Most of us know the rules when it comes to cooking: wash your hands after handling raw chicken, don't wash a cast iron skillet with soap, etc. Yet, over my many years of cooking (both with chefs and by myself), I've learned that certain rules are time-wasters that do very little for you or your food. Breaking these rules frees you up to focus on the stuff that really matters when making dinner. So here are 10 food rules that you don't have to follow anymore.
1. Don't add salt to dried beans while they cook. This rule teeters on myth because when people say it, they do so with an almost religious, mystical fervor. Yet, Alex Raij and Eder Montero at Txikito in New York taught me that it's no big deal to season beans (or, in their case, dried chickpeas) while they cook. In fact, it's preferable because it allows the salt to get inside the bean, giving it way more flavor than it would have if you just add salt at the end. My strategy is to add a little salt at the beginning, more as it continues to cook, and then taste towards the end until they're salty to my satisfaction. (Here's the recipe for the beans you see below.)
2. Use real butter to coat a pan when making a cake. While I'm sure there's truth to the fact that a cake pan coated with real butter produces a better flavor than one sprayed with cooking spray, I've yet to really taste that difference. And taking the time to soften butter when your butter isn't yet softened to coat a pan can waste much of your cooking time when a quick spray from a bottle of Pam will do the same job way faster. So if you have softened butter on hand, great, use that to coat your pan; otherwise, do a quick spritz and your work is done.
3. Scramble eggs on low heat. For the longest time, I adhered to this rule like it was delivered from on high the same day Moses received the 10 commandments. French chefs make scrambled eggs on the lowest possible heat and produce something that looks like wet custard. That's fine if you like custardy eggs. I don't. So now what I do is cook an onion in butter on low heat and when it's deeply caramelized, I crank up the heat and pour in six eggs that I've whisked in a bowl. I let them sit for a second and then I stir with a wooden spoon, gently, creating large curds. Just when the eggs are no longer wet, I turn off the heat and add cheese. This is so much better than the custardy eggs, it's my favorite food rule to break. And apparently Wylie Dufresne makes his eggs this way too (minus the onion).
4. Don't use too much garlic. Generally, I agree with this rule when making classic Italian preparations where balance is key. But often times I find myself deploying garlic with a heavy hand -- when making my Caesar salad, for example -- and no one ever complains. In fact, it makes the Caesar salad taste better to use a lot of garlic. So if your goal is delicacy, by all means, follow this rule; if your goal is maximum impact, break it with abandon (and some after dinner mints).
5. You must truss a chicken before roasting. Mario Batali once said on his show that you don't have to truss a chicken before you roast it and I've been following his advice ever since. When I buy a whole chicken, I pat it dry with paper towels, sprinkle it all over with salt and pepper, stuff the cavity with thyme and garlic, and plop it into a skillet that goes straight into a 425 oven. Sometimes I put butter on the breast, Thomas Keller style, but not always. What comes out of the oven, an hour later, is a perfectly roasted chicken with little singed bits on the end (especially of the wings) that are delectably crunchy. I guess you could say I have truss issues, but not really; I just don't see a need to do it.
6. Bring butter and eggs to room temperature before baking. Yes, this helps the butter and eggs whip up better and sometimes it really matters -- especially with eggs, when making meringue -- but for the most part? You can use cold butter straight out of the fridge, put it in a mixer, beat it with a paddle and it'll warm up just from that act alone. And truthfully I almost never bring eggs to room temperature before using them in a typical cake or cookie recipe. My cookies are still the bees knees.
7. You need to mix the dry ingredients before adding them to the wet ingredients. If you're making cookies and you beat the butter and sugar together, add the egg and vanilla and then, in the final step, you need to add flour and baking soda and baking powder and salt, do what I do: just add them directly to the mixer instead of mixing them first together. It saves a bowl and doesn't make a lick of difference. Just be sure to beat an extra few seconds to make sure everything gets incorporated.
8. Cook with a wine you'd want to drink. I agree that the wine you use to cook with should be palatable but it doesn't have to be a wine you'd want to drink. So don't get the $3 bottle from Trader Joe's to make Coq au Vin, but don't get the $40 bottle either. My advice is to get the $8 bottle; slightly less good than one you'd want to drink with dinner but certainly better than Two Buck Chuck.
9. Rinse a chicken before cooking it. Jacques Pepin debunked this rule on his cooking show with Julia Child and his logic makes good sense: the heat of the oven will kill any germs you're worried about and putting the chicken under the faucet dampens it in a way that's not going to make it taste better. So don't waste your time.
10. Use the best chocolate you can buy. Similar to my wine sentiment above, it's a nice idea to cook with the best stuff you can afford but if you can't afford it don't let that discourage you from making a recipe. My grocery store sells bars of bittersweet Scharffen Berger chocolate for $9 a pop; the Ghiardelli next to it is $5. Though I know many bakers and cookbook authors would urge me to splurge on the nicer stuff when making chocolate pudding or chocolate cake, to my mind, it's just not worth it. I'm a Ghiardelli boy through and through.