BECAUSE WE’VE ALWAYS DONE IT THAT WAY
The Ten Classics
Repeat a lie enough and it starts to sound like the truth. Publish it enough and it starts to become the truth.
After years of reading cookbooks and food articles, we’ve seen our share of unsubstantiated food mythology pass into the realm of received wisdom. We’ve done our best to set the record straight, but spreading the word at Q & A sessions after cooking demonstrations has felt a lot like lobbing pebbles at Cossacks.
The following ten myths are the ones that we have identified as the most pervasive forms of erroneous common knowledge. Call these the culinary equivalents of “blondes have more fun.”
FOR BAKING, THE BUTTER SHOULD BE AT ROOM TEMPERATURE.
Ever read a cookie or cake recipe that calls for unsalted butter, at room temperature? Too bad such advice leads to flatter cookies, denser cakes, and tough quick breads. Why? Natch, it goes back to chemistry.
Butter is an emulsion of fat and water, with some dairy solids in the mix. Emulsions are unstable by nature. Their parts do not fuse despite being homogenized. Instead, they remain separate in tiny droplets evenly distributed throughout.
A vinaigrette is an emulsion of oil and vinegar with some herbs thrown in for good measure. The fizzy foam on a cup of espresso is another emulsion—this time, of coffee oils and water. Both lead short lives. Oil and vinegar separate; the foam dissolves into the espresso.
So it is with butter. It can fall apart, particularly when warm. Just above 67°F, it starts to lose its coherence. Several degrees more and it becomes the soft spread that makes the desiccated hunk of bread we call toast edible.
As the temperature rises, butter continues to lose coherence. It soon spreads out, no longer able to hold even its basic shape—mostly because the solid fat in the emulsion is starting to liquefy. It used to hold the water in place; now it’s letting go, loosening up, getting more Unitarian.
But below 67°F, the fat is stiffer, more Presbyterian. It can hold its water. And it can catch air. Hold it, too. Which is why you beat a batter in the first place: to trap air, particularly in the fat.
Thus, in most cases cool butter builds better batters. Cookies won’t be flat; cakes will rise properly. Even cinnamon rolls will be more irresistible. (Oh, great.)
Yes, there are some specialty recipes in which the butter must be at room temperature—for example, when you’re laminating a dough to make croissants, repeatedly working the butter into the dough through incessant rolling. But these sorts of things are unusual, laborious, pastry-chef tasks. For most cakes, cookies, and quick breads, for anything where the beaten butter is to provide airy heft, cold butter is the way to go.
So how did this culinary zinger get started? Blame it on the ’50s. Gone were the stand mixers, the behemoths our great-grandmothers hauled out to the counter. Every June Cleaver wanted a tidy hand mixer.
Unfortunately, this modern appliance couldn’t handle chilled butter. Bits spun around the bowl like lottery balls. The motor was weaker, too; it burned out quickly. And so arose a misguided attempt at making baking easier on the gadgetry, but not necessarily better all-around—that is, the myth of room-temperature butter.
These days, we’re back to the backbreaking stand mixers—they can handle the cool butter you’ve got in the fridge. Admittedly, that butter is a little too cold—the fat is way beyond Presbyterian, more like Dutch Reformed, probably around 40°F. Here’s the problem: you need the butter cool enough to trap air but not so hard that it’s petrified.
The solution? Drag the butter out of the chill, cut it into small bits, and drop them into the mixing bowl. By the time you’ve got the other ingredients out of the pantry, the butter bits will have warmed up just enough that they won’t burn out the motor but will still grab the air and hang on tight.
Without a moment’s hesitation, make that batter or dough! Because a better cookie is the whole reason anyone would ever want one of those honkin’ big stand mixers that take up so much cabinet space.
