10 Food Rules Worth Breaking

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 preferably 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 ten 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 6 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.


49 thoughts on “10 Food Rules Worth Breaking”

  1. Barb | Creative Culinary

    Agree on most points but the buttering of a pan. I can smell and taste the awfulness of those sprays so for me it’s gotta be buttah!

    1. I’m totally with you on this. My method isn’t pretty but it works: I just unwrap cold butter a bit then rub it all over. (The pan, not myself.) Just as easy as pam, unless it’s a weirdly-shaped pan.

      1. My grandma always saved the paper wrapped around the unsalted butter in the fridge to butter pans. It ensures a light touch and keeps my hands clean. Try it…

    2. I’ve started recently using wilton cake release and will not go back! It’s the best. no residue and the cake pops out of the pan

  2. I definitely agree with not mixing dry ingredients before adding them to the wet ingredients. Waste of time and dishes!

  3. I agree with Barb on the Pam….

    Try this Adam, I did it once and will never do it again- Spray out enough Pam to taste it raw, and plop it into your mouth. I nearly gagged.

    Do the same thing with a good quality oil or butter…. While I wouldn’t want to eat a bowl full of butter, the flavor of a small spoon it quite good.

    When you bake with Pam, the flavor is pretty diluted, you may not notice how bad it tastes, but why would you want to put any bad flavor in your cooking?

  4. Pam may be easier but I love buttering a cake pan with a plastic baggie wrapped around a pat of butter – it reminds me of baking with my mom as a kid. But not washing your chicken – oh I am going to follow that from now on. Saves me from cleaning the sink OCD style!

  5. Gregory Stanton

    Agree 90%. I prefer wet, custardy eggs. Besides, the occasional bouts of salmonella keep me thin and gorgeous!

  6. Gregory Stanton

    Agree 90%. I prefer my eggs wet and custardy. Besides, occasional bouts of salmonella keep me thin and gorgeous!

  7. About the chocolate…I have been experimenting with different chocolates when I make a souffle. I always bought the most expensive chocolate and had very good results. One day in a pinch I used Trader Joe’s semi sweet chocolate chips. It turned out so much better than with the fancy chocolates. Now that is all I use.

  8. My favorite rule to break is which wine to eat with what food. Technically, as a vegetarian, these rules are fairly bendable anyway, but I like being in a nice restaurant and ordering the “wrong” colour wine with my food. It is a good test of how snooty/helpful/accepting the server is when it comes to low brow patrons like me.

  9. Personally I will use 2 Buck Chuck for certain dishes or if Clos du Bois (my go-to $8 wine) isn’t on sale. I think the “Use only wine you would drink” rule is primarily to discourage people from buying so-called “cooking wine.” That stuff is gross! :(

  10. In my mind, Two Buck Chuck is good enough for cooking or drinking! Other than that disagreement, loved your tips. Well thought out post!

      1. I agree that it’s not consistent, but I’ve never had any that was so bad it would ruin a heavy, wine-based dish. I keep bottles of it around just for beef stew, and have never had a bad one.

  11. Agree about the un trussed chicken and lots of garlic and cheaper versions of chocolate and wine.

    Never touch Pam, it is vile. ~ a bit shocked that one who has spent so much tome in butter loving France would not drop the Pam,,,?

    Just rub the stick of butter or glomp some onto the wrapper and it goes right on.

    I wash chicken because it makes me feel better. I rub it with lemon wedges too sometimes.

    I always cook eggs whisked with cream over low flame because I love custardy eggs. Sounds like your technique works well for you.

    In the end this post feels like a clash of cultures french and more rigid yet well tested vs the american pioneer, finding simpler less complicated ways, eh?

  12. Never wash a chicken – I recently read why but oddly enough my husband saw me do it recently and freaked out. He doesn’t cook from information he read but from family traditions. I also grease my cake pans with whatever fat I use in the cake. And trussing a chicken? Who has the time and patience? I have never done it.

  13. I bought a jar of coconut oil at Trader Joe’s. I scoop out about a teaspoon to coat my cake pans when baking. It liquifies almost instantly with the heat from your hand and becomes easy to spread. I’ve stopped using Pam-type sprays for baking.

  14. Cook’s Illustrated did tests on washing your chicken. They found by washing it you’re actually splashing bacteria all over your sink and counter so it’s not worth it. Anything alive on it will die in the oven.

  15. Gah – Ghiradelli is so waxy! Also – for cakes, having the ingredients at the same temperature will prevent cracking along the top.

  16. Use Pam instead of butter… because everyone loves their cake with a thin layer of icky canola oil, helped out of the can by petroleum! :D

    Agree with everything else though.

