Cooking Myths Debunked
Finally, the truth behind those age-old food questions
Every cook has a trove of kitchen “wisdom,” from tricks for making cookies fluffier to why you should avoid oysters in the summer.
Here, Real Simple separates the fact from the fiction
TRUE OR FALSE? Using shortening instead of butter produces fluffier cookies.
ANSWER: True. Butter has water in it, and water means a thinner dough, which means a flatter cookie. Shortening (Crisco is one brand) contains no water, so it produces a cookie that stands taller than one made with only butter. “The trade-off is flavor,” says Emily Luchetti, pastry chef at the restaurant Farallon, in San Francisco, adding that even if a recipe calls for shortening alone, for more tasty results “you can use half butter, half shortening.” One trick Luchetti recommends to make all-butter cookies fluffy is to beat the butter-and-sugar mixture longer (5 minutes instead of 2) to whip in more air.
TRUE OR FALSE? Boiling a green vegetable causes it to lose all its nutrients.
ANSWER: False. Yes, green beans stewed until they are gray beans may have lost many of their nutrients -- mostly vitamins, which are water soluble, says chef and nutritionist Nancy Berkoff, R.D., a consultant with the Vegetarian Resource Group. But important minerals like iron and potassium don’t break down easily in water. “All vegetables, overcooked or not, are a good source of fiber, too,” says Berkoff. Your best bet: Steam them lightly to the desired consistency.
TRUE OR FALSE? Rum cake won’t get you drunk. All the alcohol cooks away in the oven.
ANSWER: False. Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, which is why people think it disappears in sauces and baked goods. But when simmering a sauce containing wine or liquor, up to 50 percent of the alcohol can remain, says Robert Wolke, author of What Einstein Told His Cook, and professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. The percentage depends on how long it simmers and other factors, like the size of the pan. When baking a cake, the evaporated alcohol must work its way out of the batter, so even less “burns off” than in an open pan. Wolke points out that rum is added for moisture as well as flavor. If it evaporated completely, the cake would be less moist.
TRUE OR FALSE? A raw potato added to an overly salty soup or stew will soak up the extra salt and save the meal.
ANSWER: False. “This is an attractive idea, but it doesn’t work,” says professor of chemistry Robert Wolke. “Potatoes are not particularly absorbent,” says Wolke, who conducted his own soup-and-potato experiment for his book. “There is no reason they would attract salt.” If you remove the potato from the soup, the potato will taste salty, but so would a sponge -- it has simply soaked up some of the salty liquid. Still, there is hope for salty stews: Adding a bit of vinegar or sugar can “cancel out” the saltiness by giving your taste buds competing flavors.
TRUE OR FALSE? You can keep baking soda and baking powder forever.
ANSWER: True and false. Baking soda will live to see your four-year-old get married. Baking powder has a shelf life of about a year. What’s the difference? Both are leavening agents, but baking powder contains an acid that allows it to react in recipes as soon as it gets wet, giving off the carbon dioxide that makes a cake rise. Baking soda has no acid; it relies on acids in the batter to activate it. If baking powder gets wet or is stored in a humid environment, its potency is diminished. To find out if your baking powder is still good, put some in a glass of water. If it bubbles, bake away. If not, head to the store
TRUE OR FALSE? Never rinse mushrooms; they should be brushed off with a towel.
ANSWER: True and false. Mushrooms are almost 90 percent water and very porous, so the key to washing them is to give them a shower, not a bath. “You can quickly rinse most mushrooms,” says Julie Petrovick of Modern Mushroom Farms, in Avondale, Pennsylvania. “Just don’t rinse to the point where they are soft.” Soaking mushrooms lets them absorb too much water; they’ll release excess liquid into your dish. For especially delicate varieties, such as oyster mushrooms, porcini, and chanterelles, stick to a special mushroom brush or a damp paper towel.
TRUE OR FALSE? Butter spoils when it’s not in the refrigerator.
ANSWER: False. Butter does spoil, but much more slowly than fresh (unfermented) milk products, such as, well, milk. The reason? “Most butter contains added salt, which impedes the growth of spoilage bacteria,” says John Bruhn, a dairy-foods processing specialist at the University of California at Davis. Today’s salted butter, in normal usage, will rarely spoil, even if you leave it unrefrigerated all the time. Unsalted butter might spoil in about a week, but it contains enough natural salt to slow the growth of bacteria that cause spoiling.
TRUE OR FALSE? Decaffeinated coffee has caffeine in it.
ANSWER: True. It’s not enough to keep you up all night, though. Between 97 and 99 percent of the caffeine is eliminated during the decaffeinating process. Coffee purists recommend the Swiss Water Process -- the beans are steamed, then soaked in hot water until their chemical structure swells, when a carbon filter draws out the caffeine. But some caffeine remains after the beans are dried and roasted. “If you drink 6 to 10 cups of decaf coffee a day, or if you are highly sensitive to caffeine, you might feel an effect from those minimal amounts,” says Darrin Daniel of the Allegro Coffee Company, a specialty coffee roaster based in Thornton, Colorado. One cup with dessert, however, should leave you sleeping easy.
Cleaning Tips. . .With a Twist
*Layers of dirty film on windows and screens provide a helpful filter against harmful and aging rays from the sun. Call it an SPF factor of 15 and leave it alone.
*Cobwebs: Artfully draped over lampshades reduce the glare from the bulb, thereby creating a romantic atmosphere. If someone points out that the light fixtures need dusting, simply look confused and exclaim, "What? And spoil the mood?" (Or just throw glitter on them and call them holiday decorations.)
*Pet Hair: Explain the mound of pet hair brushed up against the doorways by claiming you are collecting it there to use for stuffing hand-sewn play animals for underprivileged children. (Also keeps out cold drafts in winter.)
*Guests: If unexpected company is coming, pile everything unsightly into one room and close the door. As you show your guests through your tidy home, rattle the door knob vigorously, fake a growl and say, "I'd love you to see our den, but Fluffy hates to be disturbed and the shots are SO expensive."
*Dusting: If dusting is REALLY out of control, simply place a showy urn on the coffee table and insist that, "This is where Grandma wanted us to scatter her ashes."
*General Cleaning: Mix one-quarter cup pine-scented household cleaner with four cups of water in a spray bottle. Mist the air lightly. Leave dampened rags in conspicuous locations. Develop an exhausted look, throw yourself on the couch and sigh, "I clean and I clean and I still don't get anywhere."
*As a last resort: Light the oven, throw a teaspoon of cinnamon in a pie pan and explain that you have been baking cookies for a bake sale for a favorite charity and haven't had time to clean... Works every time.
*Another favorite: ( I think from Erma Bombeck) Always keep several get well cards on the mantle so if unexpected guests arrive, you can say you've been sick and unable to clean.