For consistent success, it’s crucial to get the proportions right
A few months ago, a reader in Paris asked me to help her write a recipe to enter in a national corn bread contest.
She had been making corn bread in a cast-iron griddle for decades, the way her mother and grandmother did it. But sending a recipe into a contest meant the ingredients had to be accurately measured and the instructions precise.
When I arrived at her home, she had all the ingredients ready. As she began to make the cornmeal batter, I measured her scoops and pinches, and remarkably, they were accurate. As she placed salt into the palm of her hand, she said, “Oh, I’ll need about 2 teaspoons.” She placed the salt in a bowl and I measured with a teaspoon. Sure enough, it was 2 teaspoons.
She didn’t win the competition, possibly because the recipe testers simply couldn’t replicate her corn bread recipe – accurate ingredients or not.
It takes years of practice to cook like our mothers and grandmothers, who often didn’t measure. But when it comes to baking cakes and cookies, it’s important to measure accurately. Here are some tips from Kitchen Sense by Mitchell Davis about measuring that will make your cooking much more successful.
Measuring spoons work well for liquid and dry measurements. For dry, dip the spoon into whatever you are measuring and level it off with the back of a knife. For liquid, simply pour until it’s about to overflow. For thick pastes such as mustard, use the dip-and-level technique.
Individual measuring cups, the kind with ¼, 1/3 and 1/2 gradations, are intended for dry ingredients and pastes. Small clear pitchers with markings on the side are intended for liquid ingredients. To measure dry ingredients, spoon them into the cups until they are overflowing and then level them off with the back of a knife. Do the same for pastes. For liquids, you have to hold the cup up to eye level (or bend down to meet it). Pour in the liquid until it is even with the marking you need. One type of liquid measuring cup, with the gradations marked on an angled plane inside the cup, is even easier to use because you can look down into the cup and see how much you have.
Here are some tricks to measuring: If you are measuring honey, a drop of oil or a thin film of non-stick cooking spray in the cup before you pour it in will make the honey slide out without fuss.
Measurements for brown sugar always mean to pack it down tightly. When reading a recipe, try to measure the ingredients in an order that will allow you to use the same spoons and cups without having to clean them between measurements. That usually means dry ingredients first.
Home cooking starts in the pantry
Make sure yours is stocked with items that allow for basic meals
Stocking your pantry with staples that can be used for a variety of meals will help you avoid pantry meltdown at 5 o’clock each evening.
Registered dietitian Maggie Green of Fort Wright, who was an editor of the latest edition of Joy of Cooking, said she has mixed feelings about stocking a pantry.
“Sometimes the lists we give people for items to stock with are ingredients they may have never used in a recipe – olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes.
“The best-stocked pantry contains ingredients for meals that are part of our basic repertoire, the recipes that we can make quickly and without a recipe,” Green said. “For me, that includes many skillet meals (beans and rice, pilafs, frittatas), pasta dishes, and soups, using fresh produce, canned beans, pasta and canned tomatoes.
“For the beginner cook, I always recommend that they think of a few recipes that they know, and to choose a few recipes that they would like to learn and to keep the ingredients for those meals on hand. To me, that’s the secret – keeping ingredients on hand for recipes you know or are learning.”
With these ingredients available, a cook can put together a meal in a hurry if necessary, she said. Then you can build the pantry from there. Pick only one new recipe a week, and if you like it, add that to your meal rotation. Within a few months, you will have stocked the pantry with items you use on a regular basis, Green said.
Here’s Green’s list of items that she stocks in her pantry, refrigerator and freezer.
- Olive oil, canola oil, sesame oil, chili oil.
- Herbs (thyme, basil, rosemary).
- Spices (cinnamon, sweet curry powder, cumin, chili powder).
- Assorted canned beans.
- Assorted canned tomatoes.
- Boxed chicken stock.
- Assorted dried pasta.
- Assorted grains (rice, quinoa, couscous, bulgar, barley, kasha).
- Artichoke hearts.
- Diced green chilies.
- Baking ingredients (flours, sugars, yeast, baking powder/soda).
- Salt (fine sea and kosher).
- Red pepper flakes.
