Cooking is a creative endeavor as well as a scientific one…and that’s where measurement comes in.
Don’t get me wrong, I love cooking by feel and instinct – throwing in a little of this, and a dash of that. I do it all of the time, using up extra ingredients, adding new zip to a flavor profile…
But, if like me, you’ve added ALL of that extra ______ (you name it – spice, herb, produce, grain… whatever) only to have the dish turn out not at all how you imagined or desired, then you know the importance of proportion in cooking and baking.
Recipes provide us with a baseline of how to cook or bake specific food items and they aid us in achieving repeatable results. Yet, tastes and preferences vary from cook to cook and creativity inspires us, so adjusting amounts of herbs, spices, or other ingredients at times can be fun and yield wonderful results. Think of all of the terrific meals we would not have if we did not have cooks willing to push the envelope! But creativity is only one piece of cooking and baking. Another important piece is science and this where measurement comes in.
In early days, recipes were not necessarily written down; they were learned by observation and participation. Repeatable results were achieved through trial and error and frequent repetition. And, cooks created personal systems for measuring ingredients using whatever was available – a metal or glass cup or scoop, a wooden spoon, or their own hand. Their system worked well for them but may have been challenging for others trying to make the same dish – my grandmother’s metal “cup” or “scoop” was quite different from the standard measuring cup that was in my household, and was different yet from what her mother used.
As a way to provide more organization and structure to cooking, Fannie Farmer created The 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, which introduced standardized volume measurements and written cooking instructions to American home cooks. Today, using standardized measuring tools for cooking has become the norm. They provide a foundation for consistency. And from there, many of us still channel our love of cooking by instinct or feel – adding a pinch of this a handful of that, or checking moisture content by hand.
To aid the science part of home cooking, here are 10 tips and explanations with regard to measuring ingredients:
1. Start with good equipment.
Today’s recipes are written using standard measuring tools such as:
- LIQUID MEASURING CUPS – glass or plastic with a pour spout; look for ones with easy-to-read measures
Liquid Measuring Cup - photo: Pyrex
- DRY MEASURING CUPS – plastic or metal; use for dry ingredients such as flour and sugar, or solid ingredients such as butter
Dry Measuring Cup Set - photo: OXO
- MEASURING SPOONS – plastic or metal; use for dry or wet ingredients
Measuring Spoon Set - photo: OXO
- KITCHEN SCALE – invaluable for achieving repeatable results especially in baking; I recommend this OXO model or Taylor kitchen scales.
Digital Kitchen Scale - photo: OXO
2. Remember that fluid ounce and dry ounce are different and not interchangeable.
“Fluid ounce” measures volume, and “dry ounce” measures weight. For example, 1 cup of water or milk equals 8 ounces. Yet, dry goods vary greatly – 1 cup of chocolate chips equals approximately 6 ounces and 1 cup of all-purpose flour equals approximately 4.5 ounces.
3. There are two main schools of thought on how to measure dry ingredients.
- “Spoon and Level” – spooning the drying ingredient into the dry measuring cup, then then using a butter knife, wooden spoon handle or chop stick to level off the top.
- “Scoop and Level” (aka “Dip and Sweep”) – using the dry measuring cup to scoop up the dry ingredients, then leveling off the top.
Comparing a 1 cup measure from each of these methods will yield different amounts. In general, the “scoop and level” method packs more flour into the cup than the “spoon and level” method.
Which one to use? That’s a great question and not easy to answer. Neither is exactly right or wrong and there are plenty of recipes written using either method. Food brands and publications containing recipes for home cooks choose one or the other for their recipe development protocols. Professional chefs and bakers use scales to weigh ingredients in order to obtain the most accurate, repeatable results in their commercial settings and at home.
If not weighing my ingredients using my kitchen scale, I use the “scoop and level” method as it seems to provide the most consistency when comparing weight measures.
If you find a recipe seems to be too dry or too wet, it may have to do with the method used for measuring. Make adjustments along with some notes for yourself for future use.
4. Be mindful of recipe instructions.
For example – “2 cups sifted flour” means the flour needs to be sifted before being measured, then added to the recipe. On the other hand, if the instructions call for “2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted”, measure the flour first, then sift. Each of these scenarios will produce a different amount of flour which affects the finished product.
5. When measuring liquids, place the measuring cup on an even surface, then bend or move to view at eye level.
The liquid should be level with the desired mark on the side of the cup. Note: some liquid measuring cups are designed to be viewed from overhead. I have found some brands are accurate while others are not. Test the accuracy of your top-view or side-view liquid measuring cup using your kitchen scale.
Measuring Cup - photo: iStock/kreinick
6. Measure solid ingredients (such as butter) in a dry measuring cup or measuring spoon.
Use a rubber spatula to push the solid ingredient firmly into the utensil and level it off at the top.
7. In general, measuring spoons should be filled to the top and leveled off.
If the recipe states a “heaping” teaspoon or tablespoon, leave the top overflowing and not leveled off.
8. Measure ingredients over the canister or container, a sheet of parchment paper, waxed paper, a paper towel, over the sink or a separate clean bowl.
This aids accuracy by avoiding any spillover from getting into your mixing bowl or cooking pot which can throw off your ingredient proportions.
9. When measuring sticky ingredients such as molasses, maple syrup, or honey, very lightly spray the measuring utensil with cooking spray, wiping out any excess before adding the ingredient.
The syrup or honey will slide out of the measuring spoon or cup leaving little to none in the utensil.
10. Line ingredients up on the counter in order of use in the recipe.
Once you have measured the ingredient into your mixing bowl or cooking pot, return the ingredient container to its proper storage place. This helps to keep track of what has been added to the recipe and what has not been added.
For additional tips and perspectives on measuring ingredients, check out these three great resources:
- Measuring Tips and Techniques from Recipe Tips
- How to Measure Baking Ingredients from Sally’s Baking Addiction
- The Best and Most Accurate Way to Measure Wet and Dry Ingredients for Baking by Serious Eats
Have additional tips for measuring ingredients or specific measuring equipment recommendations? Share them in the comments section.
Main Photo: Jenelle Botts Photography
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