Traditional recipes

Seared Meat Isn’t Juicier and 7 Other Cooking Myths Busted (Slideshow)

Seared Meat Isn’t Juicier and 7 Other Cooking Myths Busted (Slideshow)

You’ll be surprised to learn that some of the most popular cooking advice isn’t accurate

Adding salt to a pot of water is a great idea if you want to season your food but not so smart if you want the water to boil quickly — salt actually increases the boiling temperature of water, which means it will take longer to come to a boil. The change is relatively insignificant so you won't notice a difference, but scientifically speaking, this myth is busted!

Salt Makes Water Boil Faster

Adding salt to a pot of water is a great idea if you want to season your food but not so smart if you want the water to boil quickly — salt actually increases the boiling temperature of water, which means it will take longer to come to a boil. The change is relatively insignificant so you won't notice a difference, but scientifically speaking, this myth is busted!

Alcohol is “Cooked Off”

Some of the alcohol is eliminated during the cooking process but, for things that have a short cook time — like a sauce simmered for 10 minutes — much of the alcohol remains.

Searing Meat “Locks In” Juices

You Should Always Fry in Hot Oil

Though this bit of advice is almost true, you don’t always need to fry in hot oil. In fact, French fries that are fried in cold oil (both the raw potatoes and the oil are brought to the correct frying temperature together) absorb less oil than those that are dropped in hot oil (due to the fact that this method requires you to fry the potatoes twice).

Boil Pasta in Excess Water

All Salts are Created Equal

If a recipe calls for a specific salt, use it — flaky kosher salts are as much as 50 percent less dense than table salt. If you have to substitute table salt, be sure to reduce the amount.

Raw Vegetables Are More Nutritious

Stewed or Braised Meat Stays Moist


The Truth About Cast Iron Pans: 7 Myths That Need To Go Away

If you haven't noticed, I'm a big fan of the cast iron. When I packed up my apartment last spring and had to live for a full month with only two pans in my kitchen, you can bet your butt that the first one I grabbed was my trusty cast iron skillet.

Point is, it's a versatile workhorse and no other pan even comes close to its league.

But there's also a mysterious, myth-packed lore when it comes to cast iron pans. On the one hand there's the folks who claim you've got to treat your cast iron cookware like a delicate little flower. On the other, there's the macho types who chime in with their my cast iron is hella non-stick or damn, does my pan heat evenly!

In the world of cast iron, there are unfounded, untested claims left right and center. It's time to put a few of those myths to rest. Then, check up on our cast iron skillet review to make sure you're cooking with the best pans possible.

Myth #1: "Cast iron is difficult to maintain."

The Theory: Cast iron is a material that can rust, chip, or crack easily. Buying a cast iron skillet is like adopting a newborn baby and a puppy at the same time. You're going to have to pamper it through the early stages of its life, and be gentle when you store it—that seasoning can chip off!

The Reality: Cast iron is tough as nails! There's a reason why there are 75-year-old cast iron pans kicking around at yard sales and antique shops. The stuff is built to last and it's very difficult to completely ruin it. Most new pans even come pre-seasoned, which means that the hard part is already done for you and you're ready to start cooking right away.

And as for storing it? If your seasoning is built up in a nice thin, even layer like it should be, then don't worry. It ain't gonna chip off. I store my cast iron pans nested directly in each other. Guess how many times I've chipped their seasoning? Try doing that to your non-stick skillet without damaging the surface.

Myth #2: "Cast iron heats really evenly."

The Theory: Searing steaks and frying potatoes requires high, even heat. Cast iron is great at searing steaks, so it must be great at heating evenly, right?

The Reality: Actually, cast iron is terrible at heating evenly. The thermal conductivity—the measure of a material's ability to transfer heat from one part to another—is around a third to a quarter that of a material like aluminum. What does this mean? Throw a cast iron skillet on a burner and you end up forming very clear hot spots right on top of where the flames are, while the rest of the pan remains relatively cool.

The main advantage of cast iron is that it has very high volumetric heat capacity, which means that once it's hot, it stays hot. This is vitally important when searing meat. To really heat cast iron evenly, place it over a burner and let it preheat for at least 10 minutes or so, rotating it every once in a while. Alternatively, heat it up in a hot oven for 20 to 30 minutes (but remember to use a potholder or dish towel!)

