I’ve been cooking by hand for most of my adult life, and I cook by eye as well. This mostly comes out in the form of measuring by pouring things like baking soda or ginger into the palm of my hand rather than fishing around in the silverware drawer for a quarter-teaspoon or tablespoon. Too much fuss, I always thought, and it was a point of pride to be able to do without it.
It turns out a lot of people think measuring by hand is the mark of a chef: almost every one of the rising food stars who’ve broken into print insists in their “restaurant hints for home cooks” that you should measure salt “by feel” or the like while seasoning food in several stages during cooking.
But suddenly having to calculate in grams of carbohydrate per serving for my daughter has meant buying a new set of cup and spoon measures as well as an electronic food scale and really measuring, the official kind of measuring, instead of just eyeballing.
In making the comparison, I’ve discovered a number of unpleasant truths about the by-hand method. Most of which boil down to IT’S NOT ACCURATE. AT ALL. And I’m not talking a little 20 percent error here.
Try the following:
Cup your hand and pour a pre-measured level quarter-teaspoon of table salt into it. Go on and look hard, try to memorize how high it rises on your palm, what a quarter-teaspoon of salt looks like. Now dump it, wipe off your hand, and pour in a measured half-teaspoon of salt. You know that it’s twice as much–and if you’re in any doubt, you can test by pouring two quarter-teaspoons worth into the half-teaspoon measure. But how different is it in the cup of your hand? Maybe two or three millimeters higher, and even then only if you cupped your hand to exactly the same degree both times.
Not the kind of thing you can count on eyeballing accurately. You can just about eyeball the difference between a half-teaspoon and a teaspoon proper, but it still comes out to only about an eighth of an inch difference in height. Even with a flat open hand, you may not be able to tell the smaller amounts apart very easily.
The other thing that’s really noticeable when you’re measuring out all these quarter-teaspoons of salt is that a quarter-teaspoon is a pretty large amount of salt–a gram and a half. Not trivial. A half-teaspoonful of salt is what I always thought was a teaspoon when I poured it into my hand, and I have to say I’m grateful I’ve been erring on the low side all these years. How can anybody in their right mind throw a whole teaspoon into every recipe once they know what it really looks like?
But back to the ego-builder of telling yourself you’re a real chef because you measure by eye and by feel. If you’re just cooking for yourself and you have no particular need for precision, let ‘er rip. Preferably with something a little safer and more dependable than salt. Start with ground caraway or nutmeg–if you get too much you’ll know it right away by the taste.
But if you have to know what’s really in your food, as we now do, the casual pour is just not gonna be good enough to count on. Get yourself some cheap stainless steel cup and spoon measures, and maybe a flat scale that reads in grams for up to a couple of pounds. And test it at the low end–a level teaspoon of table salt should read 6 grams and a teaspoon of granulated sugar should be 4 grams. Surprisingly enough, the $15 Taylor model I bought yesterday, rated for up to 6 pounds or so, weighs the lower-weight items pretty well. If I need milligrams I’m stuck with my husband’s electronics balance, but this will certainly do. Even though the company thought it necessary to slap a “The Biggest Loser” sticker on it.