Even the most culinarily challenged among us could probably cook up a batch of pasta. Most recipes advise simply dropping the staple into boiling water and waiting until it goes suitably soft. But while this may seem like the preferred method, according to TV foodie Alton Brown it’s all wrong. As a result, he’s put forward a controversial cooking technique which, he claims, makes the perfect pasta. And it may just change the way that you prepare the food forever.
But who is Brown? And why does he have the authority to tell us where we’ve been going wrong when it comes to cooking pasta? Well, it’s probably fair to say that Brown knows a thing or two about food. In fact, he’s been on top of the culinary game for over 20 years, first coming to the public’s attention in 1999 with the launch of his show Good Eats. That program was picked up by the Food Network, and it featured Brown taking a more scientific approach to cooking as well as investigating food history and techniques.
Prior to launching Good Eats, however, Brown was a relative newcomer to professional cooking. In fact, he’d previously studied film at the University of Georgia and had embarked on a career as a cinematographer, working on music videos. One of his best-known credits from this time was the video to R.E.M.’s 1987 hit “The One I Love.”
But Brown’s life changed course in the late 1990s when he became frustrated with the quality of American cooking shows. Explaining his problem with the series of the time, Brown later told the digital publication Bitter Southerner, “I remember I was watching food shows, and I was like, ‘God, these are boring.’”
Continuing his critique, Brown said, “I’m not really learning anything. I got a recipe, okay, but I don’t know anything. I didn’t even learn a technique. To learn means to really understand. You never got those out of those shows.” So, Brown seemingly endeavored to do better.
Clearly, Brown felt that he could greatly improve the format of cooking shows. So after trying to come up with one of his own, the foodie eventually landed on an idea that he described as equal parts “Julia Child/Mr. Wizard [and] Monty Python.” And the future TV personality later explained how these three seemingly very different references had come together in his head.
Brown told Bitter Southerner, “If I could come up with a show to combine those three things… not only the practical knowledge that Julia Child was so good at handing over, but she was also great at making you feel you could do it… Mr. Wizard, [from] the old science show, to explain how everything works and why it works. And then Monty Python because it’s freaking funny.”
Summing up his vision, Brown added, “I wanted to make a show that was funny and visually engaging. It’s got enough science to teach people what’s really going on and give them recipes. That was the mission. Then I knew I had to quit my job and go to culinary school.” In 1997, then, he graduated from the New England Culinary Institute.
Then, after Brown’s show Good Eats was picked up by the Food Network, it was nominated in 2000 for the James Beard Foundation’s Best TV Food Journalism Award. And in 2006 the series won a prestigious Peabody Award, which celebrates enlightening, powerful and invigorating stories that are told in the media.
Now, each episode of Good Eats followed a certain theme. The central motif was often a particular cooking technique, such as smoking, or an ingredient, like potatoes. The subject matter of the show was sometimes more general, however – looking at Thanksgiving from a culinary angle, for example.
Yet while each installment of Good Eats had its own distinct focus, a recurring theme throughout the series was the science behind food and cooking. Brown was also often critical of single-purpose kitchen gadgets such as margarita machines and garlic presses, calling them “unitaskers.” As a result, then, he often showed his audience how such utensils could be used for multiple purposes.
Good Eats would run for 14 seasons before airing its final episode in February 2012. By then, it had become the Food Network’s third longest-running series. The only shows that had been airing for a greater amount of time on the channel were Barefoot Contessa and 30 Minute Meals.
Alongside starring on Good Eats, Brown served as the commentator on Iron Chef America: Battle of the Masters from 2004. Over the years, he has also continued to appear on the show’s various spin-offs. And Brown has even fronted Feasting on Asphalt – a mini-series that ran from 2006 to 2007 and explored the history of food on the move.
Brown’s TV stints don’t end there, though, as a year after Good Eats aired its final episode, the screen chef started hosting Cutthroat Kitchen. The cooking competition encourages participants to sabotage the culinary efforts of other competitors in order to boost their own chances of winning. And, astonishingly, the show ran for 15 seasons, coming to an end in 2017.
Aside from his TV endeavors, Brown has also embarked on a series of live shows. That’s right: Alton Brown Live: The Edible Inevitable Tour kicked off in 2013 and ran until 2015. These performances featured a mix of chat, live music, stand-up comedy and food preparation. In his later Eat Your Science tour, however, Brown returned to his passion for combining scientific research with his passion for food.
