Much of the knowledge we accumulate around food and cooking is learned from those we spend time in the kitchen with. Though home cooks can pass on plenty of useful information while getting dinner on the table, not all the advice we pick up is current – or entirely accurate. Here are a few common culinary myths that have been kept alive for generations – but can now be shelved for good.
You can’t refreeze things (especially meat)
Actually, you can. It may be liberating to learn that. Though the formation of ice crystals does damage the cell structure of fresh foods to some degree, changing the texture once it thaws, there’s no reason you can’t pop something back in the freezer. The old adage not to refreeze foods tends to be focused on meat, but for good reason – with multiple freezings and thawings, it can be tricky for home cooks to keep track of the amount of time meat has spent in its thawed state. If you brought a steak home from the grocery store, for example, didn’t have time to cook it and tossed it in the freezer – then pulled it out months down the road, thawed it, ran out of time and put it back in the freezer, it would be easy to lose track of how much cumulative time that steak spent defrosted before it was cooked. All meat that isn’t frozen has the potential to generate bacteria – Health Canada suggests storing uncooked beef, pork and lamb in the refrigerator for up to four days, chicken up to three days and ground meat up to two. If it has been repeatedly frozen and thawed, it would be easy to surpass those safe time limits.
South of the border, the advice is more clear: according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA): “If raw or cooked food is thawed in the refrigerator, it is safe to refreeze without cooking or heating, although there may be a loss of quality due to the moisture lost through thawing.” The USDA also advises that if previously cooked and frozen foods are thawed in the refrigerator, you may refreeze the unused portion; and if you purchase previously frozen meat, poultry or fish at the grocery store, you can refreeze it – as long as it has been handled properly, which is a consideration for all perishable food.
“It is not the refreezing that is harmful – it is the mismanagement that may not be controlled all along the way,” says Joyce Parslow, executive director of consumer marketing at Canada Beef.
Everything lasts longer in the fridge
Bread and other baked goods are an exception here. They go stale faster at fridge temperature than room temperature, which is why bread boxes exist – so loaves can be neatly tucked away on the countertop.
Bread has a relatively short life to begin with, but storing it in the fridge will hasten its demise. Not only do foods tend to dry out in the fridge, but cold temperatures encourage starch retrogradation and recrystallization, altering the texture of breads, and even cakes and muffins. According to Harold McGee’s classic 1984 culinary compendium On Food and Cooking, “staling proceeds most rapidly at temperatures just above freezing, and very slowly below freezing. In one experiment, bread stored in the refrigerator at 46 F/7 C staled as much in one day as bread held at 86 F/30 C did in six days.”
The freezer, however, is ideal for any loaf you don’t plan to eat within a few days – slice it first if you want to be able to easily take out only what you need, and wrap it well. If you want to thaw an entire loaf, warming it in the oven will bring it close to its original glory. McGee points out that staling can be reversed by reheating bread to 140 F/60 C, the temperature at which starch gelates.
Pre-soak dry beans – and never salt your cooking water
It has been common practice to soak dry beans in water for up to a day before cooking them, but not only is this step unnecessary, your beans will retain their shape and have better flavour if you skip it. Soaking beans jump-starts the hydration process, and some believe it helps reduce the oligosaccharides that contribute to bean-induced flatulence (though that has been debunked), but in the end, soaked beans will only shave about 15 minutes off your cooking time. Start them in cold or boiling water and they’ll take slightly longer, but will have a far better texture and won’t split as much.
It has also long been thought that salting the water you use to soak and simmer dried beans will prevent them from softening, but this is also not true. Salting your cooking liquid will, in fact, season them from the inside out, and provide a more flavourful broth to use afterward. However, an acidic environment will prevent your beans from softening, so you may have trouble if you’re cooking them in soft water – which tends to be more acidic – or are attempting to make them tender in a tomato-based or vinegary sauce. If your beans refuse to soften, try adding a big pinch of baking soda to the water to create a more alkaline environment.
Alcohol burns off when you cook with it
The common belief is that since alcohol has a lower boiling point than water (173 F vs. 212 F), it will evaporate first – but that doesn’t mean it will disappear entirely. A 2003 study by the USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory determined that the amount of alcohol left in a dish ranges from 5 per cent to 85 per cent, depending on what you’re cooking, how long it spends over heat or in the oven and the texture and density of the other ingredients. Generally speaking, the longer a dish simmers, the more alcohol will dissipate.
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