It might seem like an exact, overly fussy thing to do, but accurate measuring contributes to the art of cooking.
Recipes are like road maps that take you on journeys. The starting point lies in the ingredients, because without adequate supplies, you might not arrive at your destination in great shape.
That’s why each time I develop a recipe, I consider how cooks will measure the ingredients—I ponder their measuring tools and how they might prep and determine appropriate quantities. Do they measure dry ingredients by scooping and sweeping or by pouring and leveling? Do they own a scale? If they’re a little off, will the dish be totally ruined, or will a well-placed tip salvage it?
If I sound fastidious, it’s because I am. As a cookbook author, my goal is to help cooks succeed and learn in their kitchens. Because I’m not there with them, my instructions should be clear and precise but with some wiggle room. I never want to come off like, well, my mother.
When she was first teaching me to cook, she’d always be nearby to make sure that I measured things “right” (read: her way). A special melamine cup was our rice scooper. Heaping Chinese soup spoons of sugar were used for certain recipes, while metal serving spoons were used for others.
Those early cooking lessons taught me how good cooks pave their own paths and create personal measuring systems. That’s because for most of us, cooking is a craft more than a science. Too much exactitude from the outside can cramp style. Moreover, there can be slight differences between measuring implements. When my husband’s aunt Henrietta Hulbert passed, I inherited her vintage set of aluminum measuring cups. She lost a forearm in the 1930s and her husband in World War II, but those setbacks didn’t stop her from driving a stick shift and treating loved ones to sensational chile rellenos and pound cakes. I admired her chutzpah and thought the cups would elevate my cooking. Unfortunately, my recipes were always off when I used them. I finally tested her cups against mine and realized that hers held slightly less. Who knows how she measured ingredients, but like my mother, she had a system that worked for her.
Here’s how to fix what's wrong with your recipe.
Look in my kitchen, and you’ll see certain brands of measuring cups and spoons. I’ve used them to formulate my recipes, and I stick with them to maintain consistency in my work. That said, a little skepticism is always good. Digital scales supposedly never lie, but I occasionally check the accuracy of mine to keep it honest.
Little vagaries and joyful tweaks are an intrinsic part of cooking. When I overthink ingredient measurements, I remind myself that before 1896, when Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book introduced exact volume measurements to American cooks, recipes and measurements were fuzzy, and people were still able to put good food on the table.
What’s important for you is to decide on certain equipment and methods and nimbly use them to obtain results that satisfy you. In our kitchens, we’re the masters of our own delicious destinies.
Try It: Baby Chocolate Cakes
For a fun way to check your tools and methods, make a batch of these chocolaty, bite-size tea cakes, which taste like elegant brownies.
View Recipe: Baby Chocolate Cakes
Measuring Tips From a Pro
In the realm of cooking, baking is where measurements count most. Here’s how to measure just right to ensure success.
For ingredients such as flour, use a dry measuring cup. We stir flour a couple times before spooning it into a measuring cup and leveling with a knife. That volume is also weighed for accuracy (1 cup of all-purpose flour weighs 4.25 ounces). If you have a scale, use the weight if it’s specified in a recipe.
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Use a liquid measuring cup for liquids. Place it on your work surface, and then add the ingredient. Bend down to check the meniscus, the surface curvature of a liquid when it’s in a container. If the meniscus bottom lies at the target marking, you’re golden!
To check the accuracy of your digital scale, find a shiny new penny or nickel. Set the scale to metric. One penny should weigh 2.5 grams (or 3 grams if the scale cannot register 0.5 grams). One nickel weighs 5 grams.
Andrea Nguyen is a writer, editor, cooking teacher, and author of five cookbooks, most recently the James Beard award-winning The Pho Cookbook: Easy to Adventurous Recipes for Vietnam's Favorite Soup and Noodles. She writes the monthly "The Teacher" column in our magazine.