With a string of television shows and books under his belt, then, it’s fair to say that Brown was a big star and a well-respected figure in the food world in 2015. But that’s not to say that some of his cooking techniques couldn’t raise an eyebrow or two. And some were particularly shocked when he took on everyone’s favorite store cupboard staple: pasta.
Pasta, you see, is a great go-to for cooks of all skill levels. It is traditionally made using durum wheat flour, which is combined with eggs or water to create a dough. This mixture can then be molded into all manner of shapes that are boiled in water. And the staple carb comes in two different varieties: fresh – which is usually cooked more or less straight after it’s been created – and dried, which can be stored and prepared for eating at a later time.
For most people, pasta is also synonymous with Italy. And it seems that the Italians are rather proud of their country’s tradition with the food, with some even claiming that it has formed part of their Mediterranean diet since before the Roman era. Historians beg to differ, however, suggesting that the nation’s love of pasta was instead born in the Middle Ages.
And from the 13th century, pasta – and its various incarnations – were increasingly referenced in sources from the time. But back in the Middle Ages, the dish was different from what we know today. Recipes often included a mix of spicy, savory and sweet flavors, and fresh pasta was typically cooked for longer, making it softer than modern-day tastes tend to dictate.
Yet while pasta was considered the food of the rich in Renaissance Italy, by the late 17th century the dish was a staple for the common man – in Naples at least. In comparison to other foods, pasta was cheap; it was also a good alternative to meat on days when religious practices banned the eating of animals.
Soon, pasta had become the food of choice among Naples’ beggars, who were otherwise known as “lazzaroni.” According to a National Geographic article from 2016, a traveler at the time observed, “When a lazzarone has gotten four or five coins together to eat some macaroni that day, he ceases to care about tomorrow and stops working.” As we mentioned previously, though, the love for the food wasn’t restricted to the lower classes.
In fact, King Ferdinand IV of Naples was said to have a ravenous appetite for pasta. And National Geographic claims that the aristocrat “picked [the shapes] up with his fingers, twisting and pulling them, and voraciously stuffed them in his mouth, spurning the use of a knife, fork or spoon.”
Then, in the following centuries, pasta dishes came to resemble those we know today, with sweet flavors dropped in place of savory ingredients such as vegetables. Interestingly, Italians resisted tomatoes for a long time, believing they were too exotic. But they had seemingly come around to the fruit by 1844 – when tomatoes were paired with pasta for what appears to be the first time.
Today, pasta with tomato sauce remains a classic combination that many of us will be familiar with. It’s also one of the variations of the dish that Italian immigrants brought to the United States following the waves of immigration between 1870 and 1920. But, in fact, pasta didn’t really take off in America until after the Second World War.
Yes, following the end of the conflict, American soldiers returned home from Europe with a real appetite for Italian food. So, to meet this new demand, many Italian-Americans opened up restaurants and delis selling traditional fare from their homeland. And soon pasta had become a much-loved meal throughout the States.
It appears that this is still the case, too. According to 2019 statistics from the International Pasta Organisation, the U.S. now consumes a whopping 5.95 billion pounds of pasta every year, while the average American apparently wolfs down approximately 20 pounds annually. To keep up with this demand, then, the States produces 4.4 billion pounds of the foodstuff per year, making it second only to Italy.
And being a trained chef, Brown is clearly no stranger to pasta. In fact, during the first season of Good Eats in 1999, he dedicated a whole episode to the food. In the intervening decades, though, it seems that his approach to cooking the kitchen staple has somewhat changed.
Yes, Brown confirmed that he’d tweaked his pasta cooking process in a blog published on his website in 2015. And while he’d previously told Good Eats viewers that he’d “never cook pasta in anything less than a gallon of boiling water,” it seemed that he had now lived to eat his own words.
There’d been nothing out of the ordinary about Brown’s previously preferred method of cooking pasta. In fact, it’s long been accepted that the staple should be dropped into a pan of boiling water and cooked until soft or “al dente.” But Brown was about to throw a time-old tradition out the window with his new take on making pasta.
Before Brown completely tore up the pasta-cooking rulebook, though, he acknowledged that many traditionalists wouldn’t agree with his updated method. Nonetheless, he wasn’t one to let tradition stand in the way of progress – especially when it came to food. So, he set out to convince his readers that his way was in fact better.
