{old cooks’ tales} Allow Me to Debunk 10 Common Food and Cooking Myths Using Science, Facts, & Common Sense

There are so many nonsensical myths about food and cooking that people trot out, and I’m not going to lie: they make me a little grumpy. They are awful and they are persistent and they need to stop.  I reached my limit this week when I saw a viral Pinterest post about how to tell whether a bell pepper was male or female.

grumpy peppers

Once I was done shaking my head at the sheer inanity of it all, I decided to arm myself with (some) science and facts and a liberal dose of common sense to explain why some of these common food tropes are as mythological as unicorns, leprechauns, or free parking in San Francisco.


10 Common Food and Cooking Myths DEBUNKED Using Science, Facts, & Common Sense

1. Bell peppers are “male” or “female.” Females have 4 bumps and fewer seeds and are sweeter than male peppers when eaten raw. Male peppers have only 3 bumps and are better for cooking.

Just, no. Bell peppers are hermaphrodites. Different varietals of peppers look different and taste different but it has nothing to do with boy peppers and girl peppers. Seriously, this is so stupid.

2. If you make your soup too salty, put a peeled potato in it to absorb the salt. 

This is one of the most common of these idiotic myths. Have you ever tried this? Has anyone? What if I made something else too salty; does it only work for soup? Is this a common problem? Are we all constantly putting too much salt in our soup? How do you know I have an “emergency potato” lying around? What if you don’t want to cook the soup another 30 minutes?

But I digress: beyond my issues with the usefulness of this tip, let’s talk about whether it actually works. Of course the potato will suck up some of the salt but will it suck up enough to make any noticeable difference in the taste of the soup? No, it will not. Here is a science-y experiment showing it doesn’t work. Why wouldn’t you just, like, add more broth or water or something? Or something to counteract the salt, like a little acid or a little sweetener? What the hell?

3. You have to sear meat to “keep the juices in.”

This is the myth I find to be the most personally irksome because it’s been disproven like a bazillion times but people still believe it. Does searing meat make it taste better? Yes, because of the flavor and aroma enhancement that occurs, known as the Maillard Reaction. Does it “keep the juices in?” No, it does not. If you don’t believe me, then consummate food scientist and anti-searing-myth crusader Harold McGee is going to tell you why in this video.

4. Agave syrup is a healthy/natural/superior sweetener. 

Sorry, no. I fell for this for awhile but unfortunately, agave syrup is pretty much made in the same way that high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is made except instead of using corn as a starch base to suck out a whole bunch of sugar artificially, they use the starchy root of the agave plant. Except that in the case of agave, it tends to have even MORE fructose than HCFS – up to 90% in agave syrup as compared to HFCS’s 55%. There are like a million articles about this, here is one to start with, and here is another one I like. (As a clarifying point, there is a less widely available product out there called miel de agave or miel de maguey  that is boiled sap from the agave leaves and is, I guess from some perspectives, healthy/natural/superior, but I am not talking about that.)

cashew

5. Cashews are nuts. 

OK, so this isn’t really a common myth, per se, but a lot of people don’t know this and it’s really weird so I’m including it. Cashews are not nuts, they are formed as a single seed attached to an “accessory fruit” called a cashew fruit or a cashew apple, as seen in the above photo. They look like little turds that hang off the bottom of the fruit. Their shells are poisonous. In other countries, they actually eat the fruit too. That is all I know about cashews.

6. If you get sick at a picnic, blame the mayonnaise.

This statement is 100% true if you make your own mayonnaise from raw eggs. But if you are talking about the Best Foods/Hellman’s variety of mayonnaise, it is totally untrue. Store-bought mayonnaise is an incredibly inhospitable environment for bacteria to grow in. It’s acidic, it’s fatty, it’s salty, I mean seriously, it’s like the opposite of a petri dish. It’s actually been shown to kill bacteria. But, people often blame the mayo for becoming sick because it looks and smells gross after it’s been sitting out for awhile. The tuna/chicken/potatoes that are in that dish are really fantastic places for bacteria to fester and divide, but they don’t always look and smell gross. So stop blaming the mayo and take a closer look at the other ingredients. Here is a deeper explanation with citations to back this up.

