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Things we measure and things we don't


Fat Guy
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I think it's safe to say that, in pastry and baking, most people measure everything. They may measure in more or less effective ways (volume is not as good as weight, X number of egg yolks won't work as well as Y grams of egg yolks, etc.), but they measure.

When it comes to savory cooking, though, it seems the scales and measuring cups don't really come out all that often. At least in my kitchen, I just put some oil in a pan, chop up some onions, etc. I don't use 2 tablespoons of oil or 1 pound of onions.

How about you all? What do you measure, and what do you just sort of play by ear?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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When cooking rice I always measure both the rice and the liquid. And I'm sure there are some other things I just am not thinking of.

Rice I eyeball. For short-grain, with the right diameter sauce-pan, you can use a trick a friend told me was Japanese: put your hand flat on top of the rinsed rice, pouring water just past the base of your middle finger. For long-grained rice, I boil in too much water and pour off the excess, to keep a nice grain.

I try measure for mayonnaise -- if I don't the flavors often come out a little skewed. Hollandaise and other complicated sauces also get measurements. Crepe batter I do rough measurements on. With new recipes I'll often measure, particularly when there are a lot of spices or I haven't had the dish before.

I think the key difference is that many savory dishes can be tasted as you go, so you can adjust the flavor continuously. In baking, it's hard to tell how things will turn out without a lot of experience. You need at least more experience than I have!

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I still measure out the potassium nitrate and sodium nitrates for my pates, terrines and galantines. I do not bother measuring the meat/fat proportions.

Most chefs and home cooks do not measure ingredients, this only comes with experience. With practice, cooking becomes intuitive.

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With new recipes I'll often measure, particularly when there are a lot of spices or I haven't had the dish before.

Ditto, then anything goes !

I measure rice, coffee...................can't think of anything else ! :laugh:

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Excellent topic/question !

Yes, for baking I measure religiously. Too many baking disasters, and I don't claim to be a pastry chef, or a baker. For "cooking" its really mostly free-form. I do measure rice & coffee as others have mentioned (and the water component for both). And couscous too.....The roux bases for sauces & gumbos/jambalayas, since I think the ratio of fat to flour is pretty critical to the consistency of the final product.

Pretty much anything else is by feel. I sometimes check myself (I'll place one of my dry measuring cups on the cutting board) and compare the pile of chopped goods to the cup, and I'm usually pretty much dead on.

And of course, I taste as I go, so if whatever I'm cooking needs *something* I can add it before its too late.

One of my friends used to majorly bust my chops because I'd throw all sorts of stuff into a pan by feel, but I'd compulsively measure out the butter by the markings on the stick. I guess because they were there, I felt compelled to use them ! :blink: (I don't do that anymore.....heehee)

--Roberta--

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This is fascinating. I have often wondered why American recipes are volume-based, which is relatively imprecise, whereas French ones are weight-based. I use a little electronic scale, though I always have to have cups and table-/teaspoons on hand for American recipes.

On the other hand, despite the precision, too many French recipes are too vague. Bake something "à bon four" (in a hot oven) is not uncommon!

For recipes I always measure, even though I've done them a million times, I would say the most important for me is pesto. It just doesn't taste as good if I stray from the very strict proportions of my favorite pesto recipe.

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I only measure ingredients when the ratio is important. So things like rice, breads and and pastries, sauces, spice rubs, and vinagraittes. I also strictly measure when using my mom's recipes, because I know that she always did and I'm looking to recreate them.

I don't think I ever measure salt, except in breads or spice rubs. I definately don't measure when chopping things like onions and garlic, or putting olive oil in a pan.

I do measure portions of things, like weighing a couple oz. of pasta or scooping out one cup of dried cereal or 1/4 cup of trail mix. That's mostly to keep me from mindlessly overeating.

"Nothing you could cook will ever be as good as the $2.99 all-you-can-eat pizza buffet." - my EX (wonder why he's an ex?)

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I will occasionally measure a bit more carefully when using unfamiliar spices for a dish or cuisine I am not familiar with. Rice I eyeball, unless I am at someone else's house and they have funny sized pans.

I love animals.

They are delicious.

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Often, aside from ingredients, I do not measure time when cooking. All of a sudden, you just know its done. :biggrin:

I have a friend who has a different way of measuring readiness when it comes to making pilafs (she is Persian). She says she knows when the pilaf has reached perfection by quickly tapping the side of the hot pot near the top with a finger she just touched to her tongue. If the finger is not completely dry when taken away from the pot, the rice is not yet done. If it dries instantly, the rice is done.