CHOCOLATE CHUNK CINNAMON OAT COOKIES
Makes about 4 dozen cookies
Although salted butter outsells unsalted seven to one in the United States, unsalted butter is still the culinary standard. First off, the extra salt can lead to melting and boiling point differentials which may affect more temperamental recipes. But secondly, why should someone else determine the sodium content of your food? Yes, these crisp, flavorful cookies are better with a pinch of salt—but not the heavier pour in salted butter.
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup rolled oats (do not use quick-cooking or steel-cut oats)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks or 1/2 pound) cold, unsalted butter, cut into small bits
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated white sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 pound bittersweet chocolate bars, broken and cut into 1/4-inch chunks
1 cup chopped walnuts
1. Position the rack in the center of the oven; preheat the oven to 375°F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or a reusable silicone baking mat.
2. In a medium bowl, use a whisk or a fork to mix the flour, oats, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. (Why? So the leavening and flavorings are evenly distributed in the dry ingredients.)
3. In a large bowl, beat the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar with an electric mixer at medium speed until fluffy, and until most of the sugar has dissolved, about 5 minutes. You’ll need to scrape down the sides of the bowl occasionally with a rubber spatula. But don’t be tempted to run that big mixer at a higher speed. More friction means more heat. Which means warmer butter.
4. Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping down the inside of the bowl a few times and making sure the eggs are thoroughly incorporated in the batter. Beat in the vanilla.
5. Stop the beaters; pour in the flour mixture. Turn the beaters on low and mix in the flour, just until most of the white pockets have disappeared, not a moment more.
6. Turn off and remove the beaters; scrape any batter back into the bowl. Use a wooden spoon to stir in the chocolate and walnuts, thereby also fully incorporating the flour.
7. Roll heaping tablespoonfuls of the dough into balls between your palms. Set the balls on the prepared baking sheet, a couple of inches apart. Bake for 10 minutes.
8. Use a hot pad to pick up the baking sheet and give it a good rap against the baking rack. Continue baking for 2 minutes. Then do it again: a good rap against the baking rack. Continue baking until the cookies are brown and set, about 3 more minutes. Put the baking sheet on a wire rack and cool for 2 minutes, then use a thin spatula to transfer the cookies to the wire rack itself to continue cooling. Cool the baking sheet for 5 minutes before making another batch. Check to see if you need to replace the parchment paper because it’s too fried from having dried out.
HOT SKILLET, COLD OIL.
ONLY ON RARE, CHEFFY OCCASIONS.
Ah, the ’80s. It was a heady time in the American culinary scene. A bunch of wide-load Cajuns and a galloping gourmet lit a mania for food and cooking from Julia Child’s smoldering spark. They did it with suspenders and shoulder pads. And this dead-wrong myth.
The oil in the skillet or pan must be hot, not “to seal in the juices” (we’ll come back to that one), but to keep the meat or vegetables from sticking. Here’s why:
• First, fat smoothes things out.
Believe it or not, the inside of your skillet or saucepan is not flat. It’s landscaped with microscopic grooves, ridges, and gashes. Oil (or any melted fat, for that matter) fills these in. Likewise, cuts of meat or chopped vegetables are microscopically uneven. A thin layer of fat evens them out, too. So why do we care about smoothing things out? Because …
• Second, fat is a lubricant.
Now that the topography of your skillet is smoothed out, those many nicks and gashes don’t snag your food. Thus, less sticking—which means less tearing, chipping, and even scorching.
• Finally, fat gets really hot.
Way beyond the boiling point of water. When food hits the hot oil, you get a good sizzle because the extraneous surface water on the meat or vegetable is instantly vaporized. The piece of food is then raised slightly above the skillet’s hot surface, riding on a tiny layer of steam. Thus, the caramelizing sugars don’t fuse to the surface below. And by the time all that vaporizing is over, the meat or vegetable has a dried-out, crunchy crust. You know, the best part of the meal. But that crust also serves a culinary purpose. Crunchy things usually don’t stick together very well—if at all. It’s also why patchouli-soaked hippie communes fail.
