Kitchen 101: Measuring
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It’s a new year. Obligations, jobs and day to day happenings are roaring back to life. Massive contrived meals around that rarely used dining room table are traded in for small comfortable dinners in the breakfast room or at the couch as we bid adieu to the holidays and say hello to the warm-welcomed mundane. We celebrated 2011 with a cacophony of flavors and dishes we spent the year perfecting, slaving over, tasting time and time again. We labored over dishes that became our favorites, dishes that we could brag about and show off to family and friends.
Now it’s time to start again. It’s a new year and it’s a time to discover new favorites, contemporary flavor combinations, strange dishes we would have never considered stepping near in 2011. It’s time to look at the way we do things and finally take that big step we’ve been thinking of for a year. Some of us may have resolutions, others may just want to spice up their typical fare and a couple of us even want to become the best darn baker or chef on the street and in the family.
So here is Kitchen 101, a new series here at Chasing Delicious in which I hope to share my own exploration into food with tips and techniques to help all of you out there just starting in the kitchen or those of you veterans looking to pick up a few new tricks. This deconstructed look into the kitchen will focus mainly on baking but the things I share can definitely help with cooking too. Today it’s all about measurement. And those of you familiar with baking will know there are two sides to this very basic of basics, volume and mass. These two types of measuring lead to one of the biggest questions in cooking and baking, “Should I use measuring cups or a kitchen scale?”.
Whatever your preferred measurement system, you should know both like the back of your hand. One day you will come across a recipe using measurements you don’t cook with. If you know both volume and mass and how to convert between the two you will be able to tackle that foreign recipe without a second thought. Also, knowing these conversions come in handy when a recipe calls for 1 1/2 teaspoons – instead of grabbing the teaspoon and 1/2 teaspoon, you can grab one tool, the 1/2 tablespoon. Or when you come across ounces but only have a measuring cup marked in 1/4th cup increments. What if a recipe calls for 4 tablespoons? Are you going to keep using that small tool over and over when you could just measure out 1/4th of a cup? Did you know that even though the drop, dash, and pinch aren’t standardized, they still represent typically agreed-upon specific amounts? And what do you do when a recipe calls for 4 ounces of all purpose flour but don’t have a kitchen scale?
Measuring by Volume
Let’s start with volume. Most recipes out there are written in volumetric measurements; this has been the preferred method of measuring by home cooks for generations. While it is exact when it comes to liquid measurements, it is far from exact or consistent when it comes to measuring dry ingredients. Either way though, it is impossible to cook in the kitchen without some sort of tool for measuring volume.
The joys of imperial measurements, especially volume, is that even though it doesn’t seem as neat and tidy as the metric system, it is still organized, in one of the most convoluted, strange ways known to man. There are 3 teaspoons in a tablespoon, 2 tablespoons in a fluid ounce, 8 fluid ounces in a cup, 2 cups in a pint, 2 pints in a quart and 4 quarts in a gallon. So, measurements are either divisible by 2, 3, 4, or 8 and any and every product of two or more of those numbers. This is far from as neat as the metric system in which everything is divisible by 10.
It may seem like elementary math, but knowing these volumetric conversions could save you time, energy and frustration looking for unnecessary measuring devices when the one in your hand will already do. Here is a handy little cheat sheet for you covering just about all of the US volumetric measurements out there, plus their metric equivalent rounded to the nearest 0 or 5.
As for tips regarding volumetric measurement, memorize what 1/2 a teaspoon, 1 teaspoon and 1 tablespoon of salt, pepper, sugar and different spices looks like in the palm of your hand. I almost never take the time to search for these small, often lost-somewhere-in-my-kitchen, or destroyed-in-my-garbage-dispoal measuring spoons because it is just easier for me to measure it out in my palm. As for liquids, take the time to memorize how long it takes to pour different amounts of liquids of different viscosity, such as vanilla extract, olive oil or even milk. It may seem tedious initially but you’d be surprised how much time and dirty dishes you save yourself down the road.
As for measuring larger quantities of dry ingredients with measuring cups, you should never compact or press down to see how much you can fit into the measuring device (unless of course it is brown sugar and the recipe specifies “packed brown sugar”). Fluff up flour before scooping or better yet use a smaller spoon to spoon flour into the measuring cup. Then using a flat edge, scrape off the extra so the flour is level with the top of the measuring cup. Sounds tedious, eh? That’s why I measure by scale and not volume.
Measuring by Mass
Mass is not only a far more exact and consistent form of measurement, it is much easier than trying to measure something correctly by volume. 4 ounces of flour is always 4 ounces of flour; whereas, 1 cup of flour may be 3.8 ounces one day and 4.2 ounces the next. That 1/8th a cup difference could mean the difference between a delicious moist cake one day and a slightly dry, tough cake the next day when you make it for guests.
Measuring by mass is far more simple than volume, even in america, because there is really only one conversion you need to know for baking: 16 ounces equals 1 pound. Rarely will you see a measurement calling for less than 1/4 of an ounce and I don’t think you’ll ever find a recipe calling for anything over a couple of pounds.
What may be helpful to know here is how to convert commonly used ingredients from volume to weight or vice versa. Here is my cheat sheet for that including the most commonly used flours and sugars, butter, salt, cocoa powder, honey and more. These measurements are approximates and can vary, especially with respect to how a recipe writer may measure their dry ingredients. Again, the metric measurements are rounded up or down to the closest neat number.
As for tips regarding measuring by weight? Do it. Stop measuring by volume and join every professional baker in the world by adopting the only consistent, perfect form of measurement. While this is infinitely more important in baking than cooking, you’d be surprised how much it may change what comes out of your kitchen. Of course, don’t go throwing those measuring cups away. Liquids and eggs are typically still measured by volume instead of weight.
Baking by weight will also help you begin understand the most important aspect in baking if you want to start developing your own recipes, Baker’s Percentage (a system used to determine and compare the proportion of one ingredient to another in a baked good). This is particularly helpful in determining the ratio of wet to dry ingredients and is essential to being able to substitute different ingredients into a recipe without completely messing it up – you probably already do this in your head. Of course, Baker’s Percentage is another lesson and so I’ll save that for another day.
Note about this post: The post is meant to be used as a reference and has been researched and collected from numerous sources including but not limited to: Glenn Rinsky and Laura Halpin Rinksy of “The Pastry Chef’s Companion: A Comprehensive Resource Guide for the Baking and Pastry Professional” and from Bi Friberg of “The Professional Pastry Chef, Fundamentals of Baking and Pastry” Fourth Edition. Photo (“Mixing”) and Styling credit: Loree van Kraayenburg
Check out the other Kitchen 101 posts.
Don’t forget to check out The Sweet Tooth Paper Goods Company where you can buy this or any of the three other Kitchen 101 posters! Ten percent of Kitchen 101 poster sale profits will go towards supporting education in the culinary arts. Have a suggestion for a product you’d like to see in the Chasing Delicious Store (fridge magnet, screen-printed tea towels, t-shirts, etc)? Feel free to email Russell with your idea.