Debunking food myths

old wives

Believing everything my Mother told me, I’ll take to my grave certain “truths” which I never bothered to test out.

Does cold water really boil faster than hot? Does a warm lemon produce more juice than a cold one?  Will stepping on a crack break your mother’s back?  I always thought so, and to this day I stroll along avoiding the cracks as best I can which gives me the gate of Frankenstein.


Old-style chefs and cooks grew up learning “truths” from grandmothers, aunts and friends who learned them from their grandmothers, aunts and friends.  These days, we’re a little more empirical, but there are still a lot of questions out there.

But listen, if your grandmother told you that baking powder lasts forever (soda does, powder doesn’t) far be it from me to try and convince you otherwise. But let me at least free you from a few myths that I hear far too often. And feel free to add others but try, please, to be accurate.   Below are a few misleading old wives tales according to the New York Times.  (I take it and everything else the NYT writes with a grain of sand.)

1. “Searing meat seals in the juices.”
Nope, sorry. While searing does create more flavor, both in the browned meat and the pan juices, it doesn’t actually “seal” the juices in.

2. “Never wash mushrooms; they’ll absorb the water.”
Here, it depends what you mean by “wash.” Mushrooms are made up mostly of water, and they are porous — but they’re also grown in dirt, which can stick to them, and you really don’t want to eat dirt. To clean mushrooms, rinse them – don’t soak them – and don’t worry about a little water.

3. “Don’t add salt to beans before cooking or they won’t soften.”
Been working on this one for 20 years, and I think I can safely say that the salting only changes the texture of the beans because it changes the way they absorb water. But the difference—a little grittiness and breaking apart, which is largely determined by the type of bean anyway—is relatively subtle. Seasoning the beans is far more important, and one of the best Italian cooks I know insists that beans be salted during soaking or at least from the start of cooking. (And her beans are delicious.) So salt whenever you like.

4. “Putting an avocado pit in the guacamole keeps it from turning brown.”
Actually, the pit will block the air from turning the guacamole directly under it brown, but then again so would a rock, and the exposed guacamole will still color. Use plastic wrap and you should be fine. (It is true that you can help an avocado – or almost anything else – ripen, by putting it in a brown paper bag with a banana.)

5. “The fastest way to bake a potato is in a microwave.”
No. You can steam a potato in a microwave. Or, most accurately, soften one through magic little rays. But you won’t get a baked potato without dry heat.

6. “All the alcohol burns off when you cook with wine or spirits.”
While you won’t get drunk off a red wine sauce, all the alcohol doesn’t cook off. If you simmer for hours, most of the alcohol does go away. But if you simmer for 20 minutes, up to 50 percent of it can stick around. (If you flambe, only a little bit of alcohol burns off.) And even less alcohol escapes during baking, because the booze has to work its way out of the batter. Not always a bad thing, of course.

7.  Stepping on a crack will not break your mother’s back or all mother’s on the planet would be in traction.

2 thoughts on “Debunking food myths

  1. These are so interesting to know. Wish you would post some of the old home remedies for household and medicine that do work. I just read the vinegar will kill weeds. Gonna try that one in my flower bed. I just wish they had a book to buy on old grandmas remedies for everything. I notice that most medicine they give now doesn’t work but just enough to keep you from coming back. When Dr. Feddy was living, if you had something wrong, he would give you something that would “heal” it for good.
    Love ya girl! Keep the good stuff coming!

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