Old myths and methods make cooks err

March 10, 1996|By Irene Sax | Irene Sax,NEWSDAY

Everybody makes mistakes.

New cooks make them through ignorance. They add 2 tablespoons of dried thyme instead of 2 tablespoons of fresh thyme and end up with an over-seasoned stew, or they substitute diet margarine for butter when baking a cake and then wonder why it didn't work.

Experienced cooks make them through carelessness, trying to do too many things at once.

But there also are mistakes we all make because what we were taught was wrong. Or so says Christopher Kimball, editor and publisher of Cook's Illustrated Magazine, in a booklet called "25 Common Cooking Mistakes And How to Avoid Them." (To get it, with a free copy of the magazine, call [800] 888-6778.)

"A lot of things we do in the kitchen every day are simply wrong, " said Mr. Kimball. "They are the holdover techniques that your mother or father or your cooking-school instructor taught you 20 years ago, but that just don't hold, because food and equipment have changed. The classic example is scalding milk before you make custard. We were told to do it because unpasteurized milk had an enzyme that kept sauces from thickening, but since pasteurized milk has already been heated, there's no reason for us to heat it a second time."

Several of the mistakes surprised me, such as the warning not to mix cookie dough with an electric mixer. It seems that an editor at the magazine was at a cooking school where some of the students made cookies by hand and others made them with a mixer. The motorized cookies were over-processed, thinner and less chewy than those that were made by hand, because the heat and heavy action of the mixer almost liquefied the dough.

What about quick-soaking dried beans? According to Mr. Kimball, tests at the magazine showed that only an old-fashioned overnight soaking works. Beans that are quick-soaked (put in cold water that's brought to a boil, then allowed to sit in the water, covered, with the heat turned off, for an hour) are no different from those that haven't been soaked at all.

I've long since stopped trying to make Chinese food at home, but I never realized that my mistake was trying to do it in a wok. Round-bottomed woks were designed to use in a heat pit and don't get hot enough when they're held above the flames of a gas burner or barely touch the coils of an electric stove. You're better off using a flat-bottomed skillet for stir-frying, and letting it heat up well before you add food.

And I loved the fact that he calls trussing poultry a mistake. When the legs aren't bound close to the body, the dark meat is exposed to heat on all sides and can cook through before the white meat dries out.

(He also said that at 180 degrees, the temperature at which pop-up thermometers pop, white meat is overcooked; instead, cook dark meat to 170 degrees and breast meat to 155.)

And I'm glad to find Mr. Kimball and I agree that the microwave oven makes a good prep cook but a lousy cook. In fact, he says it cooks only three things well: bacon, polenta and swordfish.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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