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Things we measure and things we don't


Fat Guy
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I think the most important is just the ratio of ingredients. This would cause one (namely me) to invent new culinary jargon, such as the MBR when making chili. MBR = meat to bean ratio. An MBR that is too high results in very little difference in texture, and an MBR that is too low yields bean soup. Then you have those occasions when you want a purist chili, aiming for an MBR of 1.

Maybe I'm too much of a nerdy cook.

On the flip side, I love it when recipes says something like a "smidgen" or a "pinch". It leaves a lot up for interpretation. =)

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I like recipes that have foot notes. Might say something like the vinegar is used to make the apples less tart. Adjust to taste. I wish I could find the book but off the top of my head the CIA instructional cook books give you side notes explaining why vinegar is used and why it is important it be added at this point in a recipe.

I think this is why I'm such a fan of Alton Brown's Good Eat's.

Also reading the forward and or introduction to cook books I often see something like: these recipes should be considered a standard from which you should adjust and experiment with to your own tastes.

I can't imagine a line cook using measures on the line. The prep cook that made the marinade for what ever, yeah that cook probably measured everything.

"And in the meantime, listen to your appetite and play with your food."

Alton Brown, Good Eats

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You wrote:

"Who wants to try to measure out 1/2 cup butter?"

I do:  In the US, 1/2 C of butter is 1 stick of butter.  Don't have to "measure out" the butter; it is enough just to unwrap it.

Thanks for your feedback. I know some people are afraid to abandon their measuring scales and will religiously follow the "2g snipped chives" rather than eyeball the bunch of chives and decide how much they are willing to commit to their garnish.

The US stick of butter is a common item in American recipes, but when you live outside the US (as some do) and you've never seen a stick of butter and have no idea how large/small it is, it's a useless quantity in a recipe.

The point I am making is that it is not always easy to cram fridge-hard butter into a measuring cup, specially if you need it to remain very cold for, say, pastry. You could end up being 10g short. But I know half a cup of butter weighs 120g.

While exact measurements are critical in baking, in a casserole the "two sticks of celery" or "three medium tomatoes" are perfectly acceptable indicators of quantity. The daring might even choose to contribute their own touch and throw in the nice red capsicum they bought at the farmers' market at the weekend, even though it's not in the recipe.

More important is the tasting - keep tasting, adjusting. If those three medium tomatoes turn out to be watery flavourless ones, a slosh (30ml :wink:) of red wine vinegar can work wonders, as can a shot of tomato paste.

Website: http://cookingdownunder.com

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Absolutely, positively I will NOT pay any serious attention at all to any published recipe from anyone with the lack of precision of anything like "2 celery sticks, 1 large onion, 3 medium tomatoes".  Period.

It's common even in the most technical professional texts to use piece measurements in some recipes. For example, if you open "The Professional Chef" seventh edition at random (in this case pages 522 and 523) you'll find "1 red onion, peeled and quartered," "2 cloves garlic, peeled," "salt, as needed," "pepper, as needed," and several other measurements of that type.

There are also plenty of recipes in that text, and other professional texts, that call for very precise quantities: ".680 kg asparagus" and "15 ml shallots." But there are two fallacies to that sort of precision:

First, as explained up-topic, it's impossible to standardize the strength of natural ingredients. Some garlic is just stronger than other garlic, no matter how carefully you specify type. So 15 ml is not necessarily a more reliable measure than 1 clove.

Second, you can be sure no actual professional chef really thinks you need exactly .680 kg of asparagus for the recipe that specifies .680 kg. Rather, somebody decided to use roughly 1.5 pounds, and then when they did the metric conversion they got that .680 kg number. Nobody really cares, and it makes no difference to the recipe, if you use .6 kg or .7 kg instead. Needless to say, for the 15 ml, somebody said "about a tablespoon" and that's how it got codified. On any given Sunday, 20 ml would have worked just fine.

Precision is more relevant when dealing with highly processed, standardized ingredients where chemical reactions are important to the finished dish: baking soda, baking powder, pastry flour, white sugar, etc. This is of course why precision and accuracy in measurements for pastry and baking are on the whole more important than in most savory recipes.