If you think about it: How could oil ever stay cool in a hot skillet? A tablespoon or two in a preheated 300°F to 500°F skillet instantly spreads out into a thin sheet and pops up to the skillet’s surface temperature in milliseconds. There’s no way you can work quickly enough for there to be a hot skillet with cool oil in it.
That said, sometimes you want cool oil in a skillet, particularly for very cheffy reasons. Like when you want to infuse the fat with herbs, or other flavors, so that the items to be sautÉed pick up more sophisticated flavors. To pull this off, pour pantry-temperature oil into a cold skillet off the heat, add a star anise pod or slivered garlic cloves or Sichuan peppercorns or red pepper flakes or fresh rosemary spears, and set the contraption over medium-low heat.
As the oil comes up to a sizzle, those spices or herbs release their flavors into the fat for a more satisfying meal. When the oil is finally hot, remove the flavoring agents and you’ve got infused oil that’ll crisp whatever you’re cooking and impress even Cajun cooks as well as any gourmets who insist on galloping.
YOUR TONGUE HAS FOUR KINDS OF TASTE BUDS: SWEET, SALTY, SOUR, AND BITTER.
AND DO CHICKENS HAVE LIPS?
So much bad information gets bandied about in elementary school. Eating paste won’t make you sick. Holding it in all day gives you character. And the darn tongue map: sweet on the tip, salty at the sides, sour farther back on the sides, and bitter way back in the center by the epiglottis.
Okay, debunking this myth is easy. Get up and go in the kitchen. We’ll wait. Get a pinch of salt. Put it on the tip of your tongue, the part that’s supposed to taste sweet. Do you taste salt? Yes.
Still don’t buy it? Now get a pinch of sugar. Put it way back on the center of your tongue, on the alleged bitter receptors. Do you still taste sweet? Yes.
Done. And by the way, holding it in all day doesn’t give you character.
So how’d this tenacious tongue myth get started? Back in 1901, a German professor, D. P. Hanig, conducted an “experiment” (we use the term loosely, as in “a state-funded science fair project”) in which he asked people their subjective experience of taste. Here ist ein apple. Vere do you taste eet on your tongue?
He used no controls nor any critical apparatus to judge the answers he got. Maybe he had no time, what with Kaiser Wilhelm II driving the country into war. Still, Hanig blocked out the results of all that anecdotal evidence on the now-familiar map of the tongue. It soon got foisted got off onto children.
Here are the facts:
- By the 1970s, researchers believed there were differences in taste centers on the tongue; but they also thought these could move around, depending on a person’s history, proclivities, and age.
- By the late 1980s, researchers had finally come to the conclusion that the actual differences between these tasting centers were, at best, minimal.
- Then in 2006, researchers actually found one of the many proteins that allow us to taste sour. And they found it all over the tongue, not just in one area.
Dr. Hanig did us no favors. The truth has been a long time coming, holding out at least until the late ’80s, if not beyond, waiting for hard evidence like we got in 2006. And yet we continue to see that tongue map even these days. Why? Because of wineglass makers. They coo that the shape of their stemware directs the wine to the appropriate parts of the tongue. The wider Burgundy glass pours the wine onto the salty receptors and then back to the sour ones, letting us taste the savory notes, missing the overpowering sweet and bitter ones that would register in the tongue’s center. It’s a more pleasurable experience, they say. And a naughty wine.
Yeah, right. And they don’t even have the Kaiser to pin that doozy on.
DECAFFEINATED COFFEE HAS NO CAFFEINE.
CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR!
It’s midnight. You’re wide awake. You paid the bills. You called your mother. Why can’t you fall asleep? All you did was have a few cups of decaffeinated coffee.
Which contains caffeine. Based on U.S. standards, between two and twelve milligrams per cup. (Europeans have stricter standards, and so far less caffeine.)
It’s not much, for sure. A cup of regular coffee has somewhere between a hundred and two hundred milligrams. But a few cups of decaf, combined with some sensitivity on your part, plus your usual anxiety levels—and bang, you’re awake.
