How precise do you need to be when cooking?

I recently received a baking book in which the US cup measurements also included metric weights. I prefer using weight measures – and metric weights are so much easier to work with than ounces – so this was a welcome addition to the book. I did have to chuckle, however, when I saw the numbers: 1 cup of sugar was listed as 196 grams, and 1 cup of flour as 124 grams. Most cookbooks would round those to 200 and 125 grams. Four grams of sugar in that recipe wasn’t going to make or break it – or would it? This question was recently raised in The Guardian, and Felicity Cloake and others weighed in on the subject (please excuse the pun).

Cloake agrees that a few grams here or there for an ingredient used in a large quantity will not make a difference. In her latest book Cook, Eat, Repeat, Nigella Lawson acknowledges that she struggles with how to precise to be in her measurements, stating that her various cookbooks “reflect how I feel at any given time about what is helpful and what is confining.”

Most authors believe precision is important for certain ingredients. Items used in large amounts, like flour or sugar, might be able to withstand a slight variance, but things like leavening agents or spices demand more accuracy. As Cloake points out, “Yotam Ottolenghi says that if one of his recipes stipulates an eighth of a teaspoon of ginger, that’s because it has been tested with that – and with more and less, too – and that’s what works.”

Of course, personal preference plays a role as well. Nik Sharma calls for 2 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce in his Roasted butternut squash + pomegranate molasses soup from The Flavor Equation. I found that amount tipped the flavor balance too far toward the Worcestershire and it dominated the soup. I made it again using only half the measure and found the flavor to be better balanced (and quite delicious!).

I have little doubt that the debate over recipe precision will be argued for centuries to come. Flavor is too subjective to ever be distilled once and for all to grams and teaspoons, despite the recipe writer’s thoughts on the subject. Unless you are making something extremely refined out of a cookbook like Modernist Cuisine, Alinea, or Atelier Crenn, a few grams in either direction will not ruin your recipe.

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  • readingtragic  on  January 31, 2021

    You Americans with your cups – this is the most inefficient measuring system ever; particularly with things like 1 cup minus 2 tablespoons…

  • Indio32  on  January 31, 2021

    Oddly if called for my wife would weigh 198g. Me I’d do 200 or maybe 203 coz I couldn’t be bothered to scoop the extra back. I’m guessing this is a personality thing!

  • chriscooks  on  January 31, 2021

    For spices, a lot is going to depend on how fresh the spice is. A restauranteur or recipe tester might use so much spice that the jars are always fresh. Home cooks, not so much. And I agree with “flavor is subjective” — we know that people are not equally sensitive to certain flavors.

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