Myth Smashers

Home Office

    You know, in the days before science, people came up with some pretty weird reasoning to explain the world around them. Case in point: sailing off the edge of the Earth. Just plain weird. Of course, the early days of science weren't much better. For instance, Aristotle—clearly the finest mind of his age—believed that earthquakes were caused by wind ... underground wind. Pretty strange. Of course, myths are everywhere, I guess. Certainly true in the food world. Even today, the culinary world is full of axioms, rules, wives tales, even urban legends. Heck, if you can get it published on paper or get it on the internet and it's about food, people will believe that it is gospel. But is it?
    Well, somebody needs to find out and I see no reason why it shouldn't be us that does the findin'. So please join me for what I hope will become the first in a long line of episodes dedicated to shining the searing light of truth on the culinary world. I call it, "Culinary Myth Bust ..." [phone rings] Excuse me.

AB: Hello?

    It's my lawyer.

AB: Are you serious? Copyright infringement? Fines? Fine!

    As I was saying, please stay tuned for what I call, "Culinary Myth Smashers". Because the truth is always ...

Home Office

    If you own a cookbook written in the last hundred years that contains a recipe for roast, steak, chops or loins, you've probably read the words of Justus Von Liebig, a 19th-century German chemist, who first proposed that searing meat over high heat seals in the juices. This is a concept which is generally accepted to this day. But is it true? This one should be very easy to confront.

The Kitchen

Myth #1
Searing meat seals in juices?

GUESTS: Assistants #1 and #2

    If a good sear seals in juices, then it stands to reason that a seared piece of meat should weigh the same before and after cooking, right? I mean, if it were to lose a little bit of moisture, it certainly would not lose as much moisture as a piece of meat cooked without the benefit of a sear.

    So here we have two pieces of beef: lovely New York Strip steaks, I might add. Steak "A" weighs in at 307 grams, while steak "B" weighs in just a little lighter at 296 grams.



    One of our steaks will go directly into a 400 degree oven. The other steak will receive a fast sear in a rocket-hot cast iron skillet before moving to the oven.
    In order to better absorb the heat that's coming to them, we will lube each piece of meat with just a wee bit of oil. But because it would pull moisture out of the meat, thus throwing off our experiment, no salt will be added.

AB: Now, allez-cuisine!
ASSISTANTS: [not knowing what AB just said, they look at each other in confusion]
AB: Uh, let's get cooking!

    So both of our steaks go into the oven. We have our probes in place.

AB: There you go, gentlemen.

And we'll set our thermometers to go off at 140 degrees, which is basically medium.

AB: Clear? [meaning is everything ready?]

    Just as we suspected, the seared steak has reached 140 degrees first, so we will remove said steak and allow it to rest for 5 minutes. We'll be back for that one.

AB: Clear?

    I see that it required 4 more minutes for this steak to get up to 140 degrees. Time to extract. We'll also let this one rest for several minutes. Now will all this time differential have an effect on our final experiment? Only time will tell.

AB: Clear?

    And now, the moment of truth.

AB: Let's weigh them, fellas!

    Very interesting. As we see, steak "A", which began the day at 307 grams, is now down to 266 grams, for a net loss of 41 grams. And that is 13 percent of its total body weight. Okay? Roasted, rested, 13 percent loss.


    Steak "B", on the other hand began the day at 296 grams. It's now down to 237 grams. That's a net loss of 59 grams, or 19 percent of its body weight. Okay?


    So the seared, roasted and rested steak, 19 percent loss. The roasted and rested, 13 percent loss. Roasted Steak

Seared Steak

    Does it seem like a big deal? No, it's not a super-big deal, but it does prove a point. What's the point? Well, the point is, is that heat damages cells. And when cells are damaged, they lose moisture. It's just that simple. So obviously, searing doesn't seal juices. That's just another myth busted ... Smashed! I meant, I meant smashed.

Searing may no seal in juices but it does produce alot [sic] of flavor!

Home Office

    For those who monitor kitchen-based urban legends, reports of birds being killed by non-stick pans rank right up there with alligators in the New York sewer. For instance: June 6, 2001, Mariner's Rest Retirement Home.

Mariner's Rest Retirement Home

GUEST: Captain Jefferson Quint
            Polly the Parrot

    One Captain Jefferson Quint was in the midst of preparing his and his parrot's favorite dinner, blackened Spam, by heating up a new non-stick pan that he had received from his daughter as a birthday gift. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason ...

POLLY: [was sitting atop Quint's shoulder falls to the ground dead]
QUINT: [picks up the bird in horror]

    The old sailor rushed his bird to the vet, but it was too late.