And don’t be fooled by those big coffeehouse drinks, the frothed, whirred, whipped-cream-topped, Dairy-Queen-Blizzard-for-hipsters coffee drinks. Three or four shots of decaf espresso in that cup and you may have had as much caffeine as is in a can of Coke.
How do you get wired on caffeine?
It suppresses signaling mechanisms throughout your body: the unconscious stuff, the stuff that lets you live your life without thinking about it, like your breathing and heart rate, as well as the metabolism of every single cell. With the signals out, the traffic goes wild. You can’t fall asleep. Hello, walls.
Well, since you’re up, let’s dispense with a few more caffeine myths:
• Espresso has more caffeine than brewed coffee.
Sort of. One ounce of espresso can have three times the amount of caffeine when compared to one ounce of brewed coffee. But nobody drinks one ounce of brewed coffee. Instead, that eight-ounce cup can have 21/2 times as much caffeine as that one-ounce espresso shot.
• Tea has more caffeine than coffee.
Sort of. On average, tea leaves can have almost double the amount of caffeine as coffee beans—but both brewed coffee and espresso have more caffeine because more ground coffee beans are used by weight to brew each cup.
• Caffeine is addictive.
No, although it is a stimulant. And once you get used to any happy jolt, you begin to rely on it. Like getting a raise. Or saying good-bye to your in-laws. But banking on something is not the same as being addicted to it. Going off coffee won’t threaten your social, economic, or personal well-being. Instead, you may have headaches and increased irritability for a few days. Those are the symptoms of a dependency. They do not warrant the official, medical label of addiction.
• Caffeine can help you sober up.
Absolutely not. It’s not as powerful as the alcohol in the vodka you just downed. In fact, coffee and alcohol are a dangerous combination. You feel more alert but you’re still dead drunk. The only way to sober up is to stop drinking. But we’ll get to the boozing myths later.
For now, you’re still awake. Don’t worry: there’s darkness at the end of the tunnel. Caffeine hits its peak in the blood within two hours. After that, it falls off quickly, usually during the next hour. So go watch a movie. By the time it’s over, you’ll be sleepy—particularly if you’ve chosen some flick the hipsters have been raving about over their frothed-up coffee drinks.
SPICY FOODS COOL YOU DOWN.
JUST THE OPPOSITE, IN FACT.
This is the first of many myths based on an oversimplification or a misunderstanding of some basic facts. To understand its nuances, let’s examine some scenarios.
It’s 105°F, a hot summer day. You’re roasting on the deck, quaffing a beer. You think, Gosh, I could really go for nachos right now.
Soon, friends arrive—with nachos! (Hey, it could happen.) You peel off a chip with a big jalapeÑo on top. You bite down and feel the burn. A trickle of sweat runs down your forehead. Sure enough, you shiver.
Listen, it wasn’t the chile that made you chilly. In fact, that jalapeÑo warmed you up. It was the sweat that cooled you down. And that reaction may not happen every time. It depends on several factors.
Sweating leaves moisture on the skin. Moisture evaporates. Evaporation is a cooling process. The water “traps” the heat and then lifts off as a gas, pulling the heat away from you. The sweat dries; you feel cooler.
That is, in the best of all possible worlds. If you’ve been baking in the sun for a couple of hours and drinking nothing except one or two lousy beers, you’re going to be pretty dehydrated—and you’re not going to sweat that much.
What’s more, any cooling process via sweat evaporation won’t happen on a humid, muggy day. Or it will happen so slowly, your heat-stroked brain will get no relief.
Plus, a breeze has to stir the air to make the sweat evaporate quickly enough to do you any good. So if you’re sweating outside on a 105°F day, and if you’re properly hydrated, and if it’s a relatively dry day, and if you happen to feel a light breeze, you may feel a little chill after eating that incendiary jalapeÑo. But not because of the jalapeÑo.
