A New Year’s resolution for home cooks: stop measuring so much

Julia Child's Pyrex measuring cup, kept at the National Museum of American History

OK, I’ve got a resolution that should be easier to keep than, say, quitting smoking or losing ten pounds. Next time you cook, whether following a recipe or improvising, let go of the measuring implements, and follow your instincts and your senses.

I’m not proposing that we go back to pre-Fannie Farmer, Boston Cookbook days, when everything was “a sufficient amount”, “until desired texture”, and other totally relative descriptors. There is merit to precision in cooking.

The dedication that, say, Julia Child put in making sure her recipes were just right is truly admirable. But even though she was precise to the point of obsession (29 attempts to perfect a strawberry soufflé recipe is an impressive amount of effort), she also knew that you have to be able to adjust, to improvise and to change your approach on the spot. As she said in a 1979 interview in Yankee magazine:

“Of course there are slips, dishes that don’t come out as expected. But when you master the technique, you can learn to correct mistakes and even live comfortably with them. If the sauce is too thin, thicken it. If the Hollandaise is lumpy, dice up hard-boiled eggs to justify the lumps. If the mousse fails, turn it into a delicious soup.”

In other words, even when you follow recipes, results are not necessarily guaranteed. You have to actually look at what you’re doing, at what is going on in the pans and pots, and be ready to change things a bit, in order to make sure you get where you want to go – or even, to get somewhere good that you hadn’t thought about.

As chef and author Michael Ruhlman said on his blog, on the release of his book Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking:

I am not saying recipes are bad or wrong—I use them all the time; there are plenty of recipes in the new book—but when we rely completely on recipes, we cooks do ourselves a grave disservice. We remain chained to the ground, we remain dependent on our chains. When you are dependent on recipes, you are a factory worker on the assembly line; when you possess ratios and basic technique, you own the company.

That’s pretty much what I’m aiming at when I say you should slack off on measuring. It’s more important to understand why you’re doing something, and what you’re aiming for, than to use precisely 165 milliliters of white wine in a recipe.

Ruhlman’s principle, in Ratio, is to know the proportions that will yield a certain basic recipe: cookie dough, bread dough, custard, you name it. Then, from those basic proportions and concepts, this “bedrock”, you can build just about any recipe. I haven’t read the book yet, so I can’t tell how all-encompassing these ratios actually are, but the basic idea seems absolutely right to me (and this Slate piece on the book, starting from a very skeptical point of view, ended up rather enthusiastic) .

You see, mixing so many cups of flour and so many cups of water isn’t an end in itself. It’s a way to make a dough of a particular texture. You have to know what you’re aiming for. If you do, you’ll be able to figure out why you’re being asked to use that much of each ingredient, and whether or not you should be using a bit more or a bit less than indicated, to get where you wat to go.

For me, recipes are most often guidelines, rather than precise instructions. Sometimes I will read through a recipe, shop for the exact ingredients, stick to the prescribed quantities, but more often than not, I’ll get a sense of what’s required, read the ingredients, see what the spicing is, and go from there with what I have on hand.

Being overly reliant on the numbers written down in a recipe can sometimes do as much harm than good. Cooking times are particularly unreliable, in my experience: indications of color and texture (say, “until tender”) are more useful than a precise number of minutes. The cakes I bake never take the described amount of time (maybe my oven is slow), and the Rioja-style potatoes I made the other day (with caramelized onions, chorizo and pimenton) took twice as long as indicated in José Andrès’ Tapas book. Pasta that cooks in the amount of time indicated on the package? I’ve almost never seen that.

Your ingredients can also have effects on the way the recipe cooks its way to completion. Maybe the particular potatoes you’re using are starchier than the ones used to devise the recipes. One batch of flour may not absorb water quite like the other. Maybe your tomatoes have more – or less – liquid than the onew you used the previous time. Are the apples sweeter this fall? Are you using fresh, seasonal carrots, or the ones kept through the winter? All that can affect how the recipe will turn out.

Spicing should also be a question of taste and proportion: maybe the chili you’re using is stronger or weaker than the one used for the recipe, your herbs less intensely flavored. You may like spicier dishes, enjoy certain herbs in a particular mix more or less than others. You should be able to tweak recipes – or even revisit them substantially – according to your preferences and to the particular ingredients you’re using.

Of course, if you’re doing a type of dish you’ve never tried before, you may well want to stick closer to the original recipe. Same thing if you’re an inexperienced cook, just starting to learn the ropes. But your objective should be to move beyond the strict equation on the page as soon as you can. Or that if you decide to stick to the equation, it’s because you know it’s exactly what you want. The more you cook, and the more you think about why and how you’re preparing a particular recipe, the easier those decisions will become, and the more optional those precise measuring tools will become.

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One Comment

  1. Posted January 28, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    What an excellent deconstruction. It’s a freeing experience to move beyond the bounds of a recipe. I remember the first time I made pizza dough with Italian 00 flour, after the feel I’d gained for it with many batches of all-purpose flour dough. That was a quick lesson in gluten-management strategy!

    Thanks for sharing; it’s always nice to read a well-written piece that plucks an intuitive topic from the ether and gives it flesh and bones.

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