- Anchovy paste.
- Soy/tamari sauce.
- Ground sirloin.
- Split chicken.
- Frozen peas, green beans, corn, carrots, turnip greens, spinach.
;Beyond the basic equipment
Having the right equipment makes cooking easier. You can cook with just a few gadgets and a couple of pots and pans, but here are some items that are nice to have:
- Baking pan, 8-inch square: Use it for lasagna, main dishes, meatloaf, roasting small pieces of meat, and for desserts and bars.
- Can opener: Buy one that fits comfortably in your hand and is easy to wash after each use.
- Cutting boards: Hard plastic or glass cutting boards are best for cutting raw poultry, meat, fish and seafood. Wooden ones are best for cutting fruits, breads and vegetables.
- Chef’s knife: It’s the most versatile of kitchen knives.
- Paring knife: It has a short blade for peeling and cutting small amounts of food.
- Mixing bowls: Choose two or three deep bowls in various sizes. A large mixing bowl can double as a salad bowl.
- Rubber spatulas: These are for scraping the sides of a mixing bowl, blender or food processor, and for scraping out measuring cups and spoons.
- Saucepan, 2-quart: Use it for cooking vegetables and small amounts of food. A tightly fitting lid is needed to keep the moisture during cooking.
- Skillet, 10-inch: Use it for sautÃ©ing vegetables, and for stir-frying and pan-frying meats, chicken and fish.
- Strainer, wire mesh: Use it to drain liquid off cooked foods, drain liquid from canned fruits and vegetables, and drain fruits or vegetables after washing.
- Tongs: These are for lifting or turning food without piercing it. Cooking tongs should be made of metal. Salad tongs usually have a larger end for tossing a salad.
- Turner: Use it to turn foods over during cooking as well as for serving lasagna and pizza.
- Wire whisk: Use it for mixing sauces, dressing, gravy and beating eggs as well as for all-purpose mixing.
- Wooden spoons: These are for all-purpose mixing and stirring hot foods. Do not use for stirring raw meat, poultry, fish or seafood.
Source: Betty Crocker Cooking Basics
Before you get out the mixing bowls or measuring spoons, read your recipe and make sure you have all the ingredients and the right amounts.
If you find that there’s no baking powder in the pantry and no buttermilk in the refrigerator, here are some substitutions that will work. Ingredients are followed by substitutions.
- 1 teaspoon baking powder: 1/3 teaspoon baking soda plus 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar.
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda: 2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder (also must replace the acidic liquid in recipe with a non-acidic liquid).
- 1 cup buttermilk: 1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar (white or cider) plus enough milk to make 1 cup (let stand 5 to 10 minutes).
- 1 cup sifted cake flour: 1 cup minus 2 tablespoons sifted all-purpose flour.
- 1 ounce unsweetened chocolate: 3 tablespoons cocoa plus 1 tablespoon butter or margarine.
- 1 cup confectioners’ sugar: 1 cup sugar plus 1 tablespoon cornstarch (processed together in food processor).
- 1 cup light corn syrup: 1 cup sugar plus 1/4 cup water.
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch: 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour or 4 teaspoons quick-cooking tapioca.
- 1 cup self-rising flour: 1 cup all-purpose flour plus 1 teaspoon baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt.
- 1 cup honey: 11/4 cups sugar plus 1/4 cup water.
- 1 cup pecans: 1 cup regular oats, toasted.
- 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk: 1 cup instant non-fat dry milk plus 2â „3 cup granulated white sugar plus 1/2 cup boiling water plus 3 tablespoons melted unsalted butter (process in blender or food processor until smooth).
- 1 square unsweetened chocolate: 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder plus 1 tablespoon butter.
Al dente: Italian for “to the tooth.” It describes pasta that is cooked until it offers a slight resistance when bitten into, rather than cooked until soft.
Bake: To cook food, covered or uncovered, using the direct, dry heat of an oven. The term is usually used to describe the cooking of cakes, other desserts, casseroles and breads.
Baste: To moisten foods during cooking or grilling with fats or seasoned liquids to add flavor and prevent drying.
