Kitchen Lore: Truth or Tall Tale?

May 20, 2019 tim mcguire

I have a confession: I’ve never enjoyed cooking all that much. I know, I know…working in a shop that specializes in kitchen tools, this confession is particularly shameful. In my defense, I love all things handmade, so if anything is going to convince me to spend more time in the kitchen, it’s working with gorgeous handmade utensils from Wild Cherry Spoon Co. And whether I enjoy it or not, my wallet always feels better when I commit to cooking at least a few meals each week. So even an impatient cook like myself has picked up a bit of kitchen lore over the years—we all know some steadfast rules and handy tricks passed down by family or found while scouring the internet for recipe inspiration.

Pot on vintage stovetop with a wooden spoon ladle reaching into it.

But sometimes the cooking wisdom we take for granted isn’t all that wise, or at least, not backed up by scientific evidence. For instance, I labored for years under the impression that salting water would make it boil faster, until a science teacher told me that just wasn’t true (see Live Science if you want to know why). And it turns out that this isn’t the only kitchen hack of dubious provenance. Read below for the verdict—myth or truth—on five common kitchen customs.      


1. Wood spoons prevent water from boiling over: (mostly) true

Cooking pot on vintage stove top with deep handmade wooden spoon sitting across it.

You may have a friend who swears that a spoon placed across the top of a pot keeps water from boiling over. But not just any spoon will do; it must be a wooden spoon. We already think wooden spoons are fantastic, so we had to know if this trick works! Turns out it does…to an extent. When water boils, it produces bubbles that are filled with water vapor (also known as steam); if the bubbles touch something relatively cool—below the point at which water turns into vapor, or 212˚F—the vapor condenses back into liquid, bursting the bubble.

Why does the spoon need to be wooden? Because a metal spoon is a better conductor of heat, so it won’t stay cool long enough to burst those bubbles. Eventually, even a wooden spoon will heat to the point that it, too, will fail to stave off the bubbles of a rolling boil, which is why this myth is only partly true. Not to mention that repeatedly exposing a spoon to heat and moisture could cause it to warp, so it’s best to rotate spoons, or at least not leave a spoon to “watch” the pot for too long. But if you need to turn your back on the oven for a few moments, this hack could save you from a big mess! 

Source: WonderHowTo


2. Long-handled spoons prevent milk from boiling over: (maybe) true

Cooking pot full of milk with metal ladle dripping milk back into the pot.

A related kitchen hack is placing a long-handled spoon in the pot to keep milk from boiling over. You’ve probably noticed that milk can boil over in an instant…typically the moment you avert your eyes for just a second. The Kitchn explains that water evaporates from milk as it heats, leaving behind a thick layer of protein and fat on the surface that prevents additional water vapor rising through the milk from escaping. That thick layer also hides what may be bubbling up beneath it—while the milk looks relatively placid on the surface, eventually vapor builds up to the point that it breaks through the thick film on top and makes a mess all over your stovetop.

The theory is that keeping a long-handled spoon in the pot prevents this, both by breaking the tension on the surface and creating a conduit for steam to escape. A thorough internet search failed to uncover anything other than anecdotal evidence to back up this theory, although it certainly wouldn’t hurt to keep a spoon in the pot just in case. However, since overheated milk also tends to stick to, or even scorch, the bottom of the pot, perhaps frequent stirring (to break up the viscous top layer and keep the milk evenly heated) is the only reliable solution to this problem. 

Source: the Kitchn 


3. Coffee stays fresher in the freezer: myth

Handmade wooden coffee scoop against a background of ground coffee and a brown tabletop.

Coffee is my life, and I tend to go through it so fast that I never worry about keeping it fresh. But among people who don’t drink a pot a day, many store coffee in the freezer to keep it fresh longer; unfortunately, this practice may actually have the opposite effect. The freezer’s humidity and temperature fluctuations create damaging condensation inside the coffee’s packaging and dull its flavor. What’s more, coffee easily absorbs odors, which is great if you need a quick way to freshen the freezer, but gross if you’re planning on drinking it! Your best bet is to store your coffee in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, such as a cabinet. 

Source: The Roasterie


4. Microwaves destroy nutrients: myth

Microwave with plates of food on a speckled countertop

With our busy lives, sometimes the best we can manage is to throw a bag of veggies or a dish of leftovers in the microwave and press start. Then the guilt kicks in, as conventional wisdom has long held that microwave radiation zaps nutrients. But that guilt ends today, because most studies show that microwaving destroys fewer nutrients than cooking on the stovetop! According to the New York Times, every cooking method will remove nutrients to some extent, depending on cook time, temperature, and the amount of liquid used. Microwaves use less heat and shorter cook times than other methods, making it less destructive—as long as you’re not also immersing your food in water, which accelerates nutrient loss. 

Source: The New York Times 


5. Plastic cutting boards are cleaner than wood cutting boards: myth

Handmade wooden cutting board leaning against a wooden crate with tomatoes and peppers against a white linen background.

Because wood is porous, many people believe that wood cutting boards harbor germs and are less sanitary than plastic boards. However, a wood cutting board could be more sanitary; not because wood is naturally antibacterial, as some believe, but because many home cooks don’t realize how often plastic cutting boards should be replaced. Plastic boards are more easily damaged by knives than their wood counterparts, and all of those scars create a safe harbor for bacteria—which is why you should replace your plastic cutting board as soon at it’s scarred enough to snag a dishcloth. And while wood is not technically antibacterial, it does absorb bacteria and keep them trapped below the surface; rather than thriving, the bacteria die off as the wood dries out.

No matter what material you prefer, the best way to avoid cross contamination and food poisoning is to own at least two cutting boards; one for anything that is safe to eat uncooked (veggies, cheese, bread), and the other only for raw meat, poultry and seafood. Proper washing and drying is also key for any type of cutting board; The Daily Beast has a comprehensive guide to caring for boards of all kinds. 

Sources: HuffPostThe Daily Beast



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