She claims she has seen lots of people do this.

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i don't measure wine when i cook--and i tell my students that i think it is "parsimonious and frugal" and that it imparts that frugality to the dish. estimation is the rule, and i also suggest that italian and french "cups" contain at least 10 ounces. :raz:

"Laughter is brightest where food is best."

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Author of The I Love Trader Joe's Cookbook ,The I Love Trader Joe's Party Cookbook and The I Love Trader Joe's Around the World Cookbook

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sometimes I think I could measure things and follow recipes better if I took some ritalin before I started

about 98% of my baking failures has to do with the fact I start to measure then toss stuff in then get pissed off because what I have is not what the recipe said I should have...and keep tossing more stuff in thinking it will eventually work out

I am just now.... these past couple of years been able to produce decent baked things

cooking I was born to do ... I am a very instinctual cook by feel and smell and vision I know what my dishes should be like

..but baking is so hard for me ..because of the exactness of it all ..I so admire good bakers because it is so hard for me to do!!!

however that is actually why I am here on this board..

I figure I am never too old to learn and so what if I break few dishes in frustration ...

ok the glass pie pan through the window was a bit dramatic for even me

why am I always at the bottom and why is everything so high? 

why must there be so little me and so much sky?

Piglet 

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I measure salt. I hate when I cook something and it's too salty. I also measure most spices, but I'm not so precise as to level off the measuring spoons or anything.

And in general, if I'm making something that I haven't made before, I will measure everything. This way, I know how the recipe "should" taste, and I can make adjustments, either right then or in the future. Once I've made something, then I rarely measure, again, except for salt.

I always measure for baking.

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A week ago I would have answered that I measure EVERYTHING. But I just spent the past week at a cabin where there was not a single measuring implement. I panicked for all of 5 seconds and then realized that I had been cooking long enough to know what quantites of a teaspoon, a tablespoon and a cup look like and I coped just fine. I doubt I will go back to measuring much except when baking. It's a victory of trust and a great relief not to have all those little spoons and cups to wash. :biggrin:

Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

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i agree with a lot of people; i've realized that i've been cooking (aka not including baking) long enough to eyeball most measurements. if it was a new dish i might measure a few things, but i haven't made anything new from a recipe too recently. the new stuff i'd made within the last half a year was something i made up completely out of the empty spaces of my mind, so i eyeballed the ratios. i try and taste things pretty frequently, even if i'm following a recipe, so unless there was a reason i couldn't taste it, i could probably go without measuring most of the time. it also means a few less things to wash. :smile:

of course i rarely bake, and when i do i measure because i feel there's more chemistry involved and it needs more exact measurements.

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I measure if it's something strange and unfamiliar.

Brownies, I have a 1/2 c measure I use to get ingredients into the right ballpark. Stuff that doesn't need some sort of scoop gets eyeballed, usually off the knife I'll use to stir them up. Same for biscuits, and my standard bread, and scones... I make these sorts of baked goods all the time, so I know what "right" looks like.

I don't have crepes *down* yet, so they get measured. Pancakes, I mostly don't measure.

*I* measure on chestnut dressing. My partner (who learnt the recipe from his mother who learnt it from *her* mother) does not. 20 years from now, I won't be measuring on that one :).

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Often, aside from ingredients, I do not measure time when cooking. All of a sudden, you  just know its done.  :biggrin:

I have a friend who has a different way of measuring readiness when it comes to making pilafs (she is Persian). She says she knows when the pilaf has reached perfection by quickly tapping the side of the hot pot near the top with a finger she just touched to her tongue. If the finger is not completely dry when taken away from the pot, the rice is not yet done. If it dries instantly, the rice is done.

She claims she has seen lots of people do this.

That's funny, that's how I know when eggs are hard boiled, when you lift them out, the shells dry instantly.

I measure the first itme I follow a new recipe. Other than that, I eyeball.