And while Brown had previously accepted the usual way of cooking pasta, he claimed that he had since opened his mind to new possibilities. On his blog, Brown said of his former self, “I had not yet developed the instinct to question the classically held notions that had been pounded into my head by people with tall hats and funny accents.”
Telling how his method of cooking pasta had since evolved, Brown explained, “I’ve learned that the big-pots-of-boiling-water paradigm is quite simply… a myth. Sure, large amounts of water may be necessary for long strands of dry pasta like spaghetti and bucatini, but when it comes to short shapes like farfalle, macaroni and rigatoni, less is definitely more.” Then, he dropped his bombshell.
Yes, crucially, Brown wasn’t only encouraging people to cook their pasta using less water, but also that boiling the pan first wasn’t necessary. The Good Eats star even confessed, “Although I may be blocked from ever entering Italy again for saying this, I have come to prefer the texture of dry pasta started in cold water.”
Expounding on his technique, Brown suggested using 64 ounces of cold water to one box of pasta. Then, rather than bringing the liquid to the boil first, he advised combining all of the ingredients together in a pan before boiling. After that, the chef said, the heat should be reduced to a simmer for four and a half minutes.
Brown was very particular in the way that cooked pasta should be retrieved from the water, too. Specifically, he advocated the use of a spider strainer to lift the food from the pan rather than draining the contents of the vessel with a colander. Explaining his point of view, Brown wrote, “That hot, starchy water is magical stuff.”
Brown added that this liquid was perfect for reheating pasta prior to serving; alternatively, it could be used to thicken up the sauce. And because Brown’s pasta-cooking technique uses less water than other methods, that magic ingredient was more potent than usual.
Writing on his blog, Brown explained what made his pasta water so special. He said, “The secret is the starch, which is greatly concentrated when you cook the pasta in small amounts of water. In fact, I often ladle a cup or so into another pan, reduce it by half and pour right into my tomato sauces. But that’s another show.”
However, after Brown’s novel way of cooking pasta went live on the internet, it seemed that some were not convinced. Writer Bryn Gelbart, from Insider, was one of the people who decided to put the technique to the test. And he later shared his finds with his readers online.
Gelbart reported that Brown’s process resulted in a “slightly more al dente” texture than the method he typically used. He added, “The noodles did have a better texture, as Brown said they would, and they were more comparable to fresh pasta than the first batch.” Even so, Gelbart concluded that he wouldn’t be changing his ways.
Elsewhere online, people praised Brown’s method as a game-changer when it came to making pasta. On Reddit, for instance, users insisted that the technique cooked noodles quicker, thus saving both time and energy. And with that in mind, Brown’s hack may be worth a go – as long as you don’t mind the potential wrath of Italian grandmothers everywhere.
Another kitchen staple that people may turn to for a quick and easy dinner is a packet of instant noodles. But if you’re a fan, then you may want to know how eating them appears to affect the body. And, unfortunately, it’s not good news. It may even convince you to stick to pasta, especially as Brown’s method claims to reduce the cooking time.
There are few things more enjoyable in life than tucking into your favorite dish – whether that’s pizza, pasta or something a little healthier but still delicious. If your guilty pleasure is instant noodles, however, then you may need to consider cutting back. You see, scientists have looked at the effect that this particular food has on the body – and there may be shocking implications for your own health.
And if time constraints or mobility issues are problems, it may be tempting to reach for a packet of instant noodles rather than cook a meal from scratch. Instant noodles are often cheap, too, and you can even add your own touches – by throwing in a few extra veggies, for example.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that instant noodles are a very popular meal in several countries around the globe. Indeed, according to the World Instant Noodles Association, over 100 billion portions of the food were served in 2018, with China selling the most. The previous year, research firm Euromonitor found that the U.S. sold more than four billion packets of instant noodles, placing the nation just below the top five consumers of the foodstuff worldwide.
Yet fans of instant noodles may be alarmed to hear that they’re not really that good for you. Yes, scientific research has revealed that indulging in such a meal on a regular basis could have a detrimental effect on your long-term health – and there are some people who are at particular risk.
While the human body requires sustenance to survive, food is more than just fuel for a lot of people. Eating can bring pleasure, after all, as can cooking a tasty meal for loved ones to enjoy. And there’s plenty of varied cuisines out there to try either in a restaurant or at home.