I think most amateur culinary texts are not serious enough about measurements -- the volume measurements in baking books are particularly troublesome -- but I also think one can go too far in demanding gratuitous precision for the sake of nothing.

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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I am on the side of measuring the first time (or first few times) I make something. It really depends on if I have a point of reference or if the thing in question really needs to be measured.

For example, I almost never measure in a braised dish or in a dish where I make a reduction sauce (i.e. wine, stock, herbs) because these types of dish I have made literally hundreds of times in numerous variations. The only time I will measure is if I am using an ingredient that I am not too familiar with and want to avoid its flavor being too dominant or weak. For example, the first few times I used tarragon, I either overdid or underdid it. It took some time to get used to knowing the right amount.

On the other hand, if I am making a one pot meal that involves rice, I always measure my liquid, whether I am using a recipe or not, because I know I want the rice to absorb all of the liquid. This is something that is kind of hard to eyeball. Certain sauces, like bechamel, I also measure on (even though I know the proportions in my head) because I am looking for a specific consistency and I know I can't, for instance, add flour or butter after incorporating the milk.

"If the divine creator has taken pains to give us delicious and exquisite things to eat, the least we can do is prepare them well and serve them with ceremony."

~ Fernand Point

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"Second, you can be sure no actual professional chef really thinks you need exactly .680 kg of asparagus for the recipe that specifies .680 kg. Rather, somebody decided to use roughly 1.5 pounds, and then when they did the metric conversion they got that .680 kg number. Nobody really cares, and it makes no difference to the recipe, if you use .6 kg or .7 kg instead. Needless to say, for the 15 ml, somebody said "about a tablespoon" and that's how it got codified. On any given Sunday, 20 ml would have worked just fine." (Quoted from Fat Guy, above)

I agree completely with the point that cooking rules (i.e., measurements of ingredients, and standardized procedures) are codifications/abstractions of real life cooking practices. That is to say, real life cooking practices come first, and approximate descriptions of such practices come second. One interesting consequence of this point is that cooking rules are always, on an important level, inherently imprecise abstractions of real practices.

And contrary to what some may believe, this point is a serious one. A point touched a few times throughout this discussion is that, at the end of the day, recipes and the measurements they include have to tell us what to do under "average" cooking conditions. That is, a recipe can only tell us how to deal with an "average" garlic of average potent-ness, where the environmental conditions (temperature, humidity, etc.) are "average."

Cooks who are not wedded to the idea that they absolutely have to follow written cooking rules are more likely to learn to cook by feel, taste, and sight. And those who can cook by feel, taste, and sight are more likely to be able to account for relevant contextual features of their cooking practices (strength of flavours of ingredients, environmental conditions). Moreover, cooks who are able to "cook by ear" are more likely to be able to produce dishes to suit their own tastes, or the particular tastes of other diners. And for lots of people who like to cook at eat, having this kind of skill is useful.

Edited by Khadija (log)
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I guess I play more loose and fast in the kitchen....Don't bake or do confectionary work much, but when I do , I pay more attention to measurements than usual. And as many of you have already stated, I use them as guidelines. Especially when it comes to bread doughs, where I try to simply get to the right texture/consistency/feel for the dough more than anything.

One of the most revealing experiences in the kitchen happened for me a few years ago. A friend wanted to learn how to make a curried chickpea dish that I had made a few weeks ago. As I was chopping things, she would scoop them into measuring cups and spoons to get precise measurements of everything, and then would scribble down notes (e.g. 1 tightly packed cup of onion sliced in 1/8 inch half-moons). It was just such a different prep style than I'd ever seen ...but in a way it was nice for someone would go through that tedious process since I'd never taken the trouble!

The funny thing was that at the end, I was using a different brand of tamarind pulp than usual, and it ended up being much more sour than I'd intended. This was a great learning point for both of us- together, we figured out how to compensate for the extra tang through experimentation. I learned to be familiar with my ingredients before tossing them in the pot. :rolleyes: And she got some experience with "winging it". :smile:

In my opinion, it was harder on her end to deal with my different cooking style (I think I was more fascinated than anything with her meticulousness), but we certainly weren't dissuaded from cooking with each other again! After each session together, she'd send over her typed-up recipes, and I would add more sensory comments (e.g. how things should smell, look, feel, etc.) So I think we actually made a great team! :wink:

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Part of the problem with precision is not attitude based, but equipment based. Kitchen scales aimed at the mass market historically have never been very precise. They measure in quarter ounces, maybe...

