Wednesday, June 1, 2011

How to Measure Ingredients Accurately

A few words about measuring ingredients. Experienced cooks can skip this stuff, but novices - or anyone who suspects they suffer too many cooking failures - should not.

Most of this blog is expressed in Imperial measure, but in late 2015, guilt set in and I began using dual measurements. So heres where things get complicated. Strictly speaking, foods such as flour and sugar should be measured by weight, rather than volume. This blog hails from North America, where it’s rare to weigh such items. 

Thats why I’ve expressed 1 c. all-purpose flour or sugar, for example, in milliliters (mL) rather than in grams (g). It’s far easier for us cooks to rely on a measuring cup than a weigh scale, so Ive presented flour and sugar as they appear in your measuring cup rather than offering their weights. Weighing ingredients (as professional chefs do) is a more accurate measurement, but most of us are not professional chefs and most of the cookbooks we use werent written for pros.
Unless you’re trying a new and complex recipe, you can usually get away without measuring the ingredients used in soup, meat, fish, and veggie dishes. 

Baked goods are a whole different story. Think of them as a chemical equation. When a bread recipe calls for a certain quantity of salt, or a pinch of sugar stirred in with the yeast, don’t omit or reduce either, or your bread will fall flat. As you’ll see when you try tomorrow’s beautiful coffee cake, the combination of dairy sour cream and baking soda produces a strong chemical reaction. I love to watch the air bubbles form when that happens, knowing they’ll play an essential part in leavening the cake. 
Because you don’t want to wait too long once a reaction like this starts, I prefer to measure out the necessary ingredients in advance - always a sound cooking practice. The second part of this leavening process occurs with the addition of beaten eggs and baking powder. Experienced cooks who give this or any other recipe a quick read-through will immediately know they can expect such a cake to be light and airy, rather than heavy and dense. 
The measurement lesson here? Unless you’re experienced enough to read through a recipe and recognize it as a poor bet for success, do what the recipe instructs. Experienced cooks often change ingredients to create something completely new, but they rarely tamper with the basics - the balanced chemical components that make the thing “work.” Always have your ingredients at room temperature for baked goods other than pastry.
Leaving metric and Imperial measure aside, there are two kinds of measuring cups - “dry” and “wet.” As their names suggest, they have very different uses. Dry ingredients such as flour and granulated sugar are heaped into a “dry” measuring cup before being leveled off. Made of plastic or metal, these measuring cups tend to be opaque or solid, because you don’t need to see through them. 
If a cake is expected to be light and feathery, the flour, baking powder, salt, and soda (if used) are often sifted before being measured. I don’t own or need an actual “sifter” - I just spoon the ingredients through a sieve and onto a sheet of waxed paper, from which I measure it. 

Occasionally, recipes will call for a “scant cup or a “scant tablespoon. That means slightly less” than a regular cup or tablespoon, with no leeway for extra! 

Heres how: With the back of a large spoon, press an unmeasured quantity of flour through a fine sieve, allowing it to heap up in a bowl or on parchment or waxed paper on your work surface. Use about twice the amount of flour your recipe requires. Using a large spoon and an upward motion, gently spoon the flour into a “dry” measuring cup until it rises well above the surface. Without compressing it, level it off straight across the measuring cup using a metal frosting spreader or large knife.

Using the same method, always sift icing or “confectioners” sugar before measuring it: It tends to contain lumps that are a nuisance to beat out. 

Whether light or dark, brown sugar is measured very differently. Unless a recipe says otherwise, brown sugar should be tightly packed into a dry measuring cup.
Liquid ingredients including water, milk, eggs, oil, and so forth are quantified in “wet” measuring cups. Made of plastic or glass, these tend to be see-through, allowing you to eyeball the measurement with accuracy. Don’t do this from above and don’t do this as you hold the measuring cup. For an accurate measurement, place it on a flat surface, looking directly across to the level of liquid inside. 

Unless a recipe states otherwise, use large eggs. For best results in baking cakes and cookies, eggs and fats should always be at room temperature. Fat should be chilled for pastry-making.
Solid fats such as butter, margarine, and shortening are measured differently again. If the fat is very cold and hard, I use what’s called the “water displacement method.” It’s basically simple. If your recipe calls for ⅓ cup fat, fill your “wet” measuring cup with ⅔ cup water. Add the fat your recipe calls for, pressing it below the water line until the level of water reaches exactly one cup. 

Measuring butter by the water displacement method
Likewise, if you need ½ cup fat, add ½ cup water to your “wet” measuring cup, pressing enough fat below the water line until the water level measures one full cup. Although this method is messy, it’s the very best way to measure the fat used to make pie pastry. Making life a little easier, one U.S. stick of butter equals ½ c.
For cakes and cookies - neither of which are as fussy to bake as pies - I generally allow the fat to soften at room temperature, and press it as hard as I can into a dry measuring cup before leveling it off. You can use this method if you’re certain there are no air pockets to throw off your measurement.
One last quick word about measurements: Read the ingredient wording carefully! “1 c. chopped nuts” is very different from “1 c. nuts, chopped.” In the first measurement, you’ll need more than a cup of nuts to achieve the “chopped nuts” measure. In the second measurement, you’ll need exactly a cup of nuts, and will have less than a cup after they’ve been chopped. These are simple but important techniques to enhance your cooking success.

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