The other advantage is its high emissivity—that is, its tendency to expel a lot of heat energy from its surface in the form of radiation. Stainless steel has an emissivity of around .07. Even when it's extremely hot, you can put your hand close to it and not feel a thing. Only the food directly in contact with it is heating up in any way.

Cast iron, on the other hand, has a whopping .64 emissivity rating, which means that when you're cooking in it, you're not just cooking the surface in contact with the metal, but you're cooking a good deal of food above it as well. This makes it ideal for things like making hash or pan roasting chicken and vegetables.

Myth #3: "My well-seasoned cast iron pan is as non-stick as any non-stick pan out there."

The Theory: The better you season your cast iron, the more non-stick it becomes. Perfectly well-seasoned cast iron should be perfectly non-stick.

The Reality: Your cast iron pan (and mine) may be really really really non-stick—non-stick enough that you can make an omelet in it or fry an egg with no problem—but let's get serious here. It's not anywhere near as non-stick as, say, Teflon, a material so non-stick that we had to develop new technologies just to get it to bond to the bottom of a pan. Can you dump a load of cold eggs into your cast iron pan, slowly heat it up with no oil, then slide those cooked eggs right back out without a spot left behind? Because you can do that in Teflon.

That said, macho posturing aside, so long as your cast iron pan is well seasoned and you make sure to pre-heat it well before adding any food, you should have no problems whatsoever with sticking.

Myth #4: "You should NEVER wash your cast iron pan with soap."

The Theory: Seasoning is a thin layer of oil that coats the inside of your skillet. Soap is designed to remove oil, therefore soap will damage your seasoning.

The Reality: Seasoning is actually not a thin layer of oil, it's a thin layer of polymerized oil, a key distinction. In a properly seasoned cast iron pan, one that has been rubbed with oil and heated repeatedly, the oil has already broken down into a plastic-like substance that has bonded to the surface of the metal. This is what gives well-seasoned cast iron its non-stick properties, and as the material is no longer actually an oil, the surfactants in dish soap should not affect it. Go ahead and soap it up and scrub it out.

The one thing you shouldn't do? Let it soak in the sink. Try to minimize the time it takes from when you start cleaning to when you dry and re-season your pan. If that means letting it sit on the stovetop until dinner is done, so be it.

Myth #5: "Don't use metal utensils on your cast iron pan!"

The Theory: The seasoning in cast iron pans is delicate and can easily flake out or chip if you use metal. Stick to wood or nylon utensils.

The Reality: The seasoning in cast iron is actually remarkably resilient. It's not just stuck to the surface like tape, it's actually chemically bonded to the metal. Scrape away with a metal spatula and unless you're actually gouging out the surface of the metal, you should be able to continue cooking in it with no issue.

So you occasionally see flakes of black stuff chip out of the pan as you cook in it? It's possible that's seasoning, but unlikely. In order to get my cast iron pan's seasoning to flake off, I had to store it in the oven for a month's-worth of heating and drying cycles without re-seasoning it before I started to see some scaling.

More likely, those flakes of black stuff are probably carbonized bits of food that were stuck to the surface of the pan because you refused to scrub them out with soap last time you cooked.

Myth #6: "Modern cast iron is just as good as old cast iron. It's all the same material, after all."

The Theory: Metal is metal, cast iron is cast iron, the new stuff is no different than the old Wagner and Griswold pans from early 20th century that people fetishize.

The Reality: The material may be the same, but the production methods have changed. In the old days, cast iron pans were produced by casting in sand-based molds, then polishing the resulting pebbly surfaces until smooth. Vintage cast iron tends to have a satiny smooth finish. By the 1950s, as production scaled up and was streamlined, this final polishing step was dropped from the process. The result? Modern cast iron retains that bumpy, pebbly surface.

The difference is more minor than you may think. So long as you've seasoned your pan properly, both vintage and modern cast iron should take on a nice non-stick surface, but your modern cast iron will never be quite as non-stick as the vintage stuff.

Myth #7: "Never cook acidic foods in cast iron."

The Theory: Acidic food can react with the metal, causing it to leech into your food, giving you an off-flavor and potentially killing you slowly.

