Cooking Myths Debunked
Myth: Using Shortening Makes Cookies Fluffier
Butter has water in it, and water means a thinner dough, which means a flatter cookie. Shortening contains no water, so it always 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 help make all-butter cookies fluffy is to beat the butter-and-sugar mixture longer―say, 5 minutes instead of 2―to whip in more air.
. 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.
Myth: Alcohol Bakes Off in the Oven
False. You won't be drunk after eating one piece of Aunt Jean's rum cake, but there is still some alcohol in it. Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, which is why people think it disappears in sauces and baked goods. But when you simmer a sauce containing wine or liquor, up to 50 percent of the alcohol can remain, says Robert Wolke, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained ($45, amazon.com). The percentage depends on how long it simmers and other factors, like the size of the pan. When you’re baking a cake, the evaporated alcohol has to work its way out of the batter, so even less will “burn off” than in an open pan. Wolke also points out that rum is added for moisture as well as flavor. If it evaporated completely, you’d be left with a cake that wouldn’t be as moist as it should be.
Myth: Drinking Alcohol Every Day Is Good for You
In moderation. You’ve heard that wine protects against heart disease. But in reality, any alcoholic drink helps raise HDL (good cholesterol), since it’s the alcohol―not wine in particular―that does it. That means beer and spirits are good, too, says R. Curtis Ellison, M.D., a professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine. But don’t drink yourself under the table just yet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines moderate drinking for women as just one drink a day (5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1½ ounces of 80-proof spirits), which is enough to keep blood platelets loose and cut down on clogged arteries.
Myth: A Potato Can Save a Salty Soup or Stew
"This is an attractive idea, but it doesn’t work because 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 raw 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.
Myth: Baking Soda and Baking Powder Last Forever
True and false.
Baking soda will live to see your 4-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.
Myth: Mushrooms Should Never Be Rinsed
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.
Myth: Butter Spoils if Not Refrigerated
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. So you don’t have to worry if you forget to put the butter away after dinner.
Myth: Decaffeinated Coffee Contains Caffeine
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, in which the beans are steamed, then soaked in hot water until their chemical structure swells, at which point 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.