Milk first, then the tea? Ultimately it comes down to a question of taste. Photo: William Meppem
Like anything that's developed over thousands of years, kitchen lore is a mixed bag. Handed-down wisdom can be a valuable tool or a pointless formality. So what are you - true believer or heretic? Here are 21 popular food myths tested and (mostly) busted.
1. Milk first, then the tea
The tortured question was put to rest in 2003 by Britain's Royal Society of Chemistry. MIF (milk in first) creates a cup of tea that's smoother and richer; MIL, a cup that's more tannic. The chemical explanation involves the degradation of milk proteins. ''If milk is poured into hot tea, individual drops separate from the bulk of the milk and come into contact with the high temperatures of the tea for enough time for significant denaturation to occur. This is much less likely to happen if hot water is added to the milk,'' it reported. There are additional cultural and historical factors fuelling the MIF/MIL debate, but ultimately it comes down to a question of taste.
STATUS: UPHELD (unless you're a milk-in-last kind of person)
2. To avoid a hangover, don't mix grape and grain
There are a gazillion myths surrounding hangovers, including the popular misconception that mixing drinks is the fast road to hangover hell (also try ''beer before liquor, never been sicker; liquor before beer, in the clear''). There's some evidence that alcohols with higher levels of congeners (non-alcoholic compounds that create smell, taste and flavour) lead to worse hangovers than those with low, which makes bourbon, for example, more dangerous than vodka. But there's nothing to say mixing drinks makes a hangover worse.
3. Prick sausages to stop them from bursting
Why would you do such a thing? Fat is flavour, so pricking your snags will let tasty juices escape. To stop them bursting, cook over a low heat.
4. Wash chicken before cooking it
Julia Child did it religiously, and plenty of recipe books call for chicken to be washed before cooking. But rinsing in plain water does nothing, according to the US Department of Agriculture, except help spread bacteria across the kitchen sink, counter and yourself, raising your chances of food poisoning.
5. White chocolate is chocolate
White chocolate is actually a pale impostor, because it contains no cocoa solids, only cocoa butter (and sometimes in very small quantities - cheap versions rely on vegetable oil). Due to the lack of cocoa solids, white chocolate doesn't contain the antioxidant or stimulant properties of ''real'' chocolate.
6. Sear meat to seal in the juices
This one was debunked three decades ago by Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen and the godfather of food mythbusting, but it still gets a regular airing. The idea, started in the 19th century and promoted by the likes of Escoffier, was that searing meat creates a seal that keeps in the juices. As McGee revealed, searing causes more juices to escape, because it exposes the meat to higher temperatures. What searing does accomplish, however, is a tasty layer of caramelised flavour. You should still sear meat. It makes it tastier, albeit not juicier. Heston Blumenthal recommends cooking steak in a smoking-hot pan and turning it every 15 to 20 seconds to get maximum crust.
7. For cleaning the garlic smell off your hands after cooking, rub them on a stainless-steel spoon
Supposedly the steel absorbs the odour, but our experiment ended in failure and a major case of garlic hands. But here's a valuable tip: if any of your friends are offended by your garlic hands, get new friends.
8. Plastic chopping boards are more hygienic than wooden ones
Plastic boards are supposedly safer, as, unlike wood, they don't harbour the bacteria that can make you sick. But wooden cutting boards, says Harold McGee, soak up meat juices, drawing the bacteria away from the surface, plus wood also often contains natural anti-bacterial compounds. Plastic cutting boards are easier to clean (and can be put in a dishwasher) but they develop scars, in which bacteria will lodge. Scrub both plastic and wooden boards vigorously after cutting meat, and when a plastic cutting board develops scars, replace it.
9. Don't eat mussels that haven't opened during cooking
Jane Grigson's 1973 book Fish Book has been blamed for the widespread belief any mussels that remained unopened after cooking were bad and should be thrown away. Not so - cooking simply weakens the adductor muscles that allow the bivalve to open and close its shell; in some cases one or both sides come away from the shell, keeping it closed. Slip them open with a knife and eat. If a mussel is bad, you'll smell it.
