For those just tuning in, From the Caterer’s Kitchen is an occasional series of kitchen tips, tricks and advice from my mother, a professional caterer for over 30 years. Interested? Start here.
As I’ve mentioned before, my grandmother was a fabulous cook. Holidays weren’t holidays unless we left her place with big smiles, rounded bellies and plates piled high with leftovers.
I rarely recall seeing her measure anything. She always seemed to just know when the food was done. She’d add a pinch of this, a smidgen of that, until it tasted right. My mother cooks in the same bold way, though her professional training allows her to flex back and forth between confident improvisation and precise recipes. As a novice cook, however, this kind of confidence was a mystery to me. I didn’t understand how you could just “know.”
But as I gathered more experience, and learned to ‘taste’ in my head, I’ve begun to cook by instinct, too. By playing around with different ingredients, and making more than a few spectacular mistakes (crunchy pasta casserole, I’m looking at you), I learned where I can improvise and where I need to follow the rules. Measuring is one of those areas where a few simple rules can make a big difference.
Use the right tools.
Measuring cups for liquids are different from those for solids — do not mix them up. Measuring spoons can be used for either liquid or dry ingredients.
When measuring liquids, hold the cup at eye level.
For the most accurate reading, make sure your eye and the measuring line are on a level. It is easy to end up with too much or too little liquid and a ruined dish if not.
Level your dry measures.
After scooping up your dry ingredients, use the flat side of a butter knife to scrape off the excess and leave a smooth, flat surface. This is a favorite job for little kitchen assistants, by the way.
The sifter is your friend.
You know how your hair can seem shorter on a humid day, because your curls are tighter? Well, flours do a similar thing. When flour has been sitting around, just hanging out, it tends to clump up, forming little lumps and nuggets. This means the scoop of flour you thought was 1/4 cup may be closer to 1/3 of a cup. In gluten-free/paleo baking, it’s particularly important to get these right. Some flours are more absorbent than others, and all have different characteristics than wheat flour does.
Use the sifter to get rid of these annoying bumps in your flour. Then when you put it into the cup, rather than dipping the measuring cup into the flour, use a spoon to scoop the sifted flour into the measuring cup. Then level it off, as above.
I confess: this is more of a “do as I say, not as I do.” I don’t tend to do much baking, so I rarely ever encounter this concern. But among professional bakers, weight (pounds, grams, kilos, and the like) is considered much more accurate than volume (cups, tablespoons, etc.). Kitchen scales can be quite inexpensive, but I recommend you spend a wee bit more to get an accurate one. Don’t forget to zero out your scale with your measuring implement on it, so that you are only weighing the amount of ingredients, not the ingredients plus the container.
Well there you have it. Five simple tips to improve your measurement accuracy. Drop a line in the comments if there’s something you think I should add, or anything I’ve forgotten.