The Reality: In a well-seasoned cast iron pan, the food in the pan should only be coming in contact with the layer of polymerized oil in the pan, not the metal itself. So in a perfect world, this should not be a problem. But none of us are perfect and neither are our pans. No matter how well you season, there's still a good chance that there are spots of bare metal and these can indeed interact with acidic ingredients in your food.

For this reason, it's a good idea to avoid long-simmered acidic things, particularly tomato sauce. On the other hand, a little acid is not going to hurt it. I deglaze my pan with wine after pan-roasting chicken all the time. A short simmer won't harm your food, your pan, or your health in any way.

How You SHOULD Use Your Cast Iron Skillet

These are the only rules you need to know to have a successful lifelong relationship with your cast iron.


1. Searing Seals in Juices

The great ancient Aristotle proclaimed that putting on a brown crust sealed the pores of the meat, effectively preventing the juices from flowing out. This rationale has changed over time, but to this day you can find recipes with sear-to-seal-juices-in instructions.

Sear-iously, Just NOT the Case

Aristotle also thought the sun orbited the earth so… yeah. Meat doesn’t have pores.

Meathead cites Professor McGee, author of the seminal On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen:

The crust that forms on the surface of the meat is not waterproof, as any cook has experienced: the continuing sizzle of meat in the pan or oven or on the grill is the sound of moisture continually escaping and vaporizing.

FoodNetwork’s Alton Brown (video) and SeriousEats.com’s Kenji Lopez-Alt both experimented with searing steaks and roasts, respectively, before and after cooking. In both experiments, the seared-first meats lost 19 and 1.68 percent more liquid than their counterparts.

The notion of sealing in juices is thus nothing but an old wives’ tale.


Selecting Meat to Age

What cut of meat should I buy for aging?

To age meat properly, you need to choose a large piece that is best cooked with quick cooking methods. This makes the standard steakhouse cuts—the New York strip, the rib steak, and the porterhouse—the ideal cuts for aging. (See here for more information on the four high-end steaks you should know.) The easiest to find whole (and my personal favorite) is the rib steak, which is what you get when you cut a prime rib between the bone into individual steaks.

What's the minimum size I'll need to buy for proper aging? Can I age an individual steak?

Nope, unfortunately, you can't age individual steaks. (See here for more details as to why not.) You can wrap them in cheesecloth or paper towels, set them on a rack, and leave them in the fridge for about a week, but during that time, no detectable level of texture or flavor changes will take place. Try to age them even longer, and (assuming they don't start rotting)*, here's what you get:

*In my experience, this can happen when the cheesecloth or paper towel holds moisture against the meat and you don't have enough ventilation.

The meat is so dried out as to be completely inedible. After trimming away the desiccated and slightly moldy bits (perfectly normal for dry-aged meat), I was left with a sliver of meat about a half centimeter thick. It was impossible to cook to anything lower than well-done, making my effective yield a big fat zero.

The simple truth is that in order to dry-age, you need larger cuts of meat, and you need to age them in open air.

So, of the larger cuts of meat, what should I look for?

Rib sections come in several different forms, each with its own number designation.

  • The 103 is the most intact. It's an entire rib section (that's ribs six through 12 of the steer), along with a significant portion of the short ribs, the chine bones completely intact, and a large flap of fat and meat (called "lifter meat" and not to be confused with the coveted spinalis dorsi*) covering the meaty side. It's unlikely you'll find this cut, even if you ask the butcher.
  • The 107 has been trimmed somewhat, with the short ribs cut short, some (but not all) of the chine bone sawed off, and the outer cartilage removed. This is commonly how rib sections are sold to retail butcher shops and supermarkets, where they can further break them down.
  • The 109A is considered ready to roast and serve. It's had the chine bone nearly completely sawed off and the lifter meat removed. The fat cap is put back in place once the lifter meat is gone.
  • The 109 Export is essentially identical to the 109A, but has had the fat cap removed. This is the cut you'll see on your Christmas table or at that fancy-pants hotel buffet. The meat on this cut is only minimally protected on the outside.

*The spinalis, also called the ribeye cap, is the tastiest cut on the cow!

I aged a 107, a 109A, and a 109 Export in an Avanti mini fridge set at 40°F, in which I placed a small desk fan in order to allow air to circulate (I had to cut a small notch in the sealing strip around the door to allow the fan's cord to pass through), simulating a dry-aging room on a small scale. I made no attempt to regulate humidity, which bounced around between 30 and 80% (higher at the beginning, lower as the aging progressed).