10. Don't use a garlic crusher
Essential kitchen tool or a destroyer of garlic flavour? Anthony Bourdain calls the garlic crusher (otherwise known as a garlic press), which crushes garlic into a pulp, an ''abomination'', but other chefs claim they enhance garlic by releasing the oils. Knife-cut garlic will caramelise in cooking, unlike pulp, although a crusher will quarantine the slightly bitter-tasting green stem in older garlic cloves. One thing both sides agree on: never buy a jar of minced garlic
STATUS: INCONCLUSIVE (although leaning towards the anti-garlic-crusher side)
11. Keep bread in the fridge
Refrigerating anything makes it last longer, right? Actually, no. Bread goes stale at around six times the speed when kept in the coolbox, as it speeds up the process known as retrogradation, in which water separates from the starch and the starch begins to reharden. Toasting stale bread temporarily reverses the process. You should store bread at room temperature, in a bread tin or wrapped in a tea towel inside a paper bag.
12. Cook green vegetables in heavily salted water to retain their colour
The belief is that heavy salting of the water prevents the chlorophyll leaching, but retaining the fresh colour of green vegetables depends mostly on cooking time. Ten minutes in boiling water will turn broccoli, for example, dark green; five to seven minutes will stop damage to the cell walls that compromises the chlorophyll. Bringing the water back to the boil rapidly after adding the vegetables will help, too. The way to retain colour in vegies is to boil them for a short time.
13. A teaspoon in the neck of a champagne bottle keeps it fresh
Hanging a teaspoon in the neck of a bottle of bubbly doesn't stop the carbon dioxide escaping. The best you can do for your bottle is keep it constantly cold, which slows the bubble-destroying process.
14. Tear lettuce leaves by hand, don't cut them
The popular belief that tearing lettuce stops its edges browning is based on the theory that it damages fewer cells and limits oxidisation. There's nothing, however, to prove it's any less destructive than cutting the leaves with a knife. Both will turn brown at the same rate.
15. Don't put good knives in the dishwasher
So you've been yelled at for putting the Wusthofs in the Fisher & Paykel? Join the club. Turns out the pedants are correct: the force of the water inside a dishwasher could dull knife edges by pushing them against the shelves or other utensils. Your good knives shouldn't be stored in a kitchen drawer, for the same reason: a magnetic rack or knife block is the way to go.
16. Store an apple with potatoes to stop them sprouting
An old wives' tale advised that an apple kept inside a bag of potatoes would stop the green shoots appearing, but it turns out the opposite is true - the ethylene gas released by the ripening apple will promote the sprouting, not hinder it.
17. Bananas should be peeled from the stem
That's how most people do it, but it's much easier to peel from the other end. That's what monkeys do, and after extensive testing we confidently proclaim they're right. Plus you can use the stem as a handle.
18. Don't refreeze thawed meat
There are taste reasons for this. Freezing can rupture cell membranes, which results in tougher, dryer meat when thawed. But the main concern cited by the ''don't refreeze'' mob is the increased risk of bacteria - which is true, but only if the meat has been left out at room temperature for any length of time. Decrease the risk by thawing the meat in the fridge, cooking it, then refreezing.
19. Don't swim after you eat
Millions of Australian children were brought up to believe that swimming immediately after eating could cause a cramp so bad they'd sink straight to the bottom of the pool. Not really, according to sports dietician Simone Austin. ''I don't know if you need to stay out of the water but it's not sensible to do heavy swimming after a big meal. You're more likely to get a stitch.''
20. Eating cheese before bedtime causes nightmares
Ebenezer Scrooge blamed his Christmas visitations on cheese, but it actually contains an amino acid that produces serotonin, which should aid sleep. Eating anything close to bedtime, however, can mess with the quality of sleep; not eating means you might be able to remember dreams better.
21. Brown eggs are better for you than white eggs
… and they taste better, too. Actually, there's no difference in taste or quality between brown and white eggs (or green eggs from my resident Araucana). The chicken's breed determines the egg colour. Brown eggs tend to sell better, however, and ''mixed dozens'' of white and brown-shelled eggs are a rarity thanks to consumer pickiness.