7. Egg yolks are unhealthy so you should just eat the egg whites.

Egg whites have garnered a reputation for being super healthy, but the yolk is where all of the positive nutrients of the egg reside. Unless you are on a calorie restrictive diet, just eat the whole damn egg. A whole egg only has like 50 more calories than an egg white and all the stuff that’s good for you – including choline, lutein, and a bunch of other stuff you need for your brain, your heart, your eyes, and more. They don’t raise your bad cholesterol or cause heart disease.

Also, egg whites on their own are soooo grosss. (Note: last point is admittedly not science or fact.)

8. Microwave lemons and limes before juicing them to get the most juice. 

Who has time for this? And won’t that make my lemons warm? Are your lemons too cold? How did they get cold? Aren’t they just out on the counter in a bowl like my lemons? WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO YOUR LEMONS?

But seriously, do warm lemons have more juice? No – if anything, heat makes liquid evaporate (bye bye liquid), not spontaneously generate an abundant flow like a citrusy, juicy Phoenix from the hallowed corners of the microwave. Does it make them easier to juice? Well I tried it and got the same amount of juice from each lemon, but with a few minor differences: with the microwaved lemon I wasted some time heating and cooling it, and felt pretty silly.

From a purely common sense perspective, is it possible, even if this worked, that microwaving a lemon could really make such a huge difference in how much juice you appreciably get out to make it worth doing? Is there some post-apocalyptic-lemon-shortage scenario for which I should mentally store this great idea, because dammit, we’ll need every drop?

But that doesn’t actually matter, because it doesn’t work anyway. Just get one of these and you’ll get enough juice out.

9. Nuts are fattening. 

Yes, nuts are high in calories, but being high in calories and being fattening are not the same. Interestingly, studies have shown that people who regularly eat nuts actually weigh less than their nut-free counterparts. This is a correlation, not a cause and effect, so I’m not suggesting that adding nuts to your diet will help you lose weight, but I am saying that they are therefore not “fattening.” I wrote an article about this which is full of scientific citations so feel free to check that out for the links.

10. Cook octopus with a cork in the pot to make it more tender. 

I just can’t even begin to talk about how ridiculous this is. But I will try. Even chefs who swear by this can’t say why they think it works. And no, corks do not have “enzymes” in them that tenderize octopus, which exemplifies the type of eye-popping “factoid” about this topic I found smeared liberally across the Internets. Perhaps they are hoping that they infinitesimal trace amounts of tartaric acid on the cork will sink into the pot and make the octopus tender – but what about, instead, if you just added some actual tartaric acid (cream of tartar) instead of a frigging cork? And really, are you drinking such well-aged, high-end wine that your corks pop out covered in crystals?

Deep breaths, in and out.

If you have any myths you’re wondering about, or would like to share, add them in the comments!

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7 comments

1 sean { 04.25.13 at 12:54 pm }

wow… you really have some deep hatred for egg whites!

2 Karen { 04.25.13 at 1:16 pm }

@Sean haha… it’s not that I hate them, but just that it’s become so common for people to just eat egg whites for “health” and it seems kind of silly to me. Also, an egg white omelet is like one of my worst food texture nightmare scenarios… yuck! ;)

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5 Rosie { 05.26.13 at 4:06 pm }

A professional Indian chef on YouTube got more juice from his lemon by rolling it on the counter and squishing it a little first, then cutting it. I’ve tried it and it seems to make it easier, at any rate.
Rosie recently posted..Kissed by Fire ruffle "scarf" headband by StyleOnAStick

6 Karen { 05.27.13 at 10:21 pm }

@Rosie that sounds like it makes sense – will have to try it!

7 Christine |Taste of Divine { 03.16.14 at 3:00 pm }

Wow thanks for the info! Some of these myths bother me too, especially the ones about egg whites and agave nectar. It drives me crazy that people think agave is actually healthy for you! Another one that drives me nuts is when people think avocado is bad because it is fatty. I was surprised to see the one about searing meat on the list. I had no idea and always believed it was to “lock in the juices”. Thanks for letting us know :)
Christine |Taste of Divine recently posted..Irish Corn Bread

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