Home Office

    An autopsy revealed that the bird died from fumes given off by the polytetrafluoroethylene—or PTFE—coating on the pan, when it crossed the 500 degree Fahrenheit line. You see, birds, especially exotics like parrots, are extremely vulnerable to toxic gases. That's why right up to the dawn of the 20th century, miners took canaries with them down into the coal mines to act as kind of living gas detectors. They knew that if the bird died, it was time to clear out.

Coal Mine

GUEST: Coal Miner

COAL MINER: Hi, birdie. Say hi, birdie. Ho ho, you're nappin'. Wakey-wakey. I said, wakey-wakey! Wakey-wakey, little birdie! Wakey ... [keels over dead]

Home Office

    Of course, if these gases can kill a bird, what's that mean to us? Hmm.

Non-stick cookware accounts for over 80%
of the cookware purchased in America.

The Kitchen

Myth #2
Fumes from overheated non-stick cookware can be fatal to birds?

    [AB tests the temperature of a non-stick skillet on the burner]

The experiment continues ...

AB: [to Assistants] Wow. 490 degrees. After only 3 minutes. Kill it.

    Another minute and the birds would be in serious trouble. And maybe the people too. See, some new research has shown that these fumes can cause flu-like symptoms that can last up to a couple of days in people. The key here, of course, is to not leave a non-stick vessel over or under high heat while it's empty. When there's food in the pan, of course, there's someplace for all that excess heat to go, so it's okay.
    Still, at my house I've got a few rules. I don't use non-stick for any cooking method requiring a super-hot pan. I don't sear in it. I don't blacken in it. I don't even like to sauté in non-stick. And I sure as heck would never broil anything on a non-stick surface. Still, I own a lot of it. I like it. I've got muffin tins, cake pans. Heck, I've even got a nice griddle here that I use for nothing but making pancakes. But I never use it over anything but medium heat, okay?
    So what does it come down to here? Well, if the old sailor had preferred his meat fried, rather than blackened, Polly would still be sitting on his shoulder.

ASSISTANT #1: It's the truth.
ASSISTANT #2: It's factual.
AB: So, pan fumes kill bird? This is no myth. This is a stone-cold food fact.

Home Office

    Know what this is? This is an instrument of torture. It's called a mushroom brush. Now when you're first starting out in the restaurant business, you spend a lot of time with one of these. And it's not a very good time. Now why would you want to brush a mushroom? Well, because they grow in dirt. Well, actually it's not dirt. It's compost. But it's pasteurized compost, so it's safe. But it still doesn't taste very good. It's got to come off. So why not just wash it off? Good question. Allow me to read from a respected culinary tome on the subject. Ah, mushroom ... there.

"Mushrooms are extremely porous. And because of that, they will absorb any water or other moisture they are placed in. Because of this, they should never be washed, only cleaned with a fine bristle brush."

Which leads us back to the instrument of torture. So is this fact or is it fiction? Well, I for one believe there's a very, very easy way to find out.

The Kitchen

Myth #3
Washing mushrooms causes them to absorb alot [sic] of water?

    Our experiment begins with 4 ounces of button mushrooms, which we will then move into a hand strainer set inside a bowl, alongside 4 other hand strainers in 4 other bowls, all containing 4 ounces of button mushrooms. Now to these, we will then add a liter apiece of water.

4 Ounces Button Mushrooms

1 Liter Water

AB: [to his Assistants] Except the one on the end. Leave the one on the end empty. Just go ahead. Pour that right on there, guys. Very nice.

    The one on the end, I have got other plans for. Excellent, excellent. We're just going to let those soak. Now phase 1 is only going to be for 10 minutes. So I'm going set my timer and walk away.
    Ten minutes is up. So now we extract the mushrooms from the first bowl of water, and allow them to drain very, very thoroughly, for at least 30 seconds. In the meantime, I'm going to reset for another 10 minutes, and man the scales.
    Now, if you remember, we started with 4 ounces of mushrooms, and now we have 4.2 ounces of mushrooms. That means that after a 10-minute soak in cold water, these mushrooms only sucked up ... well, right around a teaspoon of water. And I'm willing to bet that 90 percent of that is actually up inside the stems because they're very fibrous and kind of vein-like. I'll be very interested to see what another 10 minutes brings.
    So another 10 minutes has elapsed. That means this next set of mushrooms has been in the drink now for 20 minutes. We're going to let that drain thoroughly before hitting the scales. And of course, we will set our clock one more time for 10 minutes.
    Now we see that what once was 4 ounces of mushrooms has now ballooned to 4.25 ounces of mushrooms. Very curious. Now if we can use the last batch as any kind of indicator, that means that the extra 10 minutes of soak only brought in another 0.05 ounces of water. Which is only really, I don't know, 10 drops maybe. It'll be interesting to see what the next set says.
    I, for one, am glad that the timed portion of this experiment is over. We now, of course, extract the third batch of mushrooms, drain and weigh.
    After a 30-minute soak, these 4 ounces of mushrooms now weigh 4.15 ounces. Now I am willing to accept that differences in the individual mushrooms may have resulted in this batch soaking up less than the 20-minute batch. But what's important is that basically, after 5 minutes, these mushrooms stopped soaking up water. All of them soaked up what is essentially a teaspoon of water. Very, very interesting.
    Now you may have noted that I have decided to weigh all of these with the avoirdupois method, meaning ounces, pounds and what-not, instead of metrically, as we did the steaks, and there's a very good reason for that, which is that when I changed the battery in the scale, I forgot to flip the metric thing. But it doesn't matter, we've learned something here. One last experiment, and it has to do with those dry mushrooms over there.
    Before we hand down the verdict on this whole mushroom-washing thing, I think that we should see if there's a difference between soaking in cold water and giving them a good spray.