Project- when you're measuring out your precise quantities, are you using a readily purchased kitchen scale, or lab equipment? How much did it cost you? How long have you had it?

Years ago, a scientist used to post tea reviews on rec.food.drink.tea... always measured the tea used down to tenths of a gram, and the water to exact degrees. He'd make comparisons about how a particular tea came out when using 1.7 g of tea vs. using 2g of tea, etc. It always frustrated the hell out of me because I just wasn't willing to drop $75 or so on a scale to measure tea. Now that scales that precise are $10, I own one...

Edited by cdh (log)

Christopher D. Holst aka "cdh"

Learn to brew beer with my eGCI course

Chris Holst, Attorney-at-Lunch

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Okay, guys, I'll try again:

For two stalks of celery, if someone has a favorite dish they have done often and include two stalks of celery, then that will likely be fine.

BUT here is the 'rub': If they want to write a recipe and publish it so that someone else, far away geographically and far in the future in time, can fairly accurately reproduce the dish, then the recipe will be greatly improved with the weight of the celery as used.

Sure, can also mention that, with the celery the writer has and with the way they trim the stalks, the quantity is about two stalks.

Moreover, once a reader understands the recipe, they may also cook it just by counting stalks.

But stalks of celery today in New Zealand might be quite different in weight from stalks of celery in California ten years from now. Then the first-cut good solution to this potential problem is to give the weight and not just the count.

The core issue is not the execution of the cooking itself but the COMMUNICATIONS. Or, seeing the weight of the celery and the remark that this weight is about two stalks, someone who wonders might weigh two stalks of their celery, as they trim it, or, for a more accurate weight given crude kitchen scales, weigh 10 such stalks and divide by 5, confirm that their celery is like that of the writer, and from then on just count the stalks and ignore the weight.

Here's another advantage: Maybe a reader's celery supply is not the best. So, they have a lot of stalks which, however, need a lot of trimming. They can't get two good, full stalks, but they can get the equivalent weight. So, knowing the weight lets them use the trimmed pieces they do have.

Here is another way to explain the advantage of giving the weight: A good recipe can get modified, greatly changed to another dish, translated to another culture, etc. Over time, with many such operations, a weight, a numerical quantity, in, say, grams, can be transmitted fine, without loss of accuracy due to the translation, while "two stalks" can become 1-4 depending on size and trimming, etc. Ten years from now, half way around the world, after five such translation operations, the difference could be significant.

For some confirmation of the importance of giving weights, I was impressed that Escoffier was careful in giving weights of ingredients, even in stock making.

Recently I have been doing some Italian red sauce casseroles and topping them with freshly grated Pecorino-Romano. I've been measuring the amount of grated cheese just by eye. But for the last dish, I weighed the grated cheese -- got 7 ounces. I wrote the 7 ounces in my notes. This means that two years from now I will know what I did and be able to do it again. I also get some help knowing how much cheese to buy when I need to restock! But, now that I have the weight recorded, in my daily cooking I will return to measuring by eye. Still, I want the weight recorded!

Here's another potential benefit: On eG has been a long thread on how much acid and oil to use in vinaigrette. I've always used 3:1 by volume of oil to vinegar. Now, we could give a recipe for vinaigrette with broadly available brands of vinegar, oil, and prepared mustard. Then everyone could make a batch; call it the 'reference' batch.

We could all taste this reference batch and, thus, all taste essentially the same level of 'sourness' in the vinaigrette.

So, suppose now someone wants to use Balsamic vinegar and achieve about the same level of sourness. So, they could start with a small amount of this expensive vinegar, add small quantities, mix, taste, and compare with the reference batch and stop adding Balsamic when the two batches seemed to have about the same sourness.

Similarly for using lemon juice (where lemons vary!) or lime juice in a vinaigrette!

Similarly, a cookbook author could give recipes for reference batches for sweet, bitter, etc.

Then, for a special vinaigrette with a different brand of mustard with its own vinegar and for half lemon juice and half lime juice, could still get the sourness at the reference level!