Beat: To make a mixture smooth by briskly whipping or stirring with a spoon, fork, wire whisk, rotary beater or electric mixer.
Bias-slice: To slice a food crosswise at a 45-degree angle.
Blackened: A popular Cajun cooking method in which seasoned fish or other foods are cooked over high heat in a super-heated heavy skillet until charred, resulting in a crisp, spicy crust. At home, this is best done outdoors because of the large amount of smoke produced.
Blanch: To partially cook fruits, vegetables or nuts in boiling water or steam to intensify and set color and flavor. This is an important step in preparing fruits and vegetables for freezing. Blanching also helps loosen skins from tomatoes, peaches and almonds.
Blend: To combine two or more ingredients by hand, or with an electric mixer or blender, until smooth and uniform in texture, flavor and color.
Boil: To cook food in liquid at a temperature that causes bubbles to form in the liquid and rise in a steady pattern, breaking at the surface. A rolling boil occurs when liquid is boiling so vigorously that the bubbles can’t be stirred down.
Braise: To cook food slowly in a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan on the range top or in the oven. Braising is recommended for less-tender cuts of meat.
Breading: A coating of crumbs, sometimes seasoned, on meat, fish, poultry and vegetables. Breading is often made with soft or dry bread crumbs.
Brine: Heavily salted water used to pickle or cure vegetables, meats, fish and seafood.
Broil: To cook food a measured distance below direct, dry heat. When broiling, position the broiler pan and its rack so the surface of the food (not the rack) is the specified distance from the heat source. Use a ruler to measure this distance.
Brown: To cook a food in a skillet, broiler or oven to add flavor and aroma, and develop a rich, desirable color on the outside and moistness on the inside.
Butterfly: To split food, such as shrimp or pork chops, through the middle without completely separating the halves. Opened flat, the split halves resemble a butterfly.
Candied: A food, usually a fruit, nut or citrus peel, that has been cooked or dipped in sugar syrup.
Caramelize: To brown sugar, whether it is granulated sugar or the naturally occurring sugars in vegetables. Granulated sugar is cooked in a saucepan or skillet over low heat until melted and golden. Vegetables are cooked slowly over low heat in a small amount of fat until browned and smooth.
Carve: To cut or slice cooked meat, poultry, fish or game into serving-size pieces.
Chiffonade: In cooking, this French word, meaning “made of rags,” refers to thin strips of fresh herbs or lettuce.
Chill: To cool food to below room temperature in the refrigerator or over ice. When recipes call for chilling foods, it should be done in the refrigerator.
Chop: To cut foods with a knife, cleaver or food processor into smaller pieces. If a recipe says to cut into chunks, that means irregularly shaped pieces, about 11/2 inches to 2 inches in size. Cubes are about 1-inch square pieces of food. Dice means to cut up something into small cubes, between 1/4 inch and 1/2 inch.
Coat: To evenly cover food with crumbs, flour or a batter. Often done to meat, fish and poultry before cooking.
Cream: To beat a fat, such as butter or shortening either alone or with sugar, to a light, fluffy consistency. Can be done by hand with a wooden spoon or with an electric mixer. This process incorporates air into the fat so baked products have a lighter texture and a better volume.
Crimp: To pinch or press pastry or dough together using your fingers, a fork or another utensil. Usually done for a pie crust edge.
Crisp-tender: A term that describes the state of vegetables that have been cooked until just tender but still somewhat crunchy. At this stage, a fork can be inserted with a little pressure.
Crush: To smash food into smaller pieces, generally using hands, a mortar and pestle or a rolling pin. Crushing dried herbs releases their flavor and aroma.
Curdle: To cause semisolid pieces of coagulated protein to develop in a dairy product. This can occur when foods such as milk or sour cream are heated to too high a temperature or are combined with an acidic food, such as lemon juice or tomatoes.
Cut in: To work a solid fat, such as shortening, butter or margarine, into dry ingredients. This is usually done with a pastry blender, two knives in a crisscross fashion, your fingertips or a food processor.
Dash: Refers to a small amount of seasoning that is added to food. It is generally between 1â „16 and 1â „8 teaspoon. The term is often used for liquid ingredients, such as bottled hot pepper sauce.
