COOKING AND baking failures common in your kitchen? Perhaps you have inaccurate measuring spoons and cups, and that can make a difference in some recipes. Not all measuring utensils are created equal.
Of four sets of measuring cups we tested recently, only two matched a set of the established standard cups, measure for measure. The one-cup measure from a set of plastic nested cups needed almost two additional tablespoons of sugar to fill it equal with the standard one cup. Of the measuring spoons tested, a tablespoon measure varied from the standard from 1/8 to almost 1/4 teaspoon.
While a two-tablespoon difference in flour may not affect a yeast dough appreciably, it can mean the difference between a silky white sauce and one akin to wallpaper paste. The slightest variance in a tablespoon of liquid added to highly-absorbent confectioners' sugar can make a cookie glaze spreadable or stiff.
Using standard measuring cups and spoons correctly is as basic to cooking knowledge as learning to boil water. Do not rely on the tablespoons and teaspoons or cups that you use at dinner -- their capacities are nowhere near that of standard measuring cups and spoons. A standard measuring cup should hold eight ounces, or 236.6 milliliters. A set of measuring cups usually includes the one-cup, 1/2-cup, 1/3-cup and 1/4-cup measures. These measuring cups are used for measuring dry ingredients and solids. While they come in a variety of materials, stainless steel is the most easily cleaned. The top surface of the cup should be smooth and even so when you level off the top, you can draw a straight-edged knife easily across it.
Glass or clear plastic measuring cups outfitted with a spout are used for measuring liquids and usually come in one-and two-cup sizes. Since you cannot fill nested measuring cups to the brim, use a glass or clear plastic measure to ensure an accurate measure. Measuring spoons include the one tablespoon, one teaspoon, 1/2 teaspoon and 1/4 teaspoon sizes (as well as any combination of these) and are available in both metal and plastic. A standard teaspoon equals 4.93 milliliters.
Good quality measuring equipment is not expensive. Choose well-made cups and spoons with sturdy handles and clear markings. There is an American National Standards Institute, Inc., that established the volume for these measures, but compliance with these standards is not compulsory, according to an Institute spokeswoman. She added that a 5 percent difference is allowed in both the measures. Most manufacturers of quality equipment do conform to these established standard measures and may note that on the package or individual utensil.
Having the right measuring equipment is only the first step to accurate cooking and baking. Not surprisingly, more than a few cooks are guilty of less than accurate measuring. If the cake tastes salty or does not rise as much as the photograph in the cookbook, you may find you are guilty of sloppy measuring techniques.
True, there are those "hand-and-finger" cooks who, from experience, usually are successful in knowing just how thick or thin a batter or dough is supposed to be. Quiz those cooks about their first days in the kitchen, and you probably will find their first few baking attempts were not so successful. The finest pastry chefs and most experienced cooks rely on accurate measuring, using standard spoons and cups to ensure a quality finished product.
Where do you stand when you measure liquid in a glass measuring cup? Do you wiggle your sugar-filled measuring cup to even it off? Or do you use a steak knife to scrape the top level?
As unimportant as all this may seem, it can make a difference when you decide to try a prepared recipe -- especially if it is a recipe that relies on critical chemical reactions to achieve success. The following methods of measuring are worth noting if you're a cooking novice:
Even if you've been cooking for years, see if you really do measure accurately.
Fats: When you measure liquid fats -- such as corn or vegetable oil -- use a glass measuring cup. When you measure solid fats -- such as hydrogenated shortening -- use nested measuring cups. Be sure you pack the solid fat well into the cup before leveling it off or you will find your measurement is off.
Use nested cups for solids or dry ingredients. When the cup is filled, draw a straight-edged knife across the top edge. A spatula (that flat edged metal utensil that looks like a knife) is the best utensil for leveling. Steak knives, butcher knives, etc., have curves and will not even ingredients accurately. Do not tap or shake the cup.
Use a glass or clear plastic cup for measuring liquids. Fill to desired marking, then set the cup on the counter and read at eye level. Do not look down into the cup or hold the cup up to the light; both methods will give you distorted views.
Flour measuring: First, read the recipe carefully to determine what is wanted. If one cup of flour is called for, use a spoon to lightly scoop flour from the canister or bag into the measuring cup. Level the flour equal with the top of the measuring cup, using the straight edge of a knife or spatula. Do not tap the cup or the flour will settle. If the recipe calls for sifted flour, first sift flour onto a piece of wax paper, then lightly spoon flour into the measuring cup, then level with a straight edge. Brown sugar should be packed into the measuring cup.
Having more than one set of spoons and cups does help the busy cook. Since, for accurate baking, it is important to measure all ingredients before starting to bake or cook, you can assemble the filled measures on the counter before you start and be assured that you have enough of all ingredients available before you begin to cook.