I found that the more protection you have, the better your final yield. Why does protection from the exterior matter when aging meat? It's because when you dry-age meat for any length of time that's enough to make a difference, the exterior layers get completely desiccated and must be trimmed away. The less protected the "good" meat, the more of it you'll throw in the trash and waste. Here's what happens when you try to age a 109 Export:

See how much of that poor spinalis muscle has withered away and dried? I had to completely remove it before I found meat that I was able to cook underneath. And that is not meat you want to waste.

On the other hand, here's what you're left with after removing the fat cap on a 109A:

The fat cap effectively guards the meat against moisture loss, leaving us with a spinalis muscle that is 100% edible.

Trim off the fat a bit more, as well as the cut faces, and here's what we've got:

The yield you get amounts to basically the equivalent of a completely normal-sized roast. If you imagine your prime rib as a long cylinder, the only meat you actually end up losing is from either end. The fat cap and bones will completely protect the sides.


Well-done steak is safer to eat

The next time someone at your table orders their steak "very well-done" in a restaurant and tells you it's for safety reasons, you can tell them that their safe steak order is really just a myth. It's actually perfectly fine to eat your steak with a little pink in it because the amount of harmful bacteria in a cut of meat has been proven to primarily hang out on the outside of the meat. For a typical steak that's cooked to 140 degrees Fahrenheit (or medium temperature), it's very rare that you will get sick. In fact, a study published by the University of Nottingham found that the most bacteria samples collected from cooking slightly pink steak actually came from the cooking utensils, so be sure to sterilize your tongs well!

Just remember that ground beef is slightly different than steak because bacteria can spread from the outside to the inside of the meat when it's passed through a grinder. In this case, the safest burger is cooked to about the medium-well or well-done (approximately 160 degrees internal temperature), according to the USDA.


Why all the books say we should rest our meat

There are several theories for why we should rest meat. Let’s look at the most popular:

The pressure theory. The most widely repeated theory says that during cooking, muscle fibers, which fans of resting say are like tiny skinny balloons, shrink along their length and expand across their width. Just like when you see meat “pulling back” along the bone. This puts pressure on the juices between the balloons and at the same time these juices expand pushing even harder on the balloons. If you cut into the meat when it is fresh off the heat, they say the juices come gushing out of the sliced balloons. If you let meat rest and cool, say the resting advocates, water pressure drops, fibers relax, and fewer juices escape. A variation on the theme says that the juices run away from the heat on the side facing the flame.

Not so, says the AmazingRibs.com meat scientist, Dr. Antonio Mata, “Water moves back and forth between compartments. It is not trapped in the fibers. Fibers are not balloons.” So the pressure equalizes quickly. And at cooking temperatures, water does not expand much inside the muscle. Meat shrinks during cooking mostly because of dripping and evaporation. If the water was somehow pushed into and trapped inside expanding balloons, then, when the fibers cool during resting, they would shrink and would expel more liquid, not less as a result of resting. Furthermore, water cannot be compressed by pressure. In other words, this theory just doesn’t hold water.

The reabsorption theory. Another theory holds that the outer parts of the meat, which are much hotter than the centers, dry out during cooking making the beloved crust. The hotter you cook, the more gray dried out meat forms directly below the surface. This is less lovable. This is overcooked meat with less flavor, juice, and tenderness. By allowing the meat to rest, says the theory, these hot dry fibers can absorb some of the liquid from the center, so less liquid will spill out when you cut the meat.

This may be true because systems do seek equilibrium. But the goal of cooking properly is to have a good dark crust and minimize the gray area beneath it. So reabsorption might hold onto a little liquid, but it’s not relevant with properly cooked meat with minimal overcooked meat below the surface.

The viscosity theory. This theory is that when the meat is hot the juices are runny and as they cool they get thicker and more viscous. Sounds plausible, but I have never seen any real research to demonstrate this.


How to Pan-Sear Steaks

When I've got plenty of time to kill, I occasionally employ a low-and-slow cooking method, such as sous-vide, or perhaps the reverse sear method I developed at Cook's Illustrated, in which you start the steak in a very low oven and finish it off on the stovetop.