Deep-fry: To cook food by completely covering with hot fat. Deep-frying is usually done at 375 degrees.
Deglaze: Adding a liquid such as water, wine or broth to a skillet that has been used to cook meat. After the meat has been removed, the liquid is poured into the pan to help loosen the browned bits and make a flavorful sauce.
Dip: To immerse food for a short time in a liquid or dry mixture to coat, cool or moisten it.
Direct grilling: Method of quickly cooking food by placing it on a grill rack directly over the heat source. A charcoal grill is often left uncovered, and a gas grill is generally covered.
Dissolve: To stir a solid food and a liquid food together to form a mixture in which none of the solid remains. In some cases, heat might be needed for the solid to dissolve.
Dredge: To coat a food, either before or after cooking, with a dry ingredient, such as flour, cornmeal or sugar.
Drizzle: To randomly pour a liquid, such as powdered sugar icing, in a thin stream over food.
Dust: To lightly coat or sprinkle a food with a dry ingredient, such as flour or powdered sugar, either before or after cooking.
Emulsify: To combine two liquid or semi-liquid ingredients, such as oil and vinegar, that don’t naturally dissolve into each other. One way to do this is to gradually add one ingredient to the other while e_SDHpwhisking rapidly with a fork or wire whisk.
Fillet: A piece of meat or fish that has no bones. As a verb, fillet refers to the process of cutting meat or fish into fillets.
Flake: To gently break food into small, flat pieces.
Flour (verb): To coat or dust a food or utensil with flour. Food can be floured before cooking to add texture and improve browning. Baking utensils sometimes are floured to prevent sticking.
Flute: To make a decorative impression in food, usually a pie crust.
Fold: A method of gently mixing ingredients without decreasing their volume. To fold, use a rubber spatula to cut down vertically through the mixture from the back of the bowl. Move the spatula across the bottom of the bowl, then bring it back up the other side, carrying some of the mixture from the bottom up over the surface. Repeat these steps, rotating the bowl one-fourth of a turn each time you complete the process.
French: To cut meat away from the end of a rib or chop to expose the bone, as with a lamb rib roast.
Frost: To apply a cooked or uncooked topping, which is soft enough to spread but stiff enough to hold its shape, to cakes, cupcakes or cookies.
Fry: To cook food in a hot cooking oil or fat, usually until a crisp brown crust forms. To pan-fry is to cook food, which might have a very light breading or coating, in a skillet in a small amount of hot fat or oil. To deep fat-fry (or french fry) is to cook a food until it is crisp in enough hot fat or oil to cover the food. To shallow-fry is to cook a food, usually breaded or coated with batter, in about an inch of hot fat or oil. To oven-fry is to cook food in a hot oven, using a small amount of fat to produce a healthier product.
Garnish: To add visual appeal to a finished dish.
Glaze: A thin, glossy coating. Savory glazes are made with reduced sauces or gelatin; sweet glazes can be made with melted jelly or chocolate.
Grate: To rub food, such as hard cheeses, vegetables, or whole nutmeg or ginger, across a grating surface to make very fine pieces. A food processor also can be used.
Grease: To coat a utensil, such as a baking pan or skillet, with a thin layer of fat or oil. A pastry brush works well to grease pans. Also refers to fat released from meat and poultry during cooking.
Grind: To mechanically cut a food into smaller pieces, usually with a food grinder or a food processor.
Ice: To drizzle or spread baked goods with a thin frosting.
Juice: The process of extracting juice from foods.
Knead: To work dough with the heels of your hands in a pressing and folding motion until it becomes smooth and elastic. This is an essential step in developing the gluten in many yeast breads.
Marble: To gently swirl one food into another. Marbling is usually done with light and dark batters for cakes or cookies.
Marinate: To soak food in a marinade. When marinating foods, do not use a metal container, as it can react with acidic ingredients to give foods an off flavor. Always marinate foods in the refrigerator, never on the kitchen counter. To reduce cleanup, use a plastic bag set in a bowl or dish to hold the food you are marinating. Discard leftover marinade that has come in contact with raw meat. Or if it’s to be used on cooked meat, bring leftover marinade to a rolling boil before using to destroy any bacteria that might be present.