Of all the many foods available to consumers today, however, noodles remain popular – perhaps in part because they can be prepared in several different ways. They can be boiled or pan-fried, for example, with each approach adding certain flavors to the dish.
And noodle dishes have long been a staple in Asia, with the Chinese Han dynasty making the foodstuff a core part of their diet. In fact, noodles have been around in China for thousands of years, as a fascinating discovery made in the country in 2005 proves.
That year, a group of archaeologists found an artifact in China holding some noodles that are said to be 4,000 years old. And it appears that Europeans also had their own doughy products throughout the centuries; the Roman poet Horace, who lived in the first century B.C., mentioned one such dish in his writing.
However, in the 20th century, one Japanese man changed the culinary landscape forever. You see, in the 1950s Momofuku Ando – an employee of the Nissin Foods company in his native country – came up with an interesting idea: to create the first batch of instant noodles.
These noodles, which were sold under the name “Chikin Ramen,” then hit shelves in 1958. And there were a couple of key benefits to these pre-prepared packets. As the noodles were dried, they would last for a longer period than their freshly made counterparts. They were quick to make, too, as they only needed to be boiled for a few minutes.
And such convenience led instant noodles to became one of Asia’s must-have food items. Then, at the start of the 1970s, Nissin Foods produced “Cup Noodles” – the very first ready meal of that type. Since that period, moreover, the demand for instant noodle dishes has only gone up.
Indeed, as previously noted, 2018 saw the sale of over 100 billion packs of instant noodle dishes, with China contributing considerably to that astonishing total. That year, the Chinese population ate around 40 billion portions of instant noodles, while other Asian nations such as Indonesia, Japan and India also sat within the top five consumers.
But despite the undoubted popularity of instant noodles, there have been some troubling developments in the last few years. Certain people within the scientific community have taken a closer look at the nutritional content of the quick-to-prepare food – and, worryingly, it turns out that they may be a potential health hazard.
“If we look at the composition of instant noodles, it becomes clear where the danger comes from,” an article on the website Healthy and Natural World has explained. “They are high in fat, high in salt [and] high in calories, and they’re processed.” Then, of course, some brands of instant noodles also contain an additive called monosodium glutamate (MSG).
And as anyone who pays attention to the additives in their food may know, MSG could cause problems with your health. In a report on the chemical that was published in the EXCLI Journal in March 2018, it was claimed even a small “dose” of MSG could lead to some concerning issues.
“Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is one of the most widely used food additives in commercial foods,” the paper explained. “Its application has increased over time, and it is found in many different ingredients and processed foods obtainable in every market or grocery store. MSG gives a special aroma to processed foods, which is known as umami in Japanese.”
But even though MSG is widespread, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all that safe. The report continued, “Beside its flavor-enhancing effects, MSG has been associated with various forms of toxicity. MSG has been linked with obesity, metabolic disorders, Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, neurotoxic effects and detrimental effects on the reproductive organs.”
Following that shocking revelation, the EXCLI Journal post then questioned if the authorities should ban MSG from food products. And the report also gave a detailed analysis of the additive’s effects on humans and animals – with the results being quite the eye-opener.
“MSG acts on the glutamate receptors and releases neurotransmitters,” the paper continued. “[These] play a vital role in normal physiological as well as pathological processes. All of these receptor types are present across the central nervous system. Results from both animal and human studies have demonstrated that administration of even the lowest dose of MSG has toxic effects.”
And apparently even just a small amount of MSG could cause problems. The EXCLI Journal post revealed, “The average intake of MSG per day is estimated to be 0.3 grams to 1 gram. These doses potentially disrupt neurons and might have adverse effects on behavior, [and] animal studies have demonstrated that neonatal MSG consumption sets a precedent for the development of obesity later on.”
The in-depth report then revealed a few more intriguing pieces of information on the effects of MSG before finally reaching a conclusion on the matter. And the paper’s summing up of the research may make for rather alarming reading, too.
“In conclusion, we would like to state that although MSG has proven its value as an enhancer of flavor, different studies have hinted at possible toxic effects related to this popular food additive,” the post went on. “These threats might have hitherto been underestimated. In the meantime, people keep using ever larger amounts of MSG [while] unaware of the possible consequences.”
The paper also made a suggestion to round things off, adding, “While MSG probably has huge benefits to the food industry, the ubiquitous use of this food additive could have negative consequences for public health. If more substantive evidence of MSG toxicity would be provided, a total ban on the use of MSG as a flavor enhancer would not be unwise to consider.”
