Many of us have inherited these pieces of kitchen wisdom, but are they actually true?

By David McCann
February 12, 2021
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As a child, one of the unbreakable rules was "no swimming for 30 minutes after eating." This was gospel, and not to be questioned. Turns out, there was actually nothing true about this "truism." But for many years, children sat around, unhappily, awaiting the end of the 30-minute purgatory.

I only bring this up because there are a few kitchen truisms that I thought we might investigate, just for fun.

Adding Oil to Pasta Water

One of the notions that seems to passionately divide cooks is adding oil to pasta cooking water. The reasons are twofold. It interrupts the foaming of the boiling water, thus preventing the dreaded boil over. (And if you've ever had to clean your stovetop after such a boil over…), and it keeps the pasta from sticking together. The anti-oil in the water crowd maintains that the oil coats the pasta, thus preventing the sauce from clinging to the noodles. The truth lies somewhere in between. 

Yes, the oil helps to prevent the water from boiling over — but so does enough water in a large pot (leaving space at the top). And a sufficient amount of water, combined with occasional stirring, prevents the pasta from clumping together. As for the notion that oily pasta prevents the sauce from clinging, both camps are right as far as that goes. The oil does make the pasta a bit slicker, but not ruinously so. Not enough oil remains after draining to make that much difference. 

My advice: Use whatever method makes you comfortable. I don't add oil to the water. I prefer to add a bit of fresh oil on top of the finished dish.

"Cooking Off" the Alcohol

A second divisive notion is the idea that simmering/boiling alcohol for a few moments will "cook off all of the alcohol." This is not true. What will happen is that the raw, unpleasant alcohol taste will disappear. However, only a small percentage of the alcohol itself goes away. In order to rid your dish of a large percentage of the alcohol, you'll need to simmer your dish for  well over an hour… closer to two. But, unless alcohol is prohibited or dangerous for you, the small amounts called for in most recipes should not be a problem.

Searing Meat to "Lock In" Moisture

Now, the granddaddy of all kitchen myths: Searing your meat will seal in all of the juices. Again, this is not true. Searing your meat will give it a beautiful color, and a wonderful flavor coming from the caramelization of the meat. That said, all of the studies I've read (and boy have I read a lot of them!) agree that the moisture inside the meat will be either the same or even a little less in a seared piece of meat when compared to a non-seared piece. So, enjoy the glorious color and flavor of your seared steak, but know that the only way to preserve the juiciness is simply NOT to overcook it. And be sure to give it an adequate resting period once it leaves the pan. 

Salting the Water Will Prevent Dried Beans From Cooking 

This is another one of those truisms that can cause fights to break out. Many believe that if you salt the water, the beans will toughen and may never soften/cook properly. I can honestly say that, in more than 40 years of cooking, I have never experienced this. Only one time did I have a batch of beans that utterly refused to cook… and I'm convinced that it was just a VERY OLD bag of beans. I add salt to the water every time so that, like pasta, my beans are well seasoned from the inside out. I once tried an experiment where I cooked an unsalted pan of beans and a salted pan at the same time. The only difference I noticed was that the beans that cooked in the salted water were well seasoned. That, and even after salting the finished beans in the other pan, they just tasted salty. So, I'm completely on team salt!

Salting Pasta Water Before It Boils Will Destroy Your Pan

This is one of those kitchen rules that has two legitimate sides. Most of us make pasta frequently enough, and waiting for the water to boil can seem like an eternity. I know that I have been guilty of throwing the salt in before the water reaches a boil, but kitchen wisdom tells us that unless the water is boiling enough to immediately dissolve the salt, it will settle to the bottom and "pit" the metal surface of your pan. This is actually true, as far as it goes. However, if the water is close to boiling, the amount of salt in pasta water will probably not actually damage your pan. Is it worth the admittedly small risk? That's your call. I prefer not to chance it, so I generally wait for the full rolling boil to occur. But, if you forget occasionally... don't panic. Your pan should be fine.

NEVER Put Your Good Knives In the Dishwasher

Here's a kicker to close things out: This is one "myth" you should absolutely hold on to. It's true — period. The dishwasher is not a gentle environment. Water is being sprayed hard from a number of directions. This can cause even correctly placed dishes to move during the cycle. And you do not want the sharp, beautifully honed edge of your good knives to bang around, crashing into other things in the dishwasher. This will rapidly dull the edge. And being in water for 40 minutes will not do the handles any favors either. Lastly, dishwasher "soap" can actually be a bit abrasive, much more so than the liquid you use to hand wash things. Something abrasive is the last thing you want coming into contact with your good knives. (Except, of course, the intentional abrasives used to sharpen and hone!) So, I recommend hand-washing your good knives as soon as you are finished with them, drying them, and putting them away immediately. Never use the dishwasher, and never put your knives in the soapy water in the sink — you may just reach in and cut yourself.

I don't think it ever hurts to question "rules." Even if you end up agreeing with said rules, you'll be a better cook because you examined the reasons behind them.