Edited by pax (log)
“Don't kid yourself, Jimmy. If a cow ever got the chance, he'd eat you and everyone you care about!”
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Interesting question. Now that you mention it: I never measure salt or spices, whether for baking or cooking: I just know. I don't measure anything else for cooking, really, either, except maybe when making a tricky sauce. For cakes, I measure/weigh flour, sugar, and liquid. Pastry is more according to judgment; it's visual. And I don't follow strict times, either.Little Compton Mornings

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Most baking I measure (and prefer recipes with weights rather than volumes), but also rarely measure the spices in baking. Things like pancakes, biscuits, etc. I don't bother to measure because there's a lot of wiggle room with those. Lately I've been experimenting with substituting some wheat flour for white (to be healthier) with not so much success, so that attests to the measurements being important for me in baking.

Savory food--I guess I measure when it matters. Rice and couscous (as others have mentioned--but I could probably make them just fine by eyeballing--measuring just ensures that they will be perfect); the meat, nitrate/nitrite, and salt for charcuterie (don't want to poison anyone)....I am racking my brain trying to think of anything else savory that I measure for. If I think, I will post.

Very interesting topic!

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I hate washing up, so the less utensils dirtied the better. To that end, I only measure certain ingredients as a way to portion them (e.g. 100g dried pasta or 1/3 cup risotto rice = one meal's worth). Everything else is based on experience and tasting as I go.

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cooking is an art and baking is a science .. so i agree with some of you that i measure if its a new recipe in a savory dish and wing it later when i am comfortable with the recipe and i measure everything when its pastry whether its the first time or the 100th time..

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Often, aside from ingredients, I do not measure time when cooking. All of a sudden, you  just know its done.  :biggrin:

I think a twin thread to this is about oven temperatures and timing. There is such a huge difference between ovens (I dont know if this is true of commercial ovens) that when my oven says it has reached 160 degrees (I am talking degrees Celsius here, but substitute any value of your choice) might be the same heat as when yours says 140 or 180. And 35 minutes in my oven might mean 25 or 45 in yours.

I once lived in the country, with an ancient wood stove that had no temperature indicator or control at all. I had no choice but to use it. I soon learned that almost everything turned out OK, and that the crucial thing was to be able to judge when something was cooked, and not worry about time or temperature. When the time came to replace it, I decided on a modern version of the wood stove because I loved it so much. The modern one had temperature indicator - but no control other than adjusting the flue or raking the embers or adding more wood.

I think we get far too hung up on numbers and times - in past times, cooks managed (as I eventually did) without dials and indicators.

I could never quite work out how I "knew" when jam or marmalade was done. But I did know. Then one day I read about an old lady who said you could tell by the different sound of the bubbles as they popped - and I knew immediately that that was what I was doing.

In other words, just keep doing it, dont agonise over everything too much, mostly things will turn out fine.

Happy Feasting

Janet (a.k.a The Old Foodie)

My Blog "The Old Foodie" gives you a short food history story each weekday day, always with a historic recipe, and sometimes a historic menu.

My email address is: theoldfoodie@fastmail.fm

Anything is bearable if you can make a story out of it. N. Scott Momaday

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This is fascinating. I have often wondered why American recipes are volume-based, which is relatively imprecise, whereas French ones are weight-based. I use a little electronic scale, though I always have to have cups and table-/teaspoons on hand for American recipes.

On the other hand, despite the precision, too many French recipes are too vague. Bake something "à bon four" (in a hot oven) is not uncommon!

For recipes I always measure, even though I've done them a million times, I would say the most important for me is pesto. It just doesn't taste as good if I stray from the very strict proportions of my favorite pesto recipe.

Because like Preserve and others said, cooking is an art while

baking is a science. Like many of you, the first few times I make

something I measure. Then when I know what it looks and tastes

like at all stages of cooking then I wing it.

Re why volume based recipes: it's visually and intuitively easier.

We can see what we are putting in, and we have a spoon in our

hands anyway.

Weighing is a pain (though necessary for baking) it's an extra step.

Volume is much easier: any way you're scooping up the ingredient

with a spoon or cup, so just keep using that!

Milagai

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I measure for simple syrups and brine.

Simple syrup I make strong, and I measure the amount of sugar by weight that goes into 1L of syrup and remember it. Then I can roughly figure out how much syrup I need to make a 10% sugar solution which is roughly what I need for sweetened beverages like lemonade.

Brine I measure by first placing the brined item in a tub and then pouring in 1L amounts of water from the kettle. For every L, I add 30 grams/1 ounce of salt to make a 3% solution and then roughly equal amounts of sugar.

Apart from that, I can't really think of when I've used a measuring cup/spoon.

PS: I am a guy.

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