There are some scientific reasons to stir a stew a particular way, and then there are reasons rooted in sexism and superstition.
Illustration by Adam Waito
Stirring stirs up tons of connotations: the image of a witch hovering over a bubbling cauldron; childhood memories of licking brownie batter off of a wooden spoon. But stirring has also inspired a few strange myths, some of which remain present even in the most modern iterations of recipes.
For the most part, these myths find their roots in scientific necessity. In the case of cassoulet, for example, traditional recipes call for cooks to stir the dish seven times before serving—because the crust forming atop the rich duck-and-bean stew would surely burn if it weren’t mixed into the rest of the dish at regular intervals.
The precise number seven, however, comes from a period when the dish was cooked in the hearth for a full week. Gérard Zasso, the former chef of Le Colombier (one of the most beloved cassoulet restaurants in France), notes that every day, women would stir beans or scraps of meat into the cassoulet, beefing the dish up for the evening’s meal. And on Sundays, more “noble” ingredients like sausage and goose confit were added to make it a bit more special.“So on the seventh day,” he explains in a documentary about Toulouse, “Cassoulet was much better than usual.”
Far more common than a specific number of stirs, however, is the recipe requirement that stirring only be performed in one direction: Polenta, risotto, and more often feature instructions calling for stirring that is not only continuous, but clockwise.According to Luigi Carnacina and Vincenzo Buonassisi’s book, Il Libro della Polenta: La Avventurosa Storia Della Polenta, stirring polenta only clockwise “[makes] the polenta more digestible, more delicious; [it takes] away any slightly bitter flavour that sometimes remains which only reveals the fret and impatience of whomever has cooked it.”
Clockwise stirring seems as though it would have little effect on flavour, but it turns out that this indication, too, is rooted in fact. Constant stirring of anything that requires the development or hydration of starch—not just polenta, but also béchamel sauce, for example—is certainly important in order to avoid the formation of lumps.
"Stirring polenta in an open pot for the entire time it cooks undoubtedly yields the best product, most in terms of fragrance and, to a certain but lesser extent, in terms of flavour," writes Marcella Hazan in her Essentials of Italian Cooking.
Aside from constant stirring, however, it turns out that direction is also important. Culinary professionals from Tom Colicchio to Alton Brown note that stirring in only one direction keep meat fibres running in the same direction, in the case of hamburger or meatballs.
But that seems reasonable as long as you pick one direction and stick with it, it shouldn’t matter whether your spoon is moving clockwise or counterclockwise. And it indeed turns out that this last element of the rule comes not from science but from superstition.
Right-handed people naturally stir clockwise, and left-handed people naturally stir counter-clockwise, so it makes sense that recipes would default to the former over the latter. Only 10 percent of the world’s population is left-handed, a characteristic that has long been associated with unluckiness. In Europe, specifically, many languages still have an etymological link between “right” and “correct” (as English does) and “left” and “sinister” (as Italian does). Throughout the ages, to be left-handed was often seen as a sign of witchcraft, and indeed, both the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials persecuted and killed lefties merely for their preferred pen (or sword) hand.
Of course, witchcraft’s association with cooking is far from limited to the direction of stirring, something that has much to do with the fact that, at least in the West, witchcraft has long been associated with women.“Of the estimated 200,000 ‘witches’ tortured, hanged, or burnt at the stake between the late 15th and mid-18th century, most were women,” High Priestess of the Kitchen Witch Coven Rachel Patterson explains to MUNCHIES. “It follows that cooking—firmly in the domestic realm—would be implicated in the paranoia. Accusations of poisoned food were rife, a perfect storm of fear around the subversion of those great nurturers: women and food. The image of the witch's cauldron—into which fall strange bunches of herbs and dismembered animals—is central to popular conceptions of witchcraft.”
This link between women, witchcraft, and stirring is likely at the heart of yet another stirring myth: that mayonnaise, which requires brisk stirring to emulsify eggs with oil, cannot be made by a woman on her period; the very presence of menstrual blood (even if it’s nowhere near the mayonnaise itself) would cause the sauce to split.
This myth, common in France, was famously highlighted by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, in a section where she also cites other myths associated with menstruating women, including that if one were to touch meat, it would spoil and if one were to attempt to make cider, it would fail to ferment. "Menstrual blood is peculiar, it represents the essence of femininity," she writes.
For culinary anthropologist David Beriss of the University of New Orleans, these superstitious limitations linked to menstruation are ways of “putting women in their places” and “limiting them in their ability to do things in the world.”
“They always seem like innocuous little stories, like ‘Oh that's kind of cute,’ but then again, when you put it into the context of all of those kinds of stories about, say, gender or menstruation, they become very weighty,” he tells MUNCHIES.
Whether it’s direction, number of times, or even who can perform the action, stirring, more than any other culinary technique, is rife with myths—perhaps because it is the most universal element of cooking, a core way of participating in the creation of a dish.
“Sometimes, if you don't stir, you feel like you haven't cooked,” says Beriss. “And then you feel like you can't claim you did something brilliant, even if it tastes great.”
As evidence, he cites early failures of cake mixes, which were criticized for not giving housewives enough to do. It wasn’t until a study conducted on behalf of General Mills noted, after interviewing housewives, that they found the mixes overly simple and too self-indulgent, that the recipes began calling for eggs to be mixed in, inviting a more active contribution in the success of the cake.
“We use the word stirring both to refer to the actual thing of using a spoon in a thing and also to the sense of developing something very emotional,” he says. Perhaps that’s no coincidence.