olive oil. To keep pasta from clumping, don’t add it until the water is boiling, use plenty of water, and stir often. What makes the pasta stick is the starch in it. When the pasta is done, strain it in a colander, and rinse it well with cold water. This does two things. It stops the pasta from further cooking, and rinses the excess starch off. This makes the pasta nice and springy, and it won’t be sticky. If it will be sitting for a bit while you prepare the sauce, you can toss it with a small amount of olive oil to keep it from drying out. When you are ready to serve the pasta, simply run hot water over it until it is hot again, add the sauce and serve.
There are many more common cooking myths, but you can debunk them easily with a little common sense, and direct observation.