  17. Julia Child says omelets in hot bubbling butter and remove when just set on outside to finish by stored heat. I do scrambled eggs the same.

  18. Thank you! I feel a lot less lazy now. I never truss either and my best cookie recipe involves just throwing it all in the bowl and adding MELTED butter. Thanks for letting me off the guilt hook.

  19. Not on your list, but I’ve taken to melting butter in the microwave before I mix it into m most recipes. It’s so much easier to mix. I wouldn’t do it for pie crust, but it seems to work fine for biscuits, cookies, cakes, and even scones,

  20. Alley @ Alley's Recipe Book

    I use spray when baking cakes because I’m usually baking cupcakes and it is harder to butter, but I use olive oil in a spray bottle rather than Pam. And I never combine my dry baking ingredients before adding it to the wet. Great list!

  21. Rules were made for people that don’t know what they’re doing..just kidding lol!
    But I agree with the fact that there are times when rules can be bent or broken..and it won’t affect the result..maybe the cook can tell, but as long as the people who eat your food are enjoying it and can’t tell the difference, kudos!

  22. herkkusuun lautasella

    interesting text, the pnly thing of these i don’t do is salting the beans, all the others i have not bothered about but i will denitively salt my beans next time!!!

  23. Suzanne Martin

    My 11 year old throws all the cookie batter ingredients in at once then mixes it up with passion. Her cookies are better than my “follow the rules” cookies. Thanks.

  24. I totally agree about the chicken. I’ve always thought that trussing was odd and much prefer the look of a bird that has been free to move as it cooks. That said there is a gets perk in sucking rendered chicken juices and crusted on bits of chicken from the twine.

  25. Generally, I would agree with most of these, though I will say, a few may have had a grain of truth to them initially.

    As for trussing, I never did, but I can see that on very large birds, such as a turkey, and this is to largely prevent the wings and legs from overcooking as the rest is roasting in the oven. And you can just tuck the ends of the wings under the skin if you like without using any string.

    I always salt my beans when cooking, and adjust as needed as they cook. I don’t always salt, just to get them salty, but to help balance flavors, especially when cooking Hoppin John with blackeyed peas and hamhocks, and this is more due to the flavor of the meat as it cooks.

    I don’t really follow the type of wine (red or white) with what I cook, though I do think there is an element of truth to that as some red wines may be too hearty for some lighter dishes, and thus can overpower them, otherwise, go with what you like, though I do cook with whatever I intend to drink, and my wine is generally on the lower end of the price scale, but most of it is quite decent, though not as good as say, an $8-12 bottle, but still good.

    Unless there is an absolute reason why something should not be bent/broken, it’s OK to break rules, though with baking, better research first as it’s more finicky than regular cooking is.

  26. Some of us are drinking the $3 bottle from Trader Joe’s! (Actually, the cheapest I’ll go is $4, but there are some pretty drinkable $4 wines).

    I also always use salted butter in baking and I think my baking is better for it.

  27. I use veg Shortening to grease my pans why waste butter and Pam never use the stuff chemicals and leave that residue on your cookware. as for washing a chicken i do and will never stop . as well as other meats. Because that s just the way I was raised plus the Butchers B_ _ _ _S itch just like any other guys : )

  28. Baking is always a challenge for me, it is not my finest skill. I’d never ruin anything I baked by using one of those PAM cooking sprays. It’s motor oil, and I can definitely taste it when it’s used. Butter or coconut oil if the butter taste will be too distracting. It’s never too difficult to use.

  29. I have a problem with #7. IMO (as a former restaurant and bakery professional) it’s a bad idea to just throw cream of tartar, baking powder or baking soda onto a gob of butter and expect it to mix in evenly with the other dry ingredients. Plus, these ingredients have a strong tendency to clump– particularly in humid environments. If you ever get a clump of baking powder in a bite of one of your cookies you won’t think it’s the bee’s knees, I promise. But I don’t mess up a bowl, I just put a wire hand-held strainer over a piece of parchment or waxed paper, measure my dry ingredients into the strainer and then shake it gently. There are almost always lumps that need to be pushed through. Anything that doesn’t easily break and fall through the strainer probably won’t integrate into your recipe and should be discarded. (I only replace it if it’s 25% or more of the total amount.) It’s super-easy to then pick up the paper and shake/slide the mixture into the side of my Kitchen Aid, or even roll/fold it up and hold it in one hand, holding the hand mixer in the other. Of course, the bowl has to be secured to the counter with either a towel or a silicone mat so it doesn’t spin around a mile a minute and sling everything out onto the counter. I just rinse the strainer under running water and then put it directly into my dish drainer. I then use the parchment to line my pan. No waste.

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