Latest update: June 10th, 2013
There are two primary forms of measuring when it comes to cooking, and our goal is to wean you away from both of them to the greatest extent possible. (There is also a third form of measuring, but doing without it can be risky and, based on my own disaster-stories, I don’t advise it.)
The first is reading a recipe. The process of looking at the recipe, cooking, looking back at the recipe, going back to cook, is time-consuming, and, unless you’re aiming for perfection, often unnecessary.
The second piece of measuring is utensils, i.e. measuring cups and spoons (or weights, if you’re not American). Ditch them. We want to minimize dishwashing time and all the effort it takes to bring utensils out from the cupboard. In the next chapter we’ll go over tools to estimate measurements, like tablespoons and cups, which will be helpful if this step makes you nervous.
The third piece, which we don’t advise eliminating, is measuring time, as in checking the clock and using a timer. Because this is the least cumbersome and most risky measuring tool to do without (think burnt, inedible food), it’s advisable to hold off on eliminating this tool for now. I tried cooking without it for several months, attempting to get a feel for when my food was done, whether it was pasta, meat or chili. Well, the pasta was soggy, the meat was chewy beyond belief and the beans in the chili had an overcooked, ghastly flavor. (I didn’t even know you could overcook dried beans!) So if estimating time worries you or has burned you like it has me, focus on the first two pieces for now.
Getting Comfortable with the No-Measure System
In case you feel skeptical about your ability to discard recipes and measuring spoons, consider that you already cook without measuring in many ways. Have you ever made a sandwich? Scrambled eggs? A smoothie or a milkshake? You probably dumped together some ingredients, waited until they were done and served or ate it straight.
Take it further: if you ever made mashed potatoes, you probably didn’t measure the amount of butter, milk and seasonings that you included. Or when making French toast, did you calculate exactly the amount of eggs, milk and vanilla? (If you did, don’t worry. We’ll help you get more comfortable in your cooking skin in the next section.) So put your fears aside. You have what it takes to cook and prepare food using your own taste and senses.
No-Measure Recipe Number 1
To get you started on your journey to no-measureville, here is a non-recipe that explains how to cook a basic dish without using measurements. I wrote this recipe as if I’m standing with you in the kitchen, telling you what cooking moves to make. If you’re an experienced cook, much of what I write is already second nature to you. But if you’re new to the kitchen, read the instructions carefully and take your time while cooking.
Master Chili Recipe
Solid standby at tailgating parties, barbecues and hearty winter meals, chili is super-versatile and satisfying. This recipe serves four to six.
Ground beef, about 1 and 1/2 lbs.
Oil, a spoonful
Onion, about 1 medium, chopped
Green pepper, about 1/2 chopped
1 medium can of diced tomatoes or 4-5 chopped plum tomatoes
Kidney beans, about 1 can, drained (or cook your own from scratch! Use about 1 cup)
Brown the ground beef and chopped onion in a spoonful of oil over medium heat. Stir often, breaking up the chunks, until beef is no longer pink. Remove from heat and carefully pour of fat. (A good way to do this is to position a pot lid over the beef, keeping it from coming out of the pan, while you tilt the pan to pour out the liquid.) Add the chopped green pepper, kidney beans and tomatoes (if using fresh tomatoes, you will need to add some extra liquid like tomato sauce or marinara sauce; just a pour) to the pan and cook over medium-low heat, seasoning with a good sprinkling of salt and a small palmful of chili powder. Add a dash of cayenne pepper; use caution as it’s very spicy.
Cover pot partially with a lid and cook over low heat for about 20 minutes until the pepper and tomatoes are softened and the flavors have combined. Add spoonfuls of water as needed to create desired consistency; a good chili should be the consistency of a thick stew. Taste to adjust seasonings, then serve hot with toppings (see below).
Cincinnati Five-Way Chili: add a hefty dash of cinnamon, a sprinkling of allspice, a spoonful or two of red wine vinegar and a generous spoonful of brown sugar to season, and serve over spaghetti.
Vegetarian Black Bean Chili: add chopped garlic with the onion, use vegetarian meat crumbles instead of the beef, swap black beans for the kidney beans and add half a bottle of beer; Omit the chopped pepper and add several dashes of cumin. California Chili: add chopped yellow and red bell pepper, use double the amount of fresh plum tomatoes, season with dried oregano, and garnish with ripe avocados and olives.
Middle Eastern Chili: add chopped garlic with the onion, then add raisins with the beans and omit the peppers and tomatoes. Use apple juice and tomato sauce for the liquid, and add cinnamon, brown sugar and a sprinkling of turmeric to the seasonings. Garnish with toasted, slivered almonds.
Some-Like-It-Hot Chili: add chopped garlic with the onion, add more than a cup of hot salsa with the kidney beans, triple the amount of chili powder (use hot chili powder if you can find it) and add several dashes of cumin.
Swaps and Add-ins:
Kidney bean alternatives: black beans, chickpeas, pinto beans, great northern beans or other white beans To add heat: green chili peppers, small ancho or jalapeno chili peppers, seeded and minced (add with the onion); hot pepper sauce (like Tabasco), cumin, red pepper flakes, cayenne pepper Seasonings: cinnamon, smoked paprika, basil, oregano, Worchester sauce, tomato paste, and cumin Meat swