The Gastronomist Manifesto

Chefs of the World Unite!

10 Myths That Ruin the Experience of Food

10. “Run your eggs under cold water after you boil them hard.”

This isn’t so much myth as silly practice. To make hard-boiled eggs you have approximately 8-11 minutes while you wait for them to cook. That’s ample time to take a large bowl, fill it with ice and water, and let it sit until the eggs are done. And to cook an egg well, while we’re on the subject, never drop an egg into boiling water. First put eggs into the room temperature water you’re cooking with, then apply heat. When a boil happens, stop boiling, turn the heat to low or off and start timing. When the timer buzzes, take the eggs from the cooking water, throw them in the ice bath. Peel, serve, done.

Why do it this way? A. Eggs are not only easier to make if you don’t try to drop them into dangerously boiling water–risk burning yourself or breaking the shell–but it makes them better too. Eggs that go from cool to boiling that fast get a more grainy texture. A slow application of heat changes how the proteins line up and makes for better texture. B. So does over-cooking, meaning 8-11 minutes of time, no more! By the way, salmonella is mostly on the shell of an egg, so cooking the inside to death isn’t going to make eggs safer in any real way. C. Finally, chill your eggs fast. Not only does this let you decide exactly when cooking stops, prevents that nasty blue halo around the yolk but it also makes them easier to peel as cold causes the insides to shrink away from the shell. And for you salmonella junkies who are terrified of eggs–it’s safer, as it moves the egg from the anti-bacterial heat to the anti-bacterial cold quicker. The best way to avoid getting sick from eggs is to buy cage-free or farm-raised eggs, as the less chickens are packed into small cages the less they share their germs.

9. “The way to eat sushi is to place wasabi and a slice of ginger on top, then dip it in soy sauce and eat (or some similar combo.)”

This is facepalm stuff. No, this is not how you ever eat any sushi ever. Nor do you mix the wasabi into the soy (I do this sometimes, but it’s because I like a bit of kick in the soy, not because it’s the norm.) Stop this practice all together as a matter of habit.

Step one: use your hands (which is not bad manners in sushi bars!) or chopsticks to pick up the sushi. Step two: eat it. So why then do restaurants and pre-packaged places give you those three things?! The ginger is only meant to be a palette cleanse, meaning it takes the taste of the last thing you ate away so you can appreciate better the next thing you will eat. The soy and wasabi are meant mainly for sashimi and nigiri–the raw fish and raw fish on rice. It’s good for rolls too, but you still do not dunk it in, unless you’re a soy sauce junky or want to cover the taste of bad sushi, because the sushi chef who you are paying to cook for you is making the flavor. The soy sauce is like salt and pepper on the table, it’s not provided because you’re expected to do your own seasoning.

8. “Stuffing a turkey on Thanksgiving gives the stuffing and turkey more flavor.”

Stuffing a turkey accomplishes three things:
1. You lose the ability to judge cooking time because instead of the weight of your bird you now have to include all the stuff you packed into it too.
2. Rather than baste itself in juices, the bird is leeching it’s moisture into the bread. Essentially, you stuffed meat with a sponge.
3. As for the stuffing itself, you now surrendered all control of its cooking time, consistency as well.

Stuffing alters the way heat circulates and moves in an oven. What happens is you’ll end up having to cook the bird too long to get the temperature of both the outer-skin area meat to temp as you do the inner part nuzzling with bread and seasoning. As I said, the stuffing is a sponge to pull moisture out of the bird as it cooks. And when you have stuffing cooked inside a bird it will have both soggy and state parts, because the added moisture is not distributed evenly.

Cook stuffing separately. You can stuff a turkey, but just do not use dry bread, a food notorious for sucking moisture out of things.

Why did some of our ancestors do it then? Think of it this way, you want to feed a lot of people and make it all taste reasonably well. In order to stretch the value of a slaughtered turkey, you also used some old bread lying around, placed it in the cavity of the bird to make it moist/edible again, and now you have both a whole bird AND a side dish of flavored dry bread so more people can eat.

One quick one too on turkey myths: “turkey makes you sleepy because it has tryptophan.” It does, and tryptophan might make you sleepy, but that’s not the reason. Tryptophan is far more abundant in eggs, shellfish and spinach than turkey. The reason you’re sleepy is you just ate a shitload of food.

7. “Microwaves kill nutrients in food; in fact it’s healthier to eat a raw diet.”

No offense to the raw dieters of the world, but you’re doing it half-wrong.

Microwaving does not kill anything any differently from other conventional cooking methods. As “scientific” as a microwave seems, the method it cooks with is basically the same as any other cooking method: apply waves of thermal radiation. I think two reasons people associate microwaves as dangerous is: an inner primitivism that’s scared by what they can’t see and words like “microwaves,” and more simply because people typically cook bad food in them (a can of Campbell’s soup is what is gross, not the heating method.) And as I’ve said, microwaves do put Radiation into your food. So does a stove. That’s called “cooking.”

Tips on microwaving: it’s a notoriously uneven heat. So if you’re cooking with it either stop and stir/rotate a lot, or give food time to rest after it’s done (the hot parts will actually cook the cold parts.) And above all, don’t feel cheap, ever, for using a microwave. If you struggle with microwave prejudice, start thinking of it as a “microwave oven” instead, because that is essentially what it is, a kind of oven.

With “raw is healthier” it’s a good guideline but beyond that just a silly myth. Cooking doesn’t “kill nutrients,” as if nutrients were some singular class of things that all march single file. There is most definitely a good reason to not over-cook vegetables and fruit, and in methods of cooking; but, to then say all cooking is bad is just a sweeping, irrational generalization. Nutrients are not a thing, but dozens and dozens of chemicals with widely-varying properties. A lot of foods become actually more nutritious for you if you cook them, because cooking can break down useless chains of molecules into substances that our bodies actually do need.

6. “A real hot pan will get that bacon extra crisp so long as you drain the fat.”

Two myths here about the food equivalent of crack cocaine. For starters, a very hot pan or skillet will lead to uneven cooking, even if you turn. It’ll cause that wrinkling feature to happen, which then leads to bacon that has crisp and soggy parts to it because it was on the pan unevenly. Cook slow. Bacon will crisp if you give it time but it hates to be rushed. And don’t drain the fat off. If your worried about fat content, you shouldn’t be eating bacon to start with, and furthermore that liquid isn’t making the bacon soggy. It’s hot fat; the substance that makes things like tempura or french fries crispy. Relax.

5. “Drain AND rinse your pasta or your noodles will be sticky. A little oil in the cooking water helps too.”

So much wrong with this, aside from draining. First of all, rinsing cooked pasta pushes all the starches resting off of it, the starches which cause sauce to stick to a noodle. And there are two things that typically cause pasta to clump/stick together: initial cooking and what happens after straining. The worst is with the most common spaghetti. Now you don’t have to stir pasta as it cooks, nor should you. Pasta is like an angry loner; doesn’t want you messing with it and it doesn’t want to be around a lot of it’s peers. When you add pasta, give it a few stirs at first to make sure noodles don’t stick to each other, but after a minute or so the water will itself form the barrier to pasta stick-age and you can let it go.

Another reason noodles are sticky is because they were cooked and left to sit out for too long. Noodles are starch, and starches tend to congeal as they cool. It turns into glue, and as wheat paste was historically used as glue, I’m not being terribly hyperbolic. Noodles should either be cooked and finished the same time as the sauce and served, or better should go right into the sauce. The image of sauce being ladled onto a bed of pasta is iconic, but if you want to eat pasta like Italians do rather than advertising agencies do, just mix it all up.

Finally, on the pasta myth, don’t put oil in your cooking water. The only thing that does legitimately is cut down the frothing, but if frothing is a problem for you to begin with then you’re either using wayyyyyy too little water or your heat is way too intense. Oil, however, can be a great way to prevent stick-age! Only don’t put it in the water (which you’re going to drain 99% of anyway) but just a splash added to well-drained pasta, plus a gentle mixing, will do miracles (and unlike what I said about rinsing, a little oil also binds noodle to sauce even if oil itself is “slippery.”)

4. “Dough-based foods cooked in water (dumplings, gnocchi, pierogi, matzo balls, etc.) are done when they float.”

This is a funny one to me because it has such a magical sort of quality to it, plus it involves very “comfort food” items for me.

The reason this things float is not because they are done, but because dough has a particular surface area that is great for collecting bubbles (aka, that stuff in a pot of boiling water!) The bubbles adhere to the food and act like waterwings to lift it up. It has nothing to do with the food itself. So why do people keep saying this? Easy, because the time it takes gnocchi to cook is about the same time it takes for the bubbles to accumulate. And I guess this is only half-myth because the bigger the thing you’re putting into the pot is, the longer it takes to cook and the longer for bubbles to push it to buoyancy. However, it should be taken as a rule-of-thumb and no more–like saying a meat is cooked when juices run clear.

3. “_____ item should be kept refrigerated or it’ll go bad.”

There are many variations of this one with many variations on its veracity.

Take one example: eggs. Eggs go in the fridge or else they’ll spoil, it’s said. But why are there eggs in the first place? If eggs really did spoil if not refrigerated then chickens would be screwed. Ever see a hen stick her eggs in a fridge before? No. Eggs you eat aren’t hatchable eggs, and that matters some, but not as much as people think. The reason eggs are refrigerated is because bacteria grow on them, mostly on the shell, but even this is only very rarely a danger. So if you somehow forgot and left eggs on the counter for hours, don’t panic and toss them. They are fine. This rule changes though if they aren’t in the shell, if you crack an egg and leave it raw on the counter for hours, it’s bad.

Many vegetables: notably onions, potatoes and tomatoes. Some vegetables have to be refrigerated to keep and some actually lose flavor if you do (cold kills a tomato.) So how do you know besides memorize everything? A good rule is to distinguish “real” vegetables from fruits or the root of vegetables IF they have a sort of skin. Broccoli is a “real” vegetable, it is the plant itself and should be cold. Tomatoes are technically fruit, and they do best out of the fridge in a cool place. Potatoes and onions are roots and have skins, so they stay out of the fridge. A carrot is a root, but has no skin, so must be kept cold.

Butter and cheese. With cheese it’s always going to vary on what type of cheese you’re talking about. Most cheese you’re probably apt to use, and all shredded cheeses you buy in bags, should be cold and kept at the top of your fridge (it’s warmer there.) Some cheeses you never need to chill. Most cheese also takes a long time to spoil if left out so long as it’s not cooked. Butter can also be left out and wont go bad. This is true so long as you’re not the USDA. The USDA has its reasons, but this is the thing, butter/cheese that become dangerous when left out were already contaminated or picked it up from your kitchen. It’s like catching a cold from not keeping warm in winter; it should be obvious that cold air doesn’t cause the flu, but being under-dressed does make you more susceptible to germs. So it’s not “totally” safe to keep butter out, but it’s also not “totally dangerous.”

2. “Bread gets stale if all the moisture falls out.”

The reason bread goes stale is because the sugars in the bread change their chemical structure. Bread is like a living food, on a microscopic level it’s always moving and changing (unless it’s industrial, processed bread, which is like the zombie of breads.) When those sugars move they condense and form chains of starches that are tough and rigid. Moisture has very little to do with this, except that it is a factor in how quickly the chemical changes happen. If you buy bakery bread, just keep it out of the fridge and in a dry place. At the bake shop I worked at we used to sell some breads in plastic bags; that’s not to keep moisture from escaping, it was to keep it from getting in.

Reviving stale bread is easy; almost everyone knows how these days: you reheat it in the oven. And note how this process does NOTHING to add water and in fact does something you never do when trying to moisten food–throw it in an oven. What it does is break up the congealed starch chains and makes them small, loose and easy to pierce with your teeth again.

1. “You have to sear your meat to lock in those juices!”

No! This has been disproved time and again, searing does not affect the juiciness of the final product in anyway shape or form. Now before you get all “But! …” I’m gonna have to stop you like Kanye West. The reason you or your chef put  a sear on a piece of meat, which then lead to a more tender piece, has the simplest explanation: the cook just knew how to cook meat well.

That’s all there is to that “sear it!” logic. A good cook can get a good sear, which is ONLY to create that browned, crisp taste and texture that any meat eater with good taste knows is sooooo good. Searing also creates the vibe of cooking quickly and then cooking very little after–very important! It’s the overall combo of the intensity of the heat and the time its applied that affects the juiciness of meat the most. So searing then also lends to another general rule of good steaks, tuna, etc. not over-cooking is also better for taste and texture. Well-done steaks are nasty steaks. And that is really ALL that should be said for this searing phenomenon.


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