If you’re a somewhat unsure or new cook, following a recipe accurately for any dish is wise. New students get out the tools and begin to painstakingly measure each ¼ teaspoon. Often when I see how they’re measuring, I have to stop them then and there. There are wet and dry measures, and they’re not interchangeable.
Because we Americans have the quaint and inaccurate custom of measuring by volume, rather than by weight, it’s important to know the difference. Liquid ingredients should be measured in something like the classic clear glass Pyrex cup, which is marked in ¼, ⅓, ½, ¾, 1 cup increments (or more, if the cup is larger.) The container is always bigger than the largest unit of measurement because liquid will spill if poured all the way to the brim and has a pouring spout.
The proper way to measure using a liquid measure is to pour the liquid in, allow it to settle, and check it at eye-level. This may mean squatting to get face-to-face with the measuring cup. Do it. If you are looking down, what seems to be an accurate measure is not. Then either pour out some liquid, or add some, to get the amount called for.
Dry measures are sets of graduated, preferably nesting, cups with long straight handles, flat tops, and no spouts, made of metal or sturdy plastic. This is so that the cup can be filled to the brim and the ingredients leveled. Flour, sugar, cocoa, cornmeal, etc., are measured by the scoop and sweep method. Flour should be fluffed up a bit first, as it settles and packs down in shipping and handling. Scoop up the food to be measured, and then sweep across the top with something flat like a flat handle or a chopstick to level it and remove excess.
Brown sugar is an exception. Because it’s moist, it should be packed into a dry measure firmly enough that when turned out, it holds its shape. It should also be leveled off.
I said that wet and dry measures aren’t interchangeable, but measuring spoons are actually used for both. Whether you want ½ teaspoon of baking soda or ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract, measuring spoons are the correct tool. They should be filled to the brim if not otherwise specified. If the recipe calls for a “heaping” spoonful, round it generously above the rim of the spoon. A “rounded” measure is slightly above the rim; a “scant” measure is a little below the rim. See why I say our system is quaint and inaccurate?
When purchasing measuring spoons, choose either steel or durable high quality plastic; aluminum can react with acidic ingredients and give them an off-flavor. Avoid cutesy ones, unless you want to use them for decoration. An artisanal pewter set may be attractive, but who’s to know if it’s accurate?
Know your measurements by heart. Why waste time looking up the simplest facts when you’re cooking? There are sixteen tablespoons in a cup, two cups in a pint, two pints in a quart, four quarts in a gallon. There are three teaspoons in a tablespoon, two tablespoons in an eighth of a cup, four tablespoons in a quarter cup. Everyone should know these by the time they know their multiplication tables.
Be wary of badly written recipes. “1 cup potatoes, cubed” probably means, “1 cup cubed potatoes,” because it would be difficult to measure a cup of whole potatoes. On the other hand, “1 cup chopped pecans” doesn’t mean the same as, “1 cup pecans, chopped.” The former is a greater quantity than the latter. Either quantity is precisely specified, however, because it is possible to measure a cup of whole pecans.
Here’s a tip to speed up your cooking a little. When a recipe calls for ¼ teaspoon of an herb, or a ½ teaspoon of salt, go ahead and measure it out. Then pour it into your hand and study it. Do this a couple of times, and soon you’ll know what that amount looks like. Next time you won’t have to measure; you can just shake about that amount into your palm and brush it off into the dish you’re preparing. You’ll have one less item to wash, and think how confident and competent you’ll feel. Give yourself a pat on the back.