AB: [turns on the sink faucet] Toss around a little.
ASSISTANT: [tosses the mushrooms under the water in a sieve]

After all, this is how most of us who would wash mushrooms, would wash them at home. Great. Drain, then we weigh.
    After a cold blast of water, our 4 ounces of mushrooms weigh 4.2 ounces. Exactly the same as the mushrooms that soaked for 10 minutes. Curious.
    So as it turns out, mushrooms do soak up a little, teeny-weentsie bit of water, but it doesn't matter whether they get a quick spray or a 10-minute soak, or really, even a 30-minute soak. They just don't take in much water. So I don't know about you, I'm going to wash my mushrooms, and I'm going to consider this myth smashed to bits.

The cell walls of mushrooms are made of chitin, the
same substance that makes up an insect's exoskeleton.

Home Office

    [examining something with a magnifying glass] Mmm. Interesting.
    [startled] Hey, have you ever cooked pasta? Of course you have. And I bet you've heard that old saying about the fact that adding oil to the water will keep the noodles from sticking together, right? I mean, pasta purveyors and recipe writers have been telling us this for centuries. And given the lubricative powers of oil, it does make sense. But making sense don't make it so. I think it's time to either uphold a culinary truth or smash another myth.

The Kitchen

Myth #4
Adding oil to pasta water will prevent
the noodles from sticking to each other?

    Here we have 128 ounces, that is, 1 gallon of water. To that, we are going to add 1 tablespoon of olive oil. And I'm using basil olive oil here because it's nice and green and will show up later. For flavor, we will also add a couple of heavy pinches of kosher salt. We will put this to high heat and, because we would like for this to come to a boil as quickly as possible, we will apply a lid.

1 Gallon Water +
1 Tbs. Olive Oil

2 Heavy Pinches of Kosher

    There. We have serious boilage. So we will add one-half pound of pasta. And we'll just push that down with our trusty tongs, and we will drop the heat a couple of clicks to medium-high and let this cook until it's al dente.

1/2 Pound Pasta

AB: [hands the tongs to an Assistant] There you go, gentlemen.

[time passes]

AB: [takes a strand of pasta out of the water] Here, taste ... [notes the Assistants are wearing masks and can't taste] Oh, never mind.

    [eats the noodle] Mmm. That's perfect. Now what we have to do is separate the water from the pasta, and the oil from the water. This would be very easy if we had a laboratory-style centrifuge, but we're on a budget here. So we'll have to try something else.

AB: Lid it.
AB & ASSISTANTS: [dump the pasta and the water in to a colander which is on top of a very long, graduated tube to]

    Excellent, excellent! Now all we have to do is let the pasta drain, and then give just a few minutes for the oil to rise to the top. Excellent.
    Hmm. Let's see. Our oil column is one-quarter inches deep and 2 inches across, so pi-r-squared times cubic inches ... Blah, blu-blah, bu-blah.

AB: Do you have it? Do you have it? Do you have it? Do you have it?
AT: [hands calculations to AB]

