Thursday, May 27, 2010
Do you measure up?
While the kids in our family (actually all adults) were preparing Mother’s day dinner, one of my sisters asked me whether or not I felt that it was important to measure ingredients when cooking. She and her boyfriend disagreed on this, and she wanted me to weigh in on the subject. As I have rather strong opinions on this question, I figured I would discuss it here.
To answer the question, it depends on whether we’re talking about cooking or baking. When I’m baking, particularly breads, I am VERY careful with my measuring. For me, I look at baking as a science and cooking as an art. In baking I have a set goal, and I purchase and measure the ingredients to match the formula to make that product. If I’m not careful measuring properly, breads end up too dense, cakes don’t end up right, etc.
Cooking on the other hand is much more flexible. When cooking, I’m more likely to start with an ingredient, and then create a recipe from it. The recipe often changes every time I make it, depending on what I have around the kitchen. Take my rabbit stew. The basic ingredients are rabbit, bacon, red wine, rosemary, stock, garlic and onions. How much red wine? Enough to cover the meat, or until the bottle is empty if I’m using a bottle of wine that was previously opened. How much rabbit? Rabbit isn’t something I can just go out to grocery store and say I’d like three pounds of rabbit breast. So the amount ends up being however much meat is on the rabbit I was able to find. Rosemary? I chop and add until the stew tastes and smells right.
This makes my cooking more vital, and lets my personality shine through, which I enjoy. I love how dishes are almost alive, and will taste different every time I make them. A small change, like using 2/3 cup of wine instead of ¾ cup, or a large change, like substituting chicken for rabbit, it all just adds to the adventure that is food.
I’m sure some of you are wondering why I include measurements in my recipes if they’re not important. This is just so you have a starting point. In all my cooking, measuring or not, I had some starting point to give me an idea. Whether this was a recipe, past experience, or even just adding an ingredient until the flavor is what I want. You might feel that you don’t have the necessary experience to cook this way, but that’s something you can only build with time. Don’t be afraid of failures. I’ve had more than my share, and they make fun stories to tell later.
As to adding an ingredient until it tastes right, this idea might intimidate some of you even more. But if you think about it, this is the same thing you’ve done all your life when you were adding salt or pepper to your dinner. All I’m suggesting here is that you try it with other ingredients too.
To measure or not has no single answer. You have to discover what style of cooking works for you and follow that route. But don’t let fear keep you from experimenting with your measures, or rather, without them. The worst thing that will happen is that you might have to remake a dish. On the other hand, you might improve the dish and fall in love with the new results. Either way, I can guarantee that you’ll feel a lot more ownership of a plate of food where you made your own decisions, rather than blindly following a recipe to the letter. So put that fear aside, and the measuring cups along with it.