That said, MSG isn’t the only potentially harmful substance in instant noodle dishes. You see, the product also contains a chemical preservative called tertiary-butyl hydroquinone (TBHQ). And the inclusion of this preservative has sparked many debates in the past owing to the damage it can do to the human body.
Healthy and Natural World lifted the lid on some of the issues surrounding the preservative, explaining, “TBHQ… [extends] the shelf life of oily and fatty foods, so [it’s often] found in fast food. It’s also used in varnishes, cosmetics and perfumes.”
The website then dropped an even bigger revelation, adding, “TBHQ is highly toxic in bigger doses, but [it] has been allowed in the food industry in small doses. A number of studies have shown that prolonged exposure to high doses of TBHQ may be carcinogenic.”
But while such claims may give one cause for concern, Healthy and Natural World countered them with some other information. According to additional reports, TBHQ may actually stop people from getting cancer instead. Regardless of whether the additive helps or hinders the spread of the disease, though, the current safety guidelines behind the preservative’s use may also be a worry.
“Small doses of TBHQ have been approved for consumption by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA),” the Healthy and Natural World article continued. “The FDA has set the limit of up to 0.02 percent of the total oils in food to be TBHQ. If you consumed one gram of [it], this would very likely cause an adverse reaction – and five grams could be lethal.”
All in all, then, the piece added, “[While] nobody is really sure what the safe limit is… it doesn’t seem like a good idea to have TBHQ lingering in your gut.” And South Korean researchers also did some more digging on the subject, with their findings ultimately published in a paper for The Journal of Nutrition in 2014.
During their study, the scientists observed over 10,000 people in South Korea, noting the kind of diets that each had. Then, after compiling all of that information, experts then separated the individuals into two distinct groups.
“We identified two major dietary patterns with the use of principal components analysis,” the paper revealed. “The [first was a] ‘traditional dietary pattern’ (TP), [which is] rich in rice, fish, vegetables, fruit and potatoes. And the [second was a] ‘meat and fast-food pattern’ (MP), [which has] less rice intake but [is] rich in meat, soda, fried food and fast food – including instant noodles.”
And along the way, the scientists discovered a worrying link between instant noodles and a few medical conditions. The research appeared to find, too, that certain of these health issues apparently affected particular groups of people more than others.
The report continued, “The consumption of instant noodles two times a week was associated with a higher prevalence of metabolic syndrome in women, but not in men. Consumption of instant noodles once per week was also associated with a higher prevalence of metabolic syndrome in women, but not in men.”
After assessing those results, the scientists tried to double-check their validity by taking an even closer look. The paper added, “Further adjustment by sodium intake, estrogen use, menopause or waist circumference also did not change the positive relation between instant noodle intake two times a week and metabolic syndrome in women.”
And that’s by far the only study on the effects of consuming instant noodles. In 2013 it was revealed that Dr. Braden Kuo had headed an investigation into how the human body digests instant noodles. By using a small camera called the “smart pill,” he could observe the process via a computer screen at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Thanks to the smart pill, then, Dr. Kuo saw that the instant noodles weren’t digesting at a normal rate. Indeed, the strips of dough appeared to continue to sit in the stomach some two hours after their initial consumption – and they were mostly intact, too.
“People just have this macabre interest in terms of what’s going on in their bodies when they can’t see it,” Dr. Kuo told WCVB-TV in 2013. “What we’re seeing here is a stomach contracting back and forth as it’s trying to grind up the [instant] noodles.” The physician’s experiment also saw the person eat a batch of fresh noodles, so he could make a comparison.
And the results were utterly fascinating, as Dr. Kuo described. He said, “The most striking thing about our experiment… [is] when you look at a time interval of one hour or two hours, you notice that the processed noodles were less broken down than the homemade noodles.”
It should be noted, though, that no firm conclusions could be reached from the study owing to its small sample size. Furthermore, although the instant noodles took longer to digest than fresh ones, Dr. Kuo didn’t know if that in itself had an overall negative effect on the human body.
But Dr. Kuo’s experiment has certainly earned its fair share of attention, with the WCVB-TV report on his findings having chalked up more than 15 million views on YouTube since it was uploaded back in June 2013. And thanks to his work and those of other researchers, it now seems that instant noodles are best avoided if you want to look after your health.