There is no technique, there is just the way to do it. Now, are we going to measure or are we going to cook? – Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love this quote for all of its free-wheeling attitude and “because I said so”ness. It says to me, “Don’t worry so much! You should be having a good time here!” And as much as I am in favor of good times, I have to admit that there is a small part of me that cringes just ever so slightly whenever I see it, because while I don’t fall into the “scientific workability” category of cook, I do believe that measuring has its place. If for no other reason than it allows me to understand just how much I’m making of something because apparently, whenever I’m at the helm, it’s clear that the Holy Roman Army is due to arrive at 7:30 and will be expecting an amuse bouche, starter, main, dessert, and cheese course.
Even as a pastry chef (which you would never know, reading the first few posts here), I’ve been known to eyeball flour for bread and rely on experience to tell me when there is enough water to flour in the dough, guesstimate when making dry and wet caramels, and stab wildly at the amount of filling needed for a cake.
I think the thing is, it’s always more fun to break the rules when you know what they are to begin with. Right? That vaguely renegade feel when you just toss a bit of this, a little of that into the pot makes you feel just a bit naughty, a little more Sophia Loren, ever so slightly more Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year, especially since you know it’s just gonna taste better as a result. But it’s the knowing of the guidelines that bring me here today.
Before I get too much further with this little project, I want to lay the rules out for you, so that when we break them, we know exactly what we are doing and we can eek out every last little bit of naughtiness together.
Let’s start with liquid measures. The classic Pyrex is my vessel of choice for this, and it should be used for anything that is pourable. If it flows out of the container, this is the tool you should have at hand. This includes: water, stock, juice, milk, cream, yogurt (!), purees, and sauces but not anything melted such as butter, chocolate, etc. unless specified by the recipe, as these items are generally measured then melted into a liquid state.
Next up is measuring spoons. As much as I love these, my favorites are the ones my grandmother used and that I still have to this day. In later posts, I’ll be encouraging you to rely on ratios that depend primarily on weight, but I still break these out on a daily basis. They can be used interchangeably for dry and wet measures, and should be used much as you would a dry measuring cup, in the dip and sweep method (more on that below). If you are taking time to measure your ingredients, I believe you should try to use your measuring spoons as accurately as you would your other measuring devices. I really have a hard time understanding why someone would write a recipe with a “heaping” or “scant” teaspoon or tablespoon of something. If you are going to specify a measured amount, take the time to be specific about the amount you want measured. A “scant” tablespoon could just as easily mean 2 teaspoons, and a heaping 1/2 teaspoon could just as easily mean 1 teaspoon. See what I mean? Again, I’m all for breaking the rules, but if you are going to make a rule, make it a rule already.
The third form of measuring comes in the form of the dry measuring cup. These typically come on a ring (the first thing I discard), and are meant for anything dry/powdered/diced. If you can’t pour it, use these to measure, and use the dip and sweep method. You do this by scooping whatever it is you are measuring into the cup, and then using the back of a butter knife (or, if you are me, your finger) to level the amount to the top edge of the cup. This applies to flour, sour cream, shortening, sugar (white and brown), and anything else classified as a solid.
And now we come to my favorite way to measure. The god of all things measurable in a kitchen: the scale. I use all the tools above on a daily basis, but by far, the best way to measure anything for cooking is by weight, dry or wet. Why? Well, a million different things can affect a raw ingredient, and therefore, its performance in your final product. Is it a little rainy outside? Then your flour is going to be a bit heavier than normal, so a dry measuring cup is going to provide you with too much flour for your purposes. Did that chicken/cow have a light lunch? Then your eggs/cream/butter might be a little lighter ounce for ounce than normal. If you have one of these at your disposal, get it out and start using it instead of liquid/dry measuring cups whenever a weight option is listed for you.
And now you know the rules, and can decide for yourself when to break them.
Stone, you can watch me or you can join me. One of them is more fun. – Peter O’Toole as Alan Swann, My Favorite Year