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One of the most common questions I get from students in my cooking classes is “How much?” How much oil did you use? How much salt? How much pepper? How much this or that? Some ingredients I almost never measure. With the exception of vinaigrettes, I rarely measure oil. I just pour it in the pan until the bottom’s covered. “Eyeballing” ingredients makes fledging cooks very nervous and understandably so. Their skills and confidence have yet to reach the point where they feel secure enough to cook by sight. Thus, having specific parameters reduces their anxiety.
So is measuring necessary or not? Well, at the risk of exacerbating your anxiety, the answer is sometimes no and sometimes yes, and sometimes when it’s yes it must be absolutely accurate and sometimes not. OK, before you panic let’s peruse some culinary guidelines. We’ll start with the flexible end of the continuum and work our way into rigidity.
There are times when measuring is not only unnecessary but actually contraindicated. Salt is the best example. Sure, you could add a predetermined amount of salt to a recipe but the actual perceived salinity can vary. Other items in the recipe, cooking time, when you added the salt, the type of salt used, etc., can all influence how salty the final dish will taste. Moreover, individual palates vary in terms of desired saltiness. This is why most recipes say “salt to taste.” The most prudent path for a chef to take is to introduce an initial amount of salt to the dish, taste it throughout the cooking process, and add more accordingly. The same holds true for pepper as well. Thus, in the case of salt and pepper, there’s barely any eyeballing of the proper amount since the tongue does more of the detecting than the eye. Many times herbs and spices are incorporated into a dish in the same manner. After tasting your finished salsa for example, you might decide to add a little more cilantro.
Then there are the items that are usually added by sight and not via a formal measuring device such as the cooking oil in my introductory example. Prior to sautéing a particular food, most chefs will simply pour some oil in a pan, swirl it around and visually determine whether to add more or not. This is because the amount of oil needed for sautéing is somewhat flexible. A tablespoon or two more or less is not going to make any appreciable difference.
Likewise for pan-frying. By the book, the oil level in pan-frying should come about halfway up the food. So how much oil do you need in a 12-inch pan with three breaded chicken cutlets a quarter-inch inch thick? How about four pork chops three eighths of an inch thick? See how crazy it starts to get? Pour in some oil, heat it up, add the food, and adjust as necessary. Seriously, no one is going to know your oil level was a little under or a little over the midway point. There are countless other times in cooking, particularly when you become familiar with a recipe, where the ingredients are not measured.
Next are ingredients that are measured but have a decent amount of leeway. Let’s say your soup recipe calls for a cup of chopped onion and the onion you chopped equals three quarters of a cup. I doubt that extra quarter cup of onion is so vital that it’s worth cutting another onion just to use a piece of it. Or maybe your marinara recipe calls for 4 garlic cloves and you have three. Not a big deal. Or maybe your punch recipe calls for a third of a cup of sugar and your measuring cup set doesn’t have that size. Putting in a quarter cup of sugar and eyeballing the remaining twelfth of a cup, (the difference between a quarter and a third of a cup), is not going to ignite Armageddon.
Continuing, there are times when more careful measuring is required but still not with 100% accuracy. Take roux for example. Generally roux is made from an equal amount of flour and fat. A doink more or less of either will not inhibit the roux’s thickening power. I wouldn’t veer far from the basic formula but there’s no need to be obsessive-compulsive. The same holds true for liaisons, slurries, vinaigrettes, and similar concoctions. Follow the recipe’s guidelines but don’t get psychotic about it.
And then there’s baking. Baking is notorious for its insistence on properly measured ingredients. That’s because baking involves more chemistry and science than regular cooking. Baking formulas are not forgiving. The quintessential example is recipes that require leavening such as when combining acids and alkalis to produce carbon dioxide. Certain ratios are required or your baked goods may not rise properly. Generally speaking, baking soda, baking powder, acids, yeast, and the ratio of wet ingredients to dry should not be approached in a lackadaisical manner.
When the situation does call for measuring, there are a number of gadgets at your disposal. Dry goods can be gauged with handled measuring cups which usually come in sets. Liquids are best quantified with a glass or plastic measuring cup with a spout for pouring. Small quantities are most amenable to small measuring spoons, inevitably coming as part of a set.
All of the aforementioned devices measure volume, not weight. Only a scale can measure weight. This is a crucial point because depending on the substance, the two dimensions are not equal. One cup is eight ounces but eight ounces of volume is not always the same thing as eight ounces of weight. For example, if you measure one cup of water or sugar with a measuring cup and then weight it, it will be eight ounces. But a measuring cup of vegetable oil will weigh about six and a half ounces. Worse yet, a measuring cup worth of flour can have a wide range of weights depending on how tightly you pack the measuring cup. Since weight is the most accurate means of evaluating an item’s quantity, most chefs and food writers prefer it to volume. Depending on how serious a cook you are, I recommend having two kitchen scales: one for weighing small amounts of ingredients in fractions of ounces and a larger one for weighing bulk items capable of multiple pounds. Digital scales, although more expensive, are more accurate than spring-based scales.
To summarize, there are times when measuring is unnecessary, times when it is flexibly performed, and times when it must follow the letter of the law. Except for the most demanding of situations, with practice and experience you’ll come to rely more on your senses than your devices. And that is one of the measures of a knowledgeable cook.