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Five Kitchen Myths Debunked

I’ve often been fooled into believing kitchen myths. Sometimes my fellow home cooks are the ones who perpetuate the myth, but more often it comes from my own mother. And who can dispute a mother’s advice, no matter how it may defy conventional wisdom? Superstition, it seems, rules my kitchen.

When the truth is revealed, I'm often left with mixed feelings, like when I was a kid and realized that the tooth fairy wasn't real. I played along for years, even though in the back of my head logic told me that there was no way a pixie-sized fairy could carry around that many teeth.

But the truth will set you free, right? So in my pursuit of the truth, I’ve investigated some of the more prevalent myths to free myself from kitchen folly.

Myth #1: The best place to store coffee is in the freezer or the fridge.
False. If you want to keep your coffee fresh and flavorful, the best place to store it is in a cool, dry place and in an airtight container. Because coffee beans are porous, they will soak up the smells of any moisture in your freezer or fridge and lose their flavor. Ground coffee is especially sensitive because there is more surface area that potentially can be exposed to odors. As a general rule, ground coffee shouldn’t be stored for more than a week, and whole roasted beans shouldn’t be stored for more than two weeks. So as tempting as it may be to buy coffee in bulk, storing it can negate your efforts to save some dough. Unless you can buy the beans green, that is. Green coffee beans store very well in the freezer, and you should only take them out once and never re-freeze them. But then you would have to roast and grind the beans yourself as well. All this effort before you even get to the brewing phase! Since most of us don’t get the green beans, storing coffee outside of the refrigerator and in the pantry makes the most sense.

Myth #2: Placing the avocado pit in bowl of guacamole prevents it from turning brown.
False. For years I thought that the pit chemically changed the guacamole, but it doesn’t. Guacamole turns brown primarily due to oxidation. Once you slice open that avocado, it is exposed to the air and starts to break down via oxidation, much the same way rust will form on some metals. This is true of apples and bananas, too. To prevent oxidation, take plastic wrap and seal it over the guacamole, pressing it down into the surface of the food so no air is trapped above the surface. Or add a citric acid, such as lemon or lime juice, which is an antioxidant.

Myth #3: Shellfish such as clams, oysters, or mussels that haven’t opened during cooking should never be eaten.
True. While closed shells may mean the shellfish haven’t received adequate heat, you should really discard any unopened shellfish after ten minutes of boiling or steaming. Overcooked shellfish are rubbery and unappetizing, so cooking them longer probably isn't something you want to do. If the shell remains closed, the shellfish could have been rotten to begin with and you should stay away from it. But if it’s just a stubborn shell that won’t open, then you should still be weary since it probably is not fully cooked. Partially raw shellfish or rotten shellfish can cause food poisoning and stomach-related illnesses.

Myth #4: Holding unlit matches in your mouth ensures tear-free onion chopping.
Sort of true. Be sure that the sulfur side is out of your mouth and that your mouth is closed. The culprit of all onion crying episodes is a gas that is released when cutting into the cells of the onions. The sulfur of unlit matches is supposed to neutralize some of this volatile gas and keeping your mouth closed minimizes the amount of gas that you ingest. It’s not a completely foolproof method, but it certainly works better than not doing anything at all.

I’ve also tried cutting onions under running water and chilling the onions in the freezer before cutting and these methods also reduce the amount of the gas released into the air.

Myth #5: All the alcohol burns off when you cook with wine or spirits.
False. Fanny Farmer’s Cookbook, by Marion Cunningham, is where I first read this to be true. But a recent article written by Mark Bittman in the New York Times claims the contrary. And according to the Department of Food Science and Toxicology, Food Research Center in Moscow, Idaho, the amount of alcohol that's actually lost depends on length of time, method of cooking, temperature, and the specific alcohol and food ingredients. In general, the longer you cook the wine or spirits, the less alcohol remains. If you simmer it in the food for several hours, only about 5 percent of the alcohol will remain. Flaming and adding wine, beer, or spirits to a boiling sauce just before serving still leave roughly 80 percent of the alcohol.

The kitchen, with all its subtle chemistry and nuanced craft, will surely keep producing myths to solve. But at least I’ve tackled five of them.

Updated June 4, 2010