The author could say, "Not TOO sour" and give a reference recipe that is the author's definition of "too sour".

FG wrote:

"So 15 ml is not necessarily a more reliable measure than 1 clove."

Let's see:

Let W be the weight of the garlic (in grams), let S be the strength of the garlic per gram, and let R be the resulting strength of the garlic in the dish. Then R = WS. We want the variance of R to be small. So, we also want the variance of ln® to be small where ln() is the natural logarithm. So, ln® = ln(W) + ln(S) so that Var(ln®) = Var(ln(W) + ln(S)) = Var(ln(W)) + Var(ln(S)) > Var(ln(S)).

If we weigh the garlic, then we can get essentially Var(ln(W)) = 0, and if we just use one clove of garlic then we must have Var(ln(W)) > 0.

So, even if the strength per gram of the garlic varies, we still necessarily get more accuracy in the strength of garlic in the dish if we weigh the garlic instead of just using a clove.

cdh asked about scales:

I intend to buy a good set of electronic scales! I don't have anything that could accurately weigh a few bay leaves, 1.7 g of tea, 1/4 C of minced chives, etc. Of course, back in college chemistry lab, I did!

Or, could make a set of balance scales. For the standard weights, take a ream of paper, 500 sheets, weigh it, then take one sheet, divide by 500 to get the weight of the one sheet, and cut the sheet into 2, 4, 8, etc. equal pieces and also know their weights. Then could weigh an individual chive! I don't plan to do this!

So, for bay leaves, I still just count them. For chives, I mince them and then use a volume measure, say, 1/4 C.

For dried basil, oregano, rosemary, and parsley, I use volume measurements.

For scales, I keep in the kitchen an old set of postal scales that have accuracy of about 1/2 ounce up to 16 ounces or so. And I have a set of kitchen scales that have accuracy of about 1 ounce up to 10 pounds.

So, I can weigh 1 pound of coarsely diced yellow globe onion, 7 ounces of freshly grated Pecorino-Romano cheese, four skinless, boneless chicken breast pieces, etc.

Will eagerly consider suggestions of good $10 kitchen scales!

What would be the right food and wine to go with

R. Strauss's 'Ein Heldenleben'?

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Absolutely, positively I will NOT pay any serious attention at all to any published recipe from anyone with the lack of precision of anything like "2 celery sticks, 1 large onion, 3 medium tomatoes".  Period.

It's common even in the most technical professional texts to use piece measurements in some recipes. For example, if you open "The Professional Chef" seventh edition at random (in this case pages 522 and 523) you'll find "1 red onion, peeled and quartered," "2 cloves garlic, peeled," "salt, as needed," "pepper, as needed," and several other measurements of that type.

There are also plenty of recipes in that text, and other professional texts, that call for very precise quantities: ".680 kg asparagus" and "15 ml shallots." But there are two fallacies to that sort of precision:

First, as explained up-topic, it's impossible to standardize the strength of natural ingredients. Some garlic is just stronger than other garlic, no matter how carefully you specify type. So 15 ml is not necessarily a more reliable measure than 1 clove.

Second, you can be sure no actual professional chef really thinks you need exactly .680 kg of asparagus for the recipe that specifies .680 kg. Rather, somebody decided to use roughly 1.5 pounds, and then when they did the metric conversion they got that .680 kg number. Nobody really cares, and it makes no difference to the recipe, if you use .6 kg or .7 kg instead. Needless to say, for the 15 ml, somebody said "about a tablespoon" and that's how it got codified. On any given Sunday, 20 ml would have worked just fine.

Precision is more relevant when dealing with highly processed, standardized ingredients where chemical reactions are important to the finished dish: baking soda, baking powder, pastry flour, white sugar, etc. This is of course why precision and accuracy in measurements for pastry and baking are on the whole more important than in most savory recipes.

I think most amateur culinary texts are not serious enough about measurements -- the volume measurements in baking books are particularly troublesome -- but I also think one can go too far in demanding gratuitous precision for the sake of nothing.

Well said FG, thanks. Oy, who knew a thread about how one manages in one's own kitchen could turn so volatile? Meh, hand me a clove of garlic, will ya?

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