To Measure or Not

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionSend by emailSend by email

To measure or not to measure. That is the question. Whether 'tis better in the kitchen to suffer the dangers of guesstimating, or to take measuring cups and tablespoons against them, and thereby to eliminate them. To measure, and be precise. Ah, but there’s the rub, for in the tedium of that precision, what errors and burned dishes may come?

The fight is probably as old as the first written recipe. Is the cook a chemist, whose job is to calculate precise measurements and stick to them, or an artist, basing her/his recipes on feel?

There is a great deal of amateur chemistry in cooking. There are often precise volumes of different materials that produce different effects, and precise temperatures for certain reactions. And there are plenty of rules you can take for granted:

  • Breads: 5 parts flour to 3 parts water
  • Biscuits: 3 parts flour to 2 parts liquid to 1 part fat
  • Cookies: 3 parts flour to 2 parts fat to 1 part sugar
  • Gravy: 8 parts liquid, 1 part flour, 1 part fat
  • Pasta: 3 parts flour to 2 parts egg

But the problem with measurement is that you never have all of the information about any of your ingredients in numeric form -- just how acidic are your tomatoes, just how awake are your yeast, just how spicy are your jalapenos, just how starchy are your potatoes, just how glutenous is your flour?

My advice is this: Get used to paint-by-number recipes, but also get used to the feel of your doughs and batters, and the flavors of your spice mixtures. And then get used to what works for feel and taste and temperatures.

The more used to the scents and tastes and feels of your dishes you are, the more easily you can tell when something is off, and the more comfortable you will be making corrections. When you are making a dish, remember what the feel and scent and taste you are aiming for is, and what ratios usually work to get you there, but be ready to react live to make your dish work. This is expertise -- knowing what works, and having both rules for getting there, and the ability to adjust and react when not quite there.