    Excellent. That means that what we have here is 0.43 ounces of olive oil. That means that we actually recaptured about 85, maybe 86 percent of the original oil. Which means that all this water and all that pasta up there has managed to absorb—or in another way possess—only about half a teaspoon, maybe, of oil, which I seriously doubt is enough to lubricate each and every one of those noodles. Of course, there could be another reason for putting oil in pasta water. Come on.
    Say you come home and you're hungry, so you put on a pot of water for pasta. You bring it to a boil, then you put the pasta in. Then it's not boiling anymore. So you put on a lid. Then you turn around, and you find this big, nasty mess happening. See that big pile of bubbles? That happens because as it cooks, the pasta washes off starch into the water and that changes the surface tension creating this big foam. It's kind of like when you go to the beach on a windy day and you see those big things of foam on the waves; only that's protein and this is starch.
    Now if you were to add a good bit of oil to the water before you started this whole process, then there's a very good chance that the chemical bonds in the starch would get so lubricated that the bubbles couldn't form. No bubbles, no foam, no boiling over. And let's face it. That doesn't look very much like good eats. The more practical answer to the problem, really, though, is to simply use a bigger pot and more water, okay? That way the noodles have plenty of room to move around so they cook nice and evenly. The starch dissipates to the point that they just ... there's no bubblicious-ness in them ... at all ... if you know what I mean. No bubbles.
    Anyway, my rule, at least in my house, is that I never cook in less than half a gallon of water, and that is when I only have 2 servings worth. If I've got more than 2 servings, I go with a full gallon of water, and I make sure that I've got a pot that has at least 2, and even better would be 3 inches of open space between the water and the top of the pot. That way my noodles never stick together and I never have this kind of nasty mess.
    And so, another myth bites the dust.

Do not rinse pasta after cooking. Rinsing washes
away the starch that helps sauces to adhere.

Home Office

    [surfing the internet] Great Scott! Microwave Implicated in Exploding Water Mishap! This I've got to see.

The Kitchen

Myth #5
Heating water in the microwave can cause it to explode?

GUEST: Jeff Hudson, Microwave Super Freak

    [pulls a measuring cup of hot water out of the microwave, it doesn't explode] Mmm. I don't know. I think we've got another myth on our hands. [knock on door]

AB: Come in.
JEFF: Hey Alton, what are you doing?
AB: Hey, come on in, Jeff!

    It's my friend Jeff.

AB: Say Jeff, you're a microwave freak, aren't you?
JH: I'm more of a microwave super-freak.
AB: Excellent. Well maybe you can help me. I read on the internet that I could make this cup of water blow up.
JH: Not with that container.
AB: What kind of container do I need?
JH: What you need is one of these. [glass container full of water]
AB: Excellent. Okay, what do I do?
JH: Take the lid off.
AB: Okay.
JH: Put that baby in there for 3 minutes on high.
AB: Okay, 3 minutes on high.

[the water spins around in the microwave and explodes out the top]

Professionals in a closed ???
Do not attempt ???

[editor note: FN graphics covered the GE text, any help on the actual wordage would be appreciated]

AB: Wow. Jeff, what just happened here?
JH: Spontaneous boiling.
AB: What's that?
JH: Superheating the water: taking the temperature of the water above the boiling point with no bubbles.
AB: How did this happen?
JH: With a vessel like this, you have no nucleation sites on the inside ...
AB: What's a nucleation site?
JH: It's a scratch on the inside, a place where the molecules of the water can collect, create steam.
AB: Okay, so it's kind of like a bubble birthplace.
JH: Exactly.
AB: Okay, what about the shape of the bottle? Does that make a difference?
JH: The shape of the bottle's important. You have a very small surface area at the top. It keeps the water very still, very stable.
AB: Ah, still and stable right up until it blows out all over my microwave. I mean, what happens then?
JH: Well, you've loaded so much energy into the water ...
AB: Mm, hm.
JH: ... that it just becomes one big bubble.
AB: And then ... [makes explosion sounds]
JH: All over the place.
AB: ... all over the place. So what can I do in everyday life to prevent this from happening?
JH: Well first of all, use a container that has a very wide opening at the top.
AB: Okay.
JH: Heat it for about a minute. Stop. Give it a stir.
AB: Okay.
JH: Heat it the rest of the way.
AB: Okay, so if I'm going to boil water, I should stop it every minute or two, give it a stir, and do it in a wide-mouthed vessel.
JH: Exactly. Just give it moving.
AB: Excellent.

    So. It seems that we are not dealing with a myth here. The exploding microwave water is a cold, hard food fact.

Home Office

    Well there you have it. The truth, when it comes to conventional culinary wisdom, isn't always 100 percent true. You know, cooking is both a science and an art. But that doesn't mean it ever has to be mysterious. There are answers in every kitchen, just waiting to be discovered.
    In other words, the truth is out there! And it tastes good.

AB: [to his Assistants] So, guys, you ready to go try that liquid-oxygen-in-the-grill myth? Huh?
ATS: [they start doing the happy dance]
AB: Yeah. All right. Go set it up. Go set it up. I'll be there in a minute.

    See you next time on Myth Smashers ... and Good Eats.

AB: I'm coming, wait up!

Transcribed by Mike DiRuscio
Proofread by Michael Menninger

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010