Measured Perfection In Cooking

By Elaine Ng - Thursday, Jun 13, 2013

Generations of cooks, whether homemakers or professional chefs, learn by observation rather than by precise measurements from recipes and books. Some even claim that they have use for neither measuring tools nor recipes; they cook simply by feeling.


Surely it is a romantic notion to deny the existence of cold scientific measurements and to cook in accordance to our feelings. The central premise of popular novel The Particular Sadness of a Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender is based on the discovery of its young protagonist’s ability to taste the emotions in the baker or cook’s dish.


But rather than obliterating the use of any measurements at all, Californian chef Judy Rodgers puts it best, “We may not take a tool to measure ingredients, or look at a piece of paper, but we measure with our eyes and weigh with our hands and scroll through memories of prior cooking experiences for the unwritten script for the current one.”


Bragging rights aside, when it comes to practicality, such as when recipes have to be passed down in food establishments, gauging the amount of ingredients by feel just doesn’t cut it too. So, how did the cooks of the past and homemakers do it?


Eyeball It My grandma often says to “eyeball it” when it comes to deep-frying. She does not mean that my intense stare will generate some telekinesis of sorts and result in the perfect batter. Instead, the implicit meaning is for the newbies to learn from experience. For example, when one sees slight steam or bubbles around your wooden spoon, the oil is probably hot enough for dipping.


Rule of the Thumb The elderly lady is more precise when it comes to thumbs I suppose. Asians and their beloved rice cookers will be familiar with “The Rule of the Thumb”, a handy method to gauge the right amount of water to rice ratio in the rice cooker for fluffy warm rice. Water is poured into the pot of washed grains to the level of the first notch of our thumb (or finger).


A Handful Likewise, when my ah ma says “zhua yi ba lai (grab a fistful)” in the kitchen, she literally means it. Asking how many milligrams more we should add for an extra diner today will only get me the same old speech about how they go by feel.


Interestingly, while such a method of measurement might not work in absolute terms, it could work on the principle of ratio. Even up to today, some nutritionists choose ratio over absolutes – using the human hand as a measurement portion for recommended intakes. The amount of protein an adult or a child requires is varies accordingly to their palm size. In this case, ratios are better suited than absolutes.


Author of Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, Michael Ruhlman agrees, “When you know a culinary ratio, it’s not like knowing a single recipe, it’s instantly knowing a thousand.”


One Foot Long But if you are a petite Japanese chef cooking for a huge German guest, your fistful of rice will not be enough for him. So, don’t put their foot in your mouth at Subway’s.


Our foot is unlikely to be the right length when ordering the footlong (about 30cm) Subway sandwich. Probably just half a Western foot of the sandwich would be enough to satisfy the appetite for an Asian foot of Subway’s.


The Finger Test On the other hand, fingers it seems are universal for chefs, whether Chinese, Indian, Muslim or others. Cooks and diners to check for the doneness of meat, usually for steaks, commonly use “The Finger Test”.


Cooks and diners to check for the doneness of meat, usually for steaks, commonly use “The Finger Test”.


Open up the palm of your left hand and, using the index finger of your right hand, poke on the fleshy area of the left. This is how raw meat should feel like. Now, to test for meat well done, press your pinky and thumb of your left hand together. Putting your thumb together with your ring finger, middle finger and index finger will give medium, medium rare and meat cooked to rare respectively.