Mash: To press or beat a food to remove lumps and make a smooth mixture. This can be done with a fork, potato masher, food mill, food ricer or electric mixer.
Measure: To determine the quantity or size of a food or utensil.
Melt: To heat a solid food, such as chocolate, margarine or butter, over very low heat until it becomes liquid or semi-liquid.
Mince: To chop food into very fine pieces, as with minced garlic.
Mix: To stir or beat two or more foods together until they are thoroughly combined. Can be done with an electric mixer, a rotary beater, or by hand with a wooden spoon.
Moisten: To add enough liquid to a dry ingredient or mixture to make it damp but not runny.
Pan-broil: To cook a food, especially meat, in a skillet without added fat, removing any fat as it accumulates.
Parboil: To boil a food, such as vegetables, until it is partially cooked.
Pare: To cut off the skin or outer covering of a fruit or vegetable, using a small knife or a vegetable peeler.
Peel: The skin or outer covering of a vegetable or fruit (also called the rind). Peel also refers to the process of removing this covering.
Pinch: A small amount of a dry ingredient (the amount that can be pinched between a finger and the thumb).
Pipe: To force a semisoft food, such as whipped cream or frosting, through a pastry bag to decorate food.
Pit: To remove the seed from fruit.
Plump: To allow a food, such as raisins, to soak in a liquid, which generally increases its volume.
Poach: To cook a food by partially or completely submerging it in a simmering liquid.
Pound: To strike a food with a heavy utensil to crush it. Or, in the case of meat or poultry, to break up connective tissue in order to tenderize or flatten it.
Precook: To partially or completely cook a food before using it in a recipe.
Preheat: To heat an oven or a utensil to a specific temperature before using it.
Process: To preserve food at home by canning, or to prepare food in a food processor.
Proof: To allow a yeast dough to rise before baking. Also a term that indicates the amount of alcohol in a distilled liquor.
PurÃ©e: To process or mash a food until it is as smooth as possible. This can be done using a blender, food processor, sieve or food mill; also refers to the resulting mixture.
Reduce: To decrease the volume of a liquid by boiling it rapidly to cause evaporation. As the liquid evaporates, it thickens and intensifies in flavor. The resulting richly flavored liquid, called a reduction, can be used as a sauce or as the base of a sauce. When reducing liquids, use the pan size specified in the recipe, as the surface area of the pan affects how quickly the liquid will evaporate.
Rice: To force cooked food through a perforated utensil known as a ricer, giving the food a somewhat ricelike shape.
Roast, roasting: A large piece of meat or poultry that’s usually cooked by roasting. Roasting refers to a dry-heat cooking method used to cook foods, uncovered, in an oven. Tender pieces of meat work best for roasting.
Roll, roll out: To form a food into a shape. Dough, for instance, can be rolled into ropes or balls. The phrase “roll out” refers to mechanically flattening a food, usually a dough or pastry, with a rolling pin.
Saute: From the French word sauter, meaning “to jump.” SautÃ©ed food is cooked and stirred in a small amount of fat over fairly high heat in an open, shallow pan. Food cut into uniform size sautÃ©s the best. Ingredients being sautÃ©ed shouldn’t brown.
Scald: To heat a liquid, often milk, to a temperature just below the boiling point, when tiny bubbles just begin to appear around the edge of the liquid.
Score: To cut narrow slits, often in a diamond pattern, through the outer surface of a food to decorate it, tenderize it, help it absorb flavor or allow fat to drain as it cooks.
Scrape: To use a sharp or blunt instrument to rub the outer coating from a food, such as carrots.
Sear: To brown a food, usually meat, quickly on all sides using high heat. This helps seal in the juices and can be done in the oven, under a broiler or on top of the range.
Season to taste: Taste what you are seasoning. Salting a dish as it cooks has a different effect than salting at the end.
Section: To separate and remove the membrane of segments of citrus fruits. To section oranges, use a paring knife to remove the peel and white rind. Working over a bowl to catch the juice, cut between one orange section and the membrane, slicing to the center of the fruit. Turn the knife and slide it up the other side of the section along the membrane, cutting outward. Repeat with remaining sections.