But you know what happens 99 percent of the time? I've got a steak, I want to get it on the table, and I don't want to fuss with it. After all, a steak is a quick-cooking thing. The king of fast food, if you will. I don't want to have to heat up a water bath or my oven, I don't want to have to wait for hours. That means I want to do it start to finish on the stovetop. Luckily, this is very easy to do.

The TL/DR version: start with a good, thick, well-marbled steak. Season it well. Sear it in hot oil in cast iron, flipping as often as you'd like. Add butter and aromatics. Keep flipping and basting. Rest. Carve. DIG IN.

Read on for the long version.


Myth: Sugar causes behavioral problems in kids.

Reality: You might want to check your expectations about sugar and children's behavior.

For most children, "the excitement that kids have when supposedly they eat sugar is probably more related to the event and the excitement of the event than it is to actually consuming sugar," Rosenbloom says.

She cites research showing that when parents think their kids have been given sugar, they rate the children's behavior as more hyperactive -- even when no sugar is eaten.


7. All Pasta Comes From Italy

Throughout Asia you'll find noodles made from wheat, rice and bean flours. In Chinese, "mein" means "noodles made from wheat" (e.g., chow mein, lo mein, etc.) while "fun" denotes "noodles made from rice or other starches" (e.g., chow fun, mei fun, etc.). Though it's difficult to trace the exact origins of pasta, it's believed that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy after a trip to China in 1271.

And then there's the ever-popular ramen noodle, which is in a category all its own. According to Harold McGee, "Adding alkaline ingredients [as is tradition with ramen noodles] has a significant effect on the texture, color and flavor of the noodle." By changing the chemical environment of the dough, the components in the flour change their behavior, and they change in various desirable ways." Samson advises to anyone making ramen noodles from scratch that "rice flour drinks differently than wheat flour, so you'll have to adjust the amount of liquid in your recipes carefully."

Up next: Got gluten allergies? There's still hope.

Throughout Asia you'll find noodles made from wheat, rice and bean flours. In Chinese, "mein" means "noodles made from wheat" (e.g., chow mein, lo mein, etc.) while "fun" denotes "noodles made from rice or other starches" (e.g., chow fun, mei fun, etc.). Though it's difficult to trace the exact origins of pasta, it's believed that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy after a trip to China in 1271.

And then there's the ever-popular ramen noodle, which is in a category all its own. According to Harold McGee, "Adding alkaline ingredients [as is tradition with ramen noodles] has a significant effect on the texture, color and flavor of the noodle." By changing the chemical environment of the dough, the components in the flour change their behavior, and they change in various desirable ways." Samson advises to anyone making ramen noodles from scratch that "rice flour drinks differently than wheat flour, so you'll have to adjust the amount of liquid in your recipes carefully."

Up next: Got gluten allergies? There's still hope.


Myth 9: Celery Is a “Negative-Calorie” Food

First of all, many people think that celery has "negative" calories. But according to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), one large (11- to 12-inch) celery stalk provides 9 calories. If you factor in the calories burned due to the entire digestive process, that stalk may provide closer to 8 calories. But that still doesn't mean celery has "negative" or even zero calories. What's more, since celery is also light in color and flavor, some assume there's little nutritional benefit. While celery is no kale, it's no joke when it comes to your health. That large stalk provides 166 milligrams of potassium, which makes it a nutrient-dense source of this mineral that's so important for blood pressure management. Plus, it contains a flavonoid called apigenin, which research finds may act as an anti-inflammatory and have potential anti-cancer properties. That stalk provides plenty of chewing satisfaction along with dietary fiber, too.

First of all, many people think that celery has "negative" calories. But according to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), one large (11- to 12-inch) celery stalk provides 9 calories. If you factor in the calories burned due to the entire digestive process, that stalk may provide closer to 8 calories. But that still doesn't mean celery has "negative" or even zero calories. What's more, since celery is also light in color and flavor, some assume there's little nutritional benefit. While celery is no kale, it's no joke when it comes to your health. That large stalk provides 166 milligrams of potassium, which makes it a nutrient-dense source of this mineral that's so important for blood pressure management. Plus, it contains a flavonoid called apigenin, which research finds may act as an anti-inflammatory and have potential anti-cancer properties. That stalk provides plenty of chewing satisfaction along with dietary fiber, too.