In truth, eating almost always increases your core temperature. Blood rushes to your stomach during digestion. You don’t cool off after eating a hamburger. In fact, you may feel warmer—even wilted on a summer afternoon.
But eating a chile is a different ball of … heat. The burn is caused by a chemical compound called capsaicin. Impress your friends with its real name: 8-Methyl-N-vanillyl-trans-6-nonenamide. Or not.
Capsaicin raises your metabolism. Thus, your blood vessels dilate and carry more blood—specifically, out from the body’s core and into those little capillaries along your skin’s surface. There, the blood heats up your skin. You may flush. And in turn, sweat.
So the truth of the matter is that capsaicin warms you up. Your body then takes care of that problem with its own natural defenses. You sweat.
Unless you eat too many nachos. In which case too much blood will rush to your stomach and you’ll feel hotter because of the digestive fiesta going on down there. But don’t worry: the bathroom’s probably air-conditioned.
FOOD PREPARED AT HOME IS SAFER THAN FOOD PREPARED IN A RESTAURANT.
YOU’D THINK SO, BUT NO.
More people get sick from food at home than from meals in restaurants.
First off, a restaurant gets inspected. When it fails, the matter becomes public record. The joint may get shut down with an embarrassing notice pinned to its front door. Thus, a restaurant has a profit motive to keep people healthy.
Second, good food safety is all about proper hand washing. Statistically, that happens more frequently in a professional kitchen than at home. How many times do you wash your hands while preparing dinner on an average weeknight?
Finally, the safety of food is a matter of its temperature—which must be below 40°F or above 140°F, the so-called “safe zones.” That’s partly why chefs walk around with an instant-read thermometer in their pockets. Chances are, you don’t even own one of these gadgets at home.
Not that you should take the temperature of the stew that’s been sitting on your dinner table for thirty minutes. If you’ve kept the lid on, it may still be above 140°F. And even if not, bad bacteria haven’t yet had time to set to work. It’s probably not going to make you sick. But it might if you leave it out on the counter all night and have it for lunch the next day—even if you reheat it back into the safe zone above 140°F, killing all the bad bacteria. Because the residue from once-proliferating-and-now-dead bacteria can be as bad for your stomach as the live bacteria themselves. And some of that residue can only be destroyed at temperatures beyond the reach of a quick reheating.
There’s yet another reason people get sick more often at home: they believe culinary myths. They believe that they can shove a piece of meat in a marinade and leave it at room temperature for hours because vinegar kills everything. Or they believe that you can tell when a piece of meat is done by how it feels.
The solution to this culinary threat to your health is twofold:
• Wash your hands often when preparing food.
• Practice good temperature control: below 40°F (that’s your fridge’s temperature) and above 140°F (not at a boil but still hot).
All that said, the real threat to your digestive tract lies neither at home nor in restaurants but somewhere in between. Quite literally. It’s the take-out and prepared meals that you have to look out for.
Sure, they’re hot at the restaurant. But then a delivery boy puts your dinner on his bike, drives around, finally gets to your place, rings the bell, waits for you to answer the door and pay, and then hands it over. You unpack the food, go back to the TV, and finally eat the lukewarm, uh-oh food—at your own risk.
Or you pick up a prepared meal at the grocery store, shop around some more, put your dinner in your hot car, drive home, fire up the DVR, and eat the questionable, lukewarm food.
No amount of hand-washing can rinse off the number of bacteria possible in those take-out cartons.
NEVER REFREEZE MEAT.
FEEL FREE—MOST OF THE TIME.
It’s Tuesday. Your mother-in-law is coming for dinner on Friday night. You take the chicken out of the freezer, set it on a plate to catch the juices, and put the whole thing in the refrigerator.
It sits there all week, thawing slowly. On Thursday, you play bridge with her. By Friday, she’s still not talking to you. And you’re not cooking for that son of hers. He can eat cold cuts at her house.
