Because cooking is largely passed down by tradition, meaning that most of us don’t learn it in a classroom, there are probably millions of old wives tales and family techniques that have colored the way that the modern American cooks. No doubt, you keep a few bizarre prescriptions in mind when you’re cooking dinner at home, likely learned from a mother or grandmother or other wise relative.
But a lot of the time, the wisdom passed down from our elders in the kitchen is total bullshit. And yet, we continue to do these things because that’s the way we’ve always done them. We’ve rounded up the five most ridiculous cooking myths and debunked them with actual science, but you probably shouldn’t just go around correcting your grandma. That’s probably not going to end well for you.
The logic behind this myth is, on face, pretty reasonable. Bread gets stale because it dries out, right? Wrong. Keeping it in the refrigerator will keep it moist, right? Wrong again. Putting your bread in the refrigerator actually speeds up the process of going stale, causing the starch molecules in your loaf of Wonder Bread to crystallize and return to their dry, flour-like state more rapidly. In reality, keeping your bread on the countertop or in an old-fashioned bread box will keep it fresher six times longer than the fridge. Who knew?
The rise of factory farming means that most of us are now pretty terrified of raw meat, and rightfully so. Outbreaks of salmonella and listeria are terrifying, but the tradition of washing a chicken before it is prepared goes back to pre-sanitation days when it actually made sense. Refrigeration and processing weren’t really a thing, so birds were full of bacteria. In the modern era, your chicken still has bacteria on it, but most of that will be blasted away by the high temperatures of the oven during the cooking process. In fact, washing your bird actually increases the likelihood of contamination by spreading bacteria around the kitchen. Instead, pat it down with paper towels to dry the skin, which will result in a crispier end product.
This one is sort of true, but the answer is pretty complicated. A small amount of salt in the water won’t make a difference, like the quantities used for cooking, but if you jack up the salt content to around 20 percent of the pot, the trick technically works. Salt water has a lower heat capacity than water, which means that it heats up more quickly than a full pot of pure water. As the Southwest Research Institute puts it, “if you look at the heat capacity of salt water, you will find that it is less than pure water. In other words, it takes less energy to raise the temperature of the salt water 1°C than pure water. This means that the salt water heats up faster and eventually gets to its boiling point first.” Ultimately, you should still salt your pasta water because its actual purpose, flavoring the cooking pasta, is legit.
This myth must have gotten started because people were trying (unsuccessfully) to get drunk off cake. The alcohol content in rum cake and bananas foster and other boozy desserts does not entirely disappear when it goes into the oven or is hit by the torch. In fact, you’d have to bake that cake for more than two-and-a-half hours just to reduce the alcohol content by 95 percent.
If you watch cooking shows, you’ve likely seen a celebrity chef or two delicately patting the dirt away from their favorite edible fungi. The old wives tale here is that spongy, porous mushrooms absorb too much water when they’re rinsed under the sink, which results in a water-logged, tough product. In reality, as long as you don’t soak the mushrooms in water for several hours, they’re definitely going to be fine.
Image by Tracy Benjamin CC BY-NC-ND