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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Cooking myths: examining the truth behind eight of the most common ones

Half-truths abound when it comes to cooking, we look at some sayings and misconceptions to find out whether they have any merit

Ensure vegetables have enough space on the tray when roasting. Courtesy Scott Price
Ensure vegetables have enough space on the tray when roasting. Courtesy Scott Price

Despite what we were told as children, and rather sadly for the limp-haired among us, eating bread crusts doesn’t make hair curl. Likewise, munching on carrots won’t grant you night vision (although there is some truth in that one, as vitamin A does contribute to eye health) and if you accidentally swallow a cherry pip or watermelon seed, it’s highly unlikely that a full-blown tree will sprout from your belly button.

While these old wives’ tales sit at the more fantastical end of the spectrum, there are a whole host of half-truths when it comes to the kitchen. Here, we examine eight of the most common cooking myths and determine whether they should be adhered to or studiously ignored:

Never serve seafood and cheese together

It’s likely that this idea originated in Italy, and it has to be said that the thinking behind it makes sense. Most seafood, fish in particular, has such a delicate flavour that if boisterous, umami-rich cheese is added to the mix, it’s likely to overpower the hero ingredient that you probably paid a premium for.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. We’re not going to tell you how – or what – to eat, but let’s just say that dousing a fillet of sea bass in grated cheddar would be considered sacrilegious by some. Toasted bagels piled high with smoked salmon and cream cheese, prawn saganaki strewn with feta, and anchovies in a Parmesan-heavy Caesar salad are all well and good, though, and if your showstopper fish pie recipe doesn’t feature a blanket of creamy, cheesy mash, it might be said that you’re not doing it right.

True or false? False

The myth: extra virgin olive oil is always the best choice

Cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil is fantastic for making dressings, drizzling over roasted meat or fish, and finishing salads, but it truly is a waste to use this premium ingredient for cooking, and especially for frying. For a start, extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point of around 165°C to 190°C, which means that it burns and becomes acrid-tasting easily. Not only that, it possesses a very distinctive flavour, which is great if you want those fruity, grassy notes to shine through, but not so good if it’s the ingredient that you’re cooking that’s supposed to shine.

While the health benefits (or otherwise) of different oils continue to be much discussed, when frying, sautéing or roasting, a light olive oil, pomace, rapeseed, sunflower or groundnut oil is far better suited to the job than extra virgin. Instead save (and savour) the really good stuff and serve it with warm crusty bread.

True or false? False

You can’t get roasted vegetables wrong

Because it’s so simple to prepare, this dish is all too often thrown together with minimal care, resulting in a lacklustre end result. Proper roasted vegetables should bring colour, texture and intense flavour to the table – what you’re after is soft, tender, well-seasoned nuggets of veg with slightly crisp edges, rather than a soggy, stewed mass.

If you’re guilty of having done the dish a disservice in the past, then first consider what you’re roasting and adjust the cooking time accordingly: cubes of sweet potato, for example, require far longer in the oven than slivers of red onion. ­Either roast different ingredients separately, or add them to the pan gradually. Cut the veg into equal-sized pieces to ensure even cooking, use plenty of salt and pepper, and make sure the oven is hot. Most importantly, don’t overcrowd the pan or baking tray. If you want each bit of veg to develop that appealing golden crust, it needs space (and an exposed surface area) to do so.

True or false? False

If you plan on frying your aubergines, it is worth salting them. Courtesy Scott Price
If you plan on frying your aubergines, it is worth salting them. Courtesy Scott Price

Salting aubergines makes them taste less bitter

To salt or not to salt might just be the eternal question for a moussaka lover. Cooks have long been advised to salt their aubergines, a process that involves slicing or dicing the fruit (yes, the aubergine is technically a fruit), sprinkling it with salt and leaving to drain for half an hour or so to draw out the bitter juices, before washing off the salt and drying the aubergine.

The commercial cultivation of aubergines has rendered this laborious process pretty much obsolete, from a flavour perspective at least; young, fresh aubergines just aren’t as bitter as they once were. However, there are those who believe that unsalted aubergines have a more watery texture than their salted counterparts and also drink up greater amounts of oil.

With that in mind, the decision to salt or otherwise should be governed by what you ultimately intend to do with that aubergine. If you’re planning on roasting, grilling or charring the flesh over hot coals, there’s no need to salt, but if it’s destined for the frying pan or is taking the starring role in a dish, then it is probably worth taking the time to do so.

True or false? That depends

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You should cross the bottom of Brussel sprouts before cooking them

While we appreciate that the season for traditionally eating sprouts has recently passed, don’t stop reading just yet, because treated the right way, you can get a lot out of this much-maligned vegetable. Start by never crossing the bottom of a sprout again. Not only is doing so time- consuming, the idea that this helps them to cook more evenly is not only misleading, but actually causes the sprouts to become waterlogged and more prone to overcooking.

Instead, show sprouts a little love and boil them briefly, then slice in half and add to a screaming hot pan, along with a generous drizzle of honey or maple syrup and a couple of splashes of soy sauce. Cook until the honey starts to caramelise, sprinkle with red chilli and prepare to re-examine your previous apathy towards this vegetable.

True or false? That depends

Tomatoes should always be kept at room temperature

We’re told time and time again that keeping tomatoes in the fridge does all kinds of terrible things to them: it inhibits flavour, strips them of colour and causes their texture to turn both mushy and mealy. Room temperature storage is the way to go. Or is it?

If you’re lucky to be in possession of a glut of perfectly ripe, gorgeously glossy tomatoes, our first piece of advice would be to gobble them up immediately in a vibrant salad or simple sandwich (good bread, smear of salted butter, thinly sliced tomato and plenty of black pepper). If that’s not possible, it’s well worth eschewing convention and storing them in the fridge to prevent them from turning bad and therefore being wasted. Because they’re already ripe, the chill of the fridge won’t damage the tomatoes, but it will dull their flavour slightly, so make sure you bring them to room temperature again before eating.

True or false? That depends

Resting Yorkshire pudding batter yields better results

For many, the success of a roast dinner rests on the rise (or fall) of their Yorkshire puddings. Yorkies are made from a basic egg, milk and flour batter, and yet, the route to pudding perfection is a hotly contested one, with ingredient ratios, oven temperatures and cooking fat all coming into question. Although it might seem like an unnecessary faff, one thing that most chefs do agree on is that the batter needs to be rested for several hours, or even overnight. Not only will doing so help to achieve plenty of light and airy height, but it also results in a deeper, more complex-flavoured pudding. File this one under “worth the extra effort”.

True or false? True

Rinse mushrooms briefly so they don't soak up too much water. Courtesy Scott Price
Rinse mushrooms briefly so they don't soak up too much water. Courtesy Scott Price

Washing mushrooms spells disaster

The argument goes that because mushrooms are naturally porous, you shouldn’t clean them in water or they’ll rapidly absorb all the liquid and become soggy and tasteless in the process. The counterargument, of course, is that the alternative – dabbing at the funghi with kitchen paper, a pastry brush or even a specially designed mushroom brush – is time-consuming, fiddly and, let’s face it, probably way too much effort to put in for a weeknight Bolognese sauce.

While it’s true that mush-rooms do soak up water, if they are rinsed briefly (rather than submerged entirely), very little water will be absorbed and the flavour shouldn’t be affected at all. By the by, the secret behind golden, perfectly seared mushrooms is to get your frying pan really hot and ensure that the pan isn’t too crowded, otherwise the mushrooms will boil rather than roast. Cook them in batches if necessary.

True or false? False (but you do need to take the necessary precautions)