Still, you’re stuck with a thawed chicken in your fridge. What will you do?
1. Throw it out and be the profligate daughter-in-law she always thought you were.
2. Roast it anyway, eat the whole thing yourself, and get fat as she always said you would.
3. Put it back in the freezer, call a friend, and go out for a liquid dinner to salve your feelings, and end up in your town’s drunk tank as she predicted you would.
The answer is any of the above. They’re all perfectly fine from a culinary standpoint. In terms of your mother-in-law, you’re on your own.
If food has been thawed in a 40°F refrigerator and maintained there for a day or two at 40°F or below, it can definitely be refrozen.
But note that temperature: 40°F. That’s the safe point.
And that goes for power outages, too. When the lights come back on, if what’s in your freezer is still partially frozen and if the temperature in there has not gone above 40°F, let the compressor kick in and refreeze the stuff.
As usual, we’ve got a few howevers.
• You will definitely lose moisture during the first thaw—all those juices on the plate in the fridge—and then again during the second thaw. You won’t have the juiciest chicken imaginable. But next week, you can take some comfort in the fact that his mother doesn’t deserve your best cooking anyway.
• The meat may develop ice crystals which will turn into that dreaded, desiccated freezer burn. Cut away those bits, even if you’d like to serve them to her on a silver platter.
• If the meat has been left out at room temperature for more than two hours, do not refreeze it.
• If, when you bought the meat at the store, either a sign or a label stated it was previously frozen, you can’t be sure how it was thawed—that is, if it was thawed at the safe 40°F temperature. Do not refreeze this meat.
By the way, this whole refreezing fandango goes for leftovers with meat, too.
Take a container of chili out of the freezer on Monday and put it in the fridge, wait a couple of days, be “out of the mood” for chili on Wednesday, and put the container right back in the freezer.
Now look who’s a frugal, savvy, and competent daughter-in-law after all.
OYSTERS ARE AN APHRODISIAC.
This one may have started with the movie Spartacus. Specifically, with dialogue like this:
Crassus: Do you eat oysters?
Antoninus: When I have them, master.
Crassus: Do you eat snails?
Antoninus: No, master.
Crassus: Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to be immoral?
Antoninus: No, master.
Crassus: Of course not. It is all a matter of taste, isn’t it?
Antoninus: Yes, master.
Crassus: And taste is not the same as appetite, and therefore not a question of morals.
Antoninus: It could be argued so, master.
Crassus: My robe, Antoninus. My taste includes both snails and oysters.
To which Antoninus should have replied, “Is that a mollusk in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”
Okay, maybe one movie doth not a myth make. It’s also been said this whole nonsense started with an alleged resemblance: oysters are supposed to look like a certain part of the female anatomy.
Whoever came up with that one needed to get out more often.
In truth, oysters are made up of water, protein, carbs, fats, minerals, natural sugars, and salts. Not a one is a known aphrodisiac. But every one is necessary to good brain functioning—which is a much bigger aphrodisiac.
Plus, oysters are expensive, a treat. You usually have them when you’re really putting on the dog. You make a reservation at a fine restaurant, one with plush drapes and cut crystal. You arrive with your date. You order a dozen oysters. You tuck in. You savor the good life. Soon, you’re happy. And a little frisky.
There’s the aphrodisiac: the narrative, the story, the whole thing that swirled up in your head. I work a temp job and make no money, I’ll be paying this dinner off until I’m a hundred and fifty, I don’t care, I’m having a good time, I’ll take another sip of wine, I’ve forgotten my troubles, I deserve this, I think we should go back to my place, I think respect’s really important, and no, you can’t stay over because I have an early meeting.
By the way, the same thing goes for all the other alleged culinary aphrodisiacs: chocolate, nuts, ginseng, turtle eggs, the testicles of any animal, or powdered rhino horn. It’s all in your mind. And soon enough in your pants.
THE ADJECTIVES USED TO DESCRIBE THE SIZE OF SHRIMP MEAN SOMETHING.
