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Myth Smashers - Recap

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Alton muses on the bizarre thinking that spreads around in print and on the web. It seems that if you get your idea in front of them a certain number of folks will believe it. Alton sets out to learn scientifically whether there’s any truth to these bits of apocrypha. It’s to be the first in a series of shows to be called Myth Bust… er, Myth Smashers.

First up is the hoary tradition of pan searing meat to lock in the juices. To find out if this works Alton and two lab-coated assistants weigh two pieces of meat and then prepare them identically for cooking. Alton puts one piece straight into the oven. He sears the other on both sides in a hot skillet before putting it into the oven. He cooks each piece to medium doneness as determined by internal temperature. The he lets each piece rest for the same length of time and weighs it carefully. The seared piece weighs less. It has lost more moisture than the simply broiled piece. If searing locked in moisture Alton would expect the opposite result. Consider this myth debunked! Thanks to the Maillard reaction, searing adds flavor to the meat. But it does not lock in juices.

Next, Alton considers the theory that nonstick cookware can kill birds. More specifically, he wants to answer the question, “Does polytetrafluroethylene, better known to most as Teflon, emit toxic fumes when heated to high temperatures?” Alton finds it difficult to conduct the experiment himself since he lacks to facilities to detect any fumes the hot resin might emit. Fortunately there is published literature and it is unequivocal. Teflon does give off fumes when heated to temperatures of 500° or hotter.

Birds are quite susceptible to toxins (they were used as living gas detectors in the early days of mining). Teflon itself is inert but when it is heated to these temperatures it breaks down, and the decomposition products can be lethal to birds. Studies have shown these fumes can affect humans as well, producing flu-like symptoms that can last for several days. So Alton has a rule: he does not use nonstick cookware for any cooking process that requires a superhot pan – no searing, no blackening, not even sautéing and under no circumstances does it go under the broiler. This one is no myth, but stone cold cooking fact.

The mushroom brush is up next. This fine-haired brush is used to brush dirt from mushrooms. You can’t wash mushrooms, so the lore says, because they’ll soak up the liquid. To test this theory, Alton puts four groups of button mushrooms in four strainers, and sets those in four bowls. He pours water to cover the mushrooms into three of the bowls and sets a timer. Ten minutes later, he weighs one group of mushrooms and discovers they have gained mass equal to about a teaspoon of water. He sets another timer and checks a second group of mushrooms after a total of twenty minutes. They gain a little more – perhaps ten more drops worth. After thirty minutes, a third group of mushrooms is no heavier than the second group. For a final test, Alton rinses that last group of mushrooms under running water long enough to clean them. He discovers that this group absorbs about the same amount of water as the group that soaked for ten minutes – a teaspoon or so. His conclusion? Mushrooms do soak up a little water – but it’s an insignificant amount. So go ahead and wash your mushrooms, and consider this myth busted!

Does adding a little oil to pasta water prevent the noodles from sticking? Alton decides to find out. He prepares some pasta, then pours off and measures the oil and water to see how much oil is missing, assuming that quantity coated the noodles. Surprise! Only about 15% of the oil actually coated the noodles – far too little to have much effect in preventing starchy noodles from sticking to each other. Does oil prevent the foaming that can occur during boiling? It can – the foam is formed of starch molecules, and a little oil can lubricate them so they do not link. Far better is to use a larger pot that gives the pasta plenty of room to move around during cooking. If the noodles have room to move, they won’t touch long enough to stick. If the pot is large enough, the water level will be enough below the top of the pot to preclude boil over.

Alton’s final experiment concerns water heated in a microwave. Can it “explode” as some claim? To find out, Alton enlists a “Super Microwave Geek,” to conduct an experiment. And the answer is yes if conditions are right. The water enters a kind of superheated phase where the slightest vibration can trigger the start of the boiling reaction. To prevent this, Alton and his friend recommend a container with a lot of surface area and stirring the liquid about halfway to boiling.

The final score is three myths busted, and two cooking facts revealed. As the curtain closes Alton and his two assistants eagerly head outside to try lighting a grill with liquid oxygen…