Shred, finely shred: To push food across a shredding surface to make long, narrow strips. Finely shred means to make long thin strips. A food processor also can be used. You can shred lettuce and cabbage by thinly slicing them.
Shuck: To remove the shells from seafood, such as oysters and clams, or the husks from corn.
Sieve: To separate liquids from solids, usually using a sieve.
Sift: To put one or more dry ingredients, especially flour or powdered sugar, through a sifter or sieve to remove lumps and incorporate air.
Simmer: To cook food in a liquid that is kept just below the boiling point; a liquid is simmering when a few bubbles form slowly and burst just before reaching the surface.
Skewer: A long, narrow metal or wooden stick that can be inserted through pieces of meat or vegetables for grilling. If using bamboo or wooden skewers, soak them in cold water for 30 minutes before you thread them to prevent burning.
Skim: To remove a substance, such as fat or foam, from the surface of a liquid.
Slice: A flat, usually thin, piece of food cut from a larger piece. Also the process of cutting flat, thin pieces
Snip: To cut food, often fresh herbs or dried fruit, with kitchen shears or scissors into very small, uniform pieces using short, quick strokes.
Steam: To cook a food in the vapor given off by boiling water.
Steep: To allow a food, such as tea, to stand in water that is just below the boiling point in order to extract flavor or color.
Stew: To cook food in liquid for a long time until tender, usually in a covered pot. The term also refers to a mixture prepared this way.
Stir: To mix ingredients with a spoon or other utensil to combine them, to prevent ingredients from sticking during cooking, or to cool them after cooking.
Stir-fry: A method of quickly cooking small pieces of food in a little hot oil in a wok or skillet over medium-high heat while stirring constantly.
Toast: The process of browning, crisping, or drying a food by exposing it to heat. Toasting coconut, nuts and seeds helps develop their flavor. Toasting also is the process of exposing bread to heat so it becomes browner, crisper and drier.
Toss: To mix ingredients lightly by lifting and dropping them using two utensils.
Whip: To beat a food lightly and rapidly using a wire whisk, rotary beater or electric mixer to incorporate air into the mixture and increase its volume.
Zest: The colored outer portion of citrus fruit peel. It is rich in fruit oils and often is used as a e_SDHpseasoning. To remove the zest, scrape a grater or fruit zester across the peel; avoid the white membrane beneath the peel because it is bitter.
Source: Better Homes & Gardens and Kitchen Sense by Mitchell Davis
Equivalent measures and abbreviations
1 gallon = 4 quarts = 8 pints = 16 cups = 128 fluid ounces
1/2 gallon = 2 quarts = 4 pints = 8 cups = 64 fluid ounces
1/4 gallon = 1 quart = 2 pints = 4 cups = 32 fluid ounces
1/2 quart = 1 pint = 2 cups = 16 fluid ounces
¼ quart = 1/2 pint = 1 cup = 8 fluid ounces
1 cup = 16 tablespoons = 48 teaspoons
¾ cup = 12 tablespoons = 36 teaspoons
2/3 cup = 10 2/3 tablespoons = 32 teaspoons
1/2 cup = 8 tablespoons = 24 teaspoons
1/3 cup = 5 1/3 tablespoons = 16 teaspoons
¼ cup = 4 tablespoons = 12 teaspoons
1/8 cup = 2 tablespoons = 6 teaspoons
1 tablespoon = 3 teaspoons
3 teaspoons = 1 tablespoon
4 tablespoons = 1/4 cup
5 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon = 1â „3 cup
8 tablespoons = 1/2 cup
1 cup = 1/2 pint
2 cups = 1 pint
4 cups (2 pints) = 1 quart
4 quarts = 1 gallon
16 ounces = 1 pound
Dash or pinch = less than 1â „8 teaspoon
t = teaspoon
tsp = teaspoon
T = tablespoon
Tbsp = tablespoon
c = cup
oz = ounce
pt = pint
qt = quart
gal = gallon
lb = pound
# = pounds
Source: Betty Crocker