All adjectives associated with the size of shrimp are mere ad copy. Colossal, gargantuan, crazy-ass big—these words are put on the sign so you’ll stop and pay attention to that nice man standing at the fish counter waiting to sell you something.
In truth, shrimp are sized by how many of their tails make up a pound.
Yep, their tails. We in North America eat only the rear ends of these squirmy buggers. We knock off the heads and bodies, which, together, are about as long as those tails. Did you know that some freshwater shrimp can grow to be a foot or so by the time you take their heads into account?
But forget about the Nessies of the Red Lobster set. Let’s focus on what you’ll find at the supermarket. For proper sizing, you need to know how many tails make up a pound.
Now it gets complicated. … Because it’s about math.
- If about thirty-five shrimp (tails) make a pound, we’re talking medium-size shrimp, good for stir-frying and such.
- If twenty make a pound, we’re talking much bigger ones, perfect for shrimp cocktail.
- And if ten make a pound, we’re talking a knife-and-fork affair.
- Beyond ten per pound, we get into categories the industry calls U. As in U-5s. That is, it takes fewer than (or under) five shrimp (tails) to make a pound, each one ringing in at a little less than a quarter pound.
- And U-2s? We’re back to the Nessies, each tail weighing in at a little over half a pound.
While we’re debunking crustacean myths, let’s also talk about baby shrimp. They aren’t babies. They’re full-grown shrimp that live in the icy waters around Newfoundland, Alaska, and Greenland. Although they usually run more than a hundred to the pound, small is still not young. They can take four years to reach maturity. They arrive in the freezer section of your supermarket shelled and precooked.
Which is a good thing, because these guys, like all shrimp, are easily overcooked. All are done when the flesh has turned pink, opaque, and slightly firm. For shrimp at thirty per pound, that’s about 4 minutes on a grill over high heat. For those at twenty per pound, maybe 6 minutes. Overcooked shrimp turn rubbery, even squishy—that’s nobody’s idea of a good dinner.
But long before you get to the grill or stove, the only thing you need to know is how many shrimp (tails) make up a pound. You bet size matters. Just don’t take anybody’s word for it.
LOBSTERS SCREAM WHEN YOU BOIL THEM.
Let’s set up a culinary syllogism, shall we?
1. To scream, something must have vocal cords.
2. Lobsters don’t have vocal cords.
3. Lobsters can’t scream.
End of discussion.
So what’s the high-pitched whine you sometimes hear when you drop a lobster in a pot of boiling water? Superheated vapors whistling out from the joints in the shell.
In the end, this culinary myth is probably the result of anthropomorphization, a common fault with us humans and our cortex overflow. We have more brainpower than we need. You can probably think of counter-examples, particularly among your co-workers. Trust us: the rest of us do.
Our brains saw away at this thing called consciousness, even when we don’t need them to. We have to put all that thought energy somewhere. Mostly, we project it onto the world. Happy trees. Peaceful clouds. Screaming lobsters.
Um, no. Trees are not happy. Clouds are not peaceful. We are. But we pay it all forward. And end up with our food screeching at us.
In truth, this question about lobsters and their shrieks is really about pain, right? Do lobsters feel pain when they’re boiled alive?
Probably not in the way you and I would. Back off PETA. We—and all mammals—feel pain because of a chemical reaction along nerve channels connected to our brains. We’re not talking about emotional pain, caused mostly by dating; we’re talking physical pain, a matter of the central nervous system.
Which is the very thing a lobster lacks. Truth be told, it’s a fairly simple organism. Not as simple as a clam—which is no more than a mouth, a stomach, and an ass. (Sound like anyone you’ve dated?) But not as complex as a cow, a pig, or a politician.
Simple or not, lobsters are vicious beasts. They spend their lives picking fights. Inevitably, somebody gets a claw snapped off—and doesn’t show the usual signs of mammal pain. Doesn’t grab the limb, doesn’t back away, doesn’t flinch.
