We look Closer at Commonly held Misconceptions in the Kitchen to Uncover the Truth
Can you be sure that all you have been taught about cooking is really correct? With the help of a little bit of science we find out
Article by Sam Sinha
Culinary expertise has been passed down through many many generations, and we have amassed a cavernous vault of knowledge between us. Amongst this fantastic collective wisdom, there are certain ideas which are often taught as facts but that under scrutiny, turn out to be completely untrue. This can be harmless, but it often entails the pervasion of poor kitchen habits and ultimately bad cooking. By exposing these culinary myths and using science to dispel any misinformation, we can all become better informed, better cooks.
- Browning meat locks in flavour and juices
This is my favourite misconception because it is espoused by most celebrity chefs and is completely false. Sealing meat is usually a good idea, but it does nothing to ‘lock in’ anything. The browning that takes place when a piece of meat is seared in a pan is called the ‘maillard’ reaction, and is a magical interaction of sugars and amino acids that gives that toasty, caramelised flavour to so many grilled meats, and other foods like nuts, biscuits, cakes, vegetables and many more. So flavour is not locked in by searing – rather it is enhanced by the process.
It is also not the case that juices are locked in by browning, as anyone who has cooked a steak in a pan will realise. There are always juices left in the pan, where did they come from if they are all sealed into the meat? The way to ensure juicy meat is not to overcook it, and to rest it properly.
- This meat is pumped full of water, I can see it in the pan
It is true brine is injected into certain foods like bacon to cure the meat faster and perhaps to bulk out the product. The solution to this is to buy dry cured bacon and better quality meat. However, the reason water is coming out of meat in a pan is because meat is mostly made up of water. Water always comes out of meat when it is subjected to heat.
If there is excess water in the pan, the problem is the pan is not hot enough. If you put a piece of meat in a searing hot pan, the water that comes out immediately evaporates and turns to steam – this is why you hear a satisfying hiss sound. If the pan is not hot enough, the water collects before it evaporates and this cools the pan further and exacerbates the situation. This is why it’s not a good idea to overcrowd a pan, or cook meat straight from the fridge, both of which cool the pan and you end up boiling the meat to a grey colour rather than caramelising the outside which creates a good colour and delicious flavour.
Solution: hot pan, room temperature meat, don’t overcrowd the pan.
- Food is not safe past its ‘use by’ date
People seem to be much more concerned by the freshness of food when determining safety, when the biggest risk to their health is actually their own personal hygiene. Of course ‘use by’ dates are very important and give us a good guideline, but sticking to them religiously is not useful. Almost all food poisoning is caused by human contamination, rather than by bacteria already present in the food, and it is estimated that 80 per cent of all food poisoning is caused by fecal contamination. In simple terms, to prevent illness wash your hands properly and frequently. This is the single most important thing we can do to reduce the risk of contamination.
Don’t worry so much if that mince has been in the fridge for a few days. It’s going to be heated far above the level at which harmful bacteria will die anyway, just wash your hands and keep the dog away from the food. We all know where that tongue’s been.
- The way to make food safe is to heat it to 75°C
The reasoning is that heating to this temperature will kill all harmful bacteria present in the food. This is a gross oversimplification. Granted, it is better to be safe than sorry, but it’s even better to be well-informed. Temperature and time must be taken into account when thinking about reducing the growth of harmful bacteria. Although we can never be sure that all bacteria are killed, tests have been done to see how long it takes to reduce potentially harmful bacteria to safe levels. The longer you hold food at a temperature that kills bacteria, the more bacteria die. As a general rule harmful bacteria start to die at 49°C and from there onwards it’s an exponential curve.
For example, If you are cooking a chicken breast at 55°C, it will take 39 minutes to ensure safety. Most people would think eating chicken cooked to 55°C and still pink would be a risk but this is not necessarily the case when time is taken into account. At 60°C, it would take 19 minutes and at 63°C 2 minutes 36 seconds. At 75°C the food only needs 1.4 seconds so it is a very safe bet, but it is also a temperature at which you will be overcooking anything but the fattiest piece of meat. So if you want to ensure juicy, tender meat, it’s better to cook the core to a lower temperature, and let it rest in a warm place. The food will continue to cook as it rests and the higher temperatures on the outside of the meat will gradually reach equilibrium with the centre, ensuring an even doneness (and safety) throughout.
- Bread goes stale because it dries out
It is easy to see why people think this. If you leave bread out it loses its appealing soft texture and it seems reasonable to think this is because it loses moisture. It is actually to do with the hardening of cooked starch in the bread. The simple remedy to this is to reheat the bread to 140°C, the temperature at which the starch gelifies.
Keeping bread in the fridge will not help and in fact fridge temperatures will only make the situation worse and speed up staling. This is the reason that freshly baked bread is so delicious and has such a unique texture. It is at its best when just baked so the best bet is to enjoy it fresh, or freeze leftover bread to preserve it.