My Philosophy on Measuring

Shorter me: Buy a scale. Here’s mine.

Measuring may not strike you as something needing much philosophy, but it’s pretty critical to good cooking.  (Besides, I’m in a PhD program; clearly I’m the kind of person who overthinks things.)  You have to know how much of what to use and how long to cook it for, and both of those things require measurement.  Fortunately, we have pretty awesome ways of doing those things.  Unfortunately, most of us – and so, most of our recipes – don’t make use of those awesome ways.

Problems I have with the usual way of measuring ingredients:

  • Measuring things that are compressible (flour, brown sugar) by volume is inaccurate.  Yes, even if you remember to pack down the brown sugar.
  • Measuring things that are viscous (honey, oil) by volume is inaccurate, because they stick to the measuring vessel.  Alton Brown’s measuring plungers help with this, though.
  • Measuring things that can be cut to different sizes (salt, sugar) by volume either is inaccurate or makes you have to do annoying conversions.  Don’t think it makes a difference whether you use kosher salt or regular, granulated sugar or superfine?  I once saw some salt that was advertised as some percent less sodium per serving!, simply because it was in bigger crystals than regular salt so each spoonful would have less of it.  Morals: don’t trust advertising and measure by weight.
  • Measuring by volume is messy and annoying.  Nobody’s favorite pastime is getting a cup of flour out of a nearly empty bag.  Ditto washing measuring cups.
  • Measuring with the US system is ridiculous.  Do you know how many tablespoons are in a cup? Without cheating and looking at your butter?  It’s like Macs vs. PCs.  We all know Macs are better, but most people won’t switch just because they’re used to their PC.  (Actually a bad example since I use a PC for other reasons, but still.)
  • Writing recipes only in absolute measurements makes it really difficult to compare recipes that make different total amounts.  In other words, comparing a recipe for 24 small cookies to a recipe for 36 large cookies will give you a headache.  Professional bakers use Baker’s Percentage for this reason and because it makes it easier to multiply recipes; I try to adapt it even to things that aren’t baked. The baker’s percentage of an ingredient = the weight of that ingredient / the weight of flour in the recipe * 100.  But if you’re making, say, a custard instead of a cake, I see no reason why you shouldn’t use the total weight of the eggs in place of the total weight of flour.

Problems I have with our measurements of how long to cook things:

  • Focusing more on time than on temperature is inaccurate.  Your cake doesn’t care how long your oven has been on, it cares what happens to its chemicals, and what happens to its chemicals is reflected in its temperature.  Ditto your meat, eggs, and candy.

The latter issue is a pretty easy fix – just learn (and write in your recipes) the temperature at which different things are done.  I’ll post a list at some point.  The former problem is harder, because, as Microsoft knows, people are creatures of habit.  And converting is a pain.  Alton Brown’s book on baking notes that he would have liked to put all his recipes in weight only, but that he was told that no one would buy a book without measurements in cups and spoons – not even his mother.  So I wrote a computer program – my very first, in fact – to convert recipes written in any format you’re likely to find (in US English) to baker’s percentage and grams.  But the output still has the original measurements, so Alton Brown’s mother will not be inconvenienced.  I’m going to attach the program here once I get a good number of ingredients into it, and everyone will be free to use it as they like.  In the meantime, if you happen to know a lot about the densities of different kinds of foods, let me know!

The idea is that eventually I’ll have enough recipes written in baker’s percentage (and hopefully other people will too!) that when you want to make something and you need to pick a recipe, you’ll just compare the percentages until you either get the general idea of the ratios well enough that you can make up your own recipe, or that you’ll be able to figure “well, this one has a higher fat content than that one, so it’ll probably be smoother and that’s what I want”, or whatever.  Picking a recipe will be just a little bit less of a shot in the dark.

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2 thoughts on “My Philosophy on Measuring

  1. I like your philosophy, and completely agree that graduate work either makes you, or means that you already, overthink things. I’m beginning to think that is my real skill, and everything else is just filler. Thanks for visiting my blog, and I look forward to exploring yours more–looks like we have some things in common.

  2. I just mentioned this point on my latest Fresh from the Oven challenge post (but not as vehemently or in such detail). I agree with your philosophy!

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