That’s not to say a lobster doesn’t have a nervous system at all or doesn’t feel something akin to pain. Just look at all that flailing as you hold the creature over the pot of boiling water. It’s a defensive posture. And intriguingly, it happens before the thing’s put into the pot. As if it knows something.
It may be some sort of rudimentary dread. It may be mere intuition. But in either case, it’s pretty complex. Chances are, a lobster has never seen a pot of boiling water. Chances are, it’s never been in a kitchen. Chances are, it’s never experienced heat. Yet it knows what it knows without prior experience. So pain in the way we experience it? The vast majority of marine experts say “no.” But some sort of elemental dread? Perhaps—although that comes near to a projection on our part, too.
In the end, a lobster is one of the few animals you’ll bump off in your kitchen. These days, we’ve left the job of killing meat to others. Sure, some people hunt. Or fish. But most of us are not present at the death of our dinner.
So the whole lobsters-scream projection is a result of our own complex issues swirling around this very real dread called death—as well as its connection to eating. Even if you’re a vegetarian, you still eat something that’s died; or if you’re a raw-food maven, you put it to death as you eat it. We eat things that have already experienced the very thing we most dread.
We can’t solve that foundational riddle of existence here. We can only acknowledge it.
PERFECT LOBSTER WITH THREE DIPPING SAUCES
Knocks off 4 lobsters
You’ll need the biggest pot you can find—probably a wide 10- or 12-quart monster. Plus a steamer rack to go inside the pot. When steamed, lobster is less water-logged and thus tastier than when boiled. Plus, the timing is much more forgiving.
2 tablespoons salt
Four 11/4-pound live lobsters
One or more of the dipping sauces (recipes follow)
1. Fill a huge stock or soup pot with about 2 inches of water and add the salt. Set the steamer rack in the pot, cover, and bring the water to a boil over high heat.
2. Open the pot and put the lobsters on the steaming rack, one on top of another. They must be alive. And they will flail. Some claim to hypnotize lobsters by rubbing their underbellies. (Really? A creature without a brain can be hypnotized?) And some put the lobsters in the freezer for 15 minutes to delay the flailing. But is it more humane to freeze to death? Look, you’ve got two choices: suck it up so the lobster won’t have died in vain, or become a vegetarian.
3. Cover the pot and steam for 7 minutes. Then use big tongs to rearrange the lobsters, switching around who’s on top, who’s at what angle, all for even cooking. Cover and continue steaming for 5 more minutes. If you’ve got bigger lobsters, they’ll take longer. Ones that are 11/2 pounds, about 8 minutes more; ones that are 2 pounds, about 13 minutes more.
By the way, a red shell is not the best indication that a lobster is done. After the right amount of time, crack one of the lobsters open where the shell meets the body and check the meat. It should be white, not translucent. If it’s a female, there will be roe (egg sacks) running down the tail. The roe should be red and firm, not black.
Transfer the lobsters to serving plates and enjoy them with one or more of these dipping sauces.
Melted Herb Butter
Melt 2 sticks of unsalted butter with a sprig of fresh tarragon and a couple of smashed, peeled garlic cloves in a little saucepan over low heat. Remove the herbs and garlic, then use a spoon to skim off any foam. Spoon up or pour off the clear liquid in the pan, leaving the gunky white milk solids behind. Discard these in favor of the clarified fat.
Easy Cocktail Sauce
In a large blender, combine and blend: 1 cup tomato juice, 2 tablespoons jarred prepared white horseradish, 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, 1 tablespoon tomato paste, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, and several dashes hot red pepper sauce, such as Tabasco sauce.
PurÉe all of the following in a large food processor fitted with the chopping blade: 1/2 cup olive oil, 1/3 cup packed parsley leaves, 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, 3 tablespoons packed oregano leaves, 1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon salt, and 4 slivered garlic cloves.
© 2011 Bruce Weinstein