The 10 Most Puzzling Food Mysteries--Solved

woman comparing productswoman comparing productsBy Tracy Saelinger

If you've ever wondered why cucumbers are shrink-wrapped or why Swiss cheese has holes, indulge your inner food scientist and read on. Photo by Getty Images

1. Stock and broth-what's the difference?

Seasoning! Stock is an unseasoned "building block" that adds depth to recipes, says Sibel Candemir, an expert at Pacific Foods. Traditionally, stocks are made by simmering a whole roasted chicken with carrot, celery and onion in water for five to six hours, with no added salt or seasonings-allowing the cook to control the dish's final flavor. Broth is fully seasoned, however, Candemir says, and usually made by simmering water, chicken meat, salt and seasonings for two to three hours. While most people use stocks and broths interchangeably, stocks are better for braises, marinades and gravies and can be easily reduced for sauces, Candemir says. Use broth's stronger flavor for soups, pastas and grain dishes.

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2. Does pork butt come from a pig's rear?

No, it comes from the pig's upper shoulder-but starting in fall 2013, the cut will be relabeled "blade pork roast" in grocery stores to align pork and beef terms, says Pamela Johnson, director of consumer communications for the National Pork Board. The common name will remain on the second line, followed by preparation suggestions. So why was it called butt in the first place? In colonial New England, butchers packed less-valued pork cuts into super-large wine casks, called "butts" for the old English measurement unit. They shipped the barrels off with supplies for the troops, while officers got "high on the hog" loin cuts, Johnson explains. While it's less lean and more marbled, pork butt is tasty when slowly braised and makes delicious pulled pork.

3. Are sweet potatoes and yams the same thing?

Not technically, even though they're often labeled interchangeably in U.S. grocery stores, says Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director for the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission. Generally, Americans can find only sweet potatoes-moist, orange-fleshed root vegetables. Yams are dry, white- or yellow-fleshed tubers with brown, scaly skin, Johnson-Langdon says. Many ethnic markets have true yams, but when American recipes call for a yam, it's safe to assume you should use a sweet potato. No one knows how the terms became so entwined in the U.S., Johnson-Langdon says, but for simplicity's sake, "in the U.S., there's no difference between the two."

4. Why are wheat berries called berries?

Believe it or not, wheat berries-and almost all cereal grains-are technically fruits. Although we think of a fruit as the juicy bits that surround a pit, a fruit is technically the ripened ovary of a plant, says Mark Scarbrough, who devotes a whole section to wheat berries in his book, Grain Mains. A berry is one type of fruit: a fleshy one produced from a single ovary and containing a seed or many seeds, he says. So avocados, bananas, watermelons, blueberries and tomatoes are all berries; raspberries and blackberries are technically not because they come from multiple ovaries from a single flower. A wheat berry, Scarbrough says, gets its name because it forms like a berry, but then diverges because the ovary hardens into the hull.

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5. Is fried ice cream really fried?

In a way, yes, says Pati Jinich, author of Pati's Mexican Table and host of the same-named PBS show. And just like with chicken, the scoops of ice cream are covered in either a light flour batter or a sweet breading, such as corn flake crumbs, before being deep-fried. With chicken or fish, the cook browns and crisps the outside while completely cooking and transforming the inside ingredient, Jinich explains. Ice cream, though, has to be a "super-duper quick fry" and eaten immediately afterwards, allowing the ice cream to remain hard and cold as much as possible, while the outer layer browns and crisps.

6. How do they get the caffeine out to make decaffeinated coffee?

Roasters remove caffeine using mainly one of two methods. With the water process, preferred by artisanal roasters like Brandon Smyth of Water Avenue Coffee in Portland, OR, green, unroasted coffee beans are soaked in hot water, which leaches out caffeine-as well as great-tasting flavor. Either carbon dioxide or a common organic solvent called benzene then removes just the caffeine, the beans and solvent are discarded, and the coffee-flavored water is saved to soak a second bean batch. The water is so saturated with other molecules that there's only "room" for caffeine to leach out. "It's weird, but it works," Smyth says. Mass producers usually use the chemical process: A solvent is applied directly to the beans to bond with the caffeine and then washed away. "Keep in mind, not all decaffeinated coffee is bad," Smyth adds. You can often spot chemically treated coffees-which are typically made with older beans, he says-if the decaf is roasted to black or French roast, to cover up the weak flavor.

7. Why are cucumbers shrink-wrapped?

While the plastic wrap on cucumbers seems wasteful, it's actually quite the opposite. An unwrapped cucumber lasts about three to four days in storage before it loses its weight through evaporation, whereas a wrapped cucumber lasts 12 to 14 days, says Stephen Aldridge, co-author of Why Shrinkwrap a Cucumber? The Complete Guide to Environmental Packaging. Wrapped cukes can cost twice as much as unwrapped ones, so if you know you'll be using the cucumbers in the next few days, save by buying less pricey, unwrapped ones.

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8. Why does Swiss cheese have holes?

Swiss cheese gets its signature holes from bacterial cultures that cheese makers add to the milk before the curd forms. As the cheese ages, the propionic acid bacteria releases carbon dioxide gases that expand and cause the holes, says Sue Conley, co-author of Cowgirl Creamery Cooks and co-founder of San Francisco's Cowgirl Creamery. The bacteria is naturally occurring in some other cheeses, and may cause small holes that can even be considered flaws, but with Swiss, cheese makers add it in larger quantities to intentionally achieve larger holes. Funny enough, she adds, you won't find "Swiss cheese" in Switzerland-the term is used for cheeses made in the United States in the style of Emmenthaler, Switzerland's traditional lowland cheese known for its sweet, nutty flavor and yes, "holey" texture.

9. What's the difference between baking soda and baking powder?

Yes, they're both leaveners, but baking soda and baking powder aren't interchangeable in recipes, says chef Marc Haymon, associate dean for Baking & Pastry at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. Baking soda needs to be combined with a liquid and an acid-like lemon juice, buttermilk or sour cream-to react and produce those carbon dioxide bubbles that cause your baked goods to rise. Baking powder, on the other hand, already contains acid, and is now labeled as "double acting," which means it reacts immediately when combined with a liquid, regardless of whether there's acid in the batter, then reacts again when heat is applied, Harmon says, so the food continues to rise in the oven.

10. Seltzer, tonic and club soda-are they all the same?

The difference comes down to flavor, says Sara Kavanaugh, sommelier and assistant food and beverage director at The Grill Room at The Windsor Court in New Orleans. Seltzer is unflavored, artificially carbonated water, she says, named after Niederselters, Germany, known for its natural springs. "Seltzer was first marketed in the U.S. as an affordable, domestic alternative to pricey imported mineral waters," she says. Club soda usually has a few mineral-like ingredients mixed in for added flavor, Kavanaugh says. Tonic water is the most flavorful of the three and often used in mixed drinks-it's made from a bitter component called quinine, which is added to the water base along with sugar to carbonate it. "It tastes delicious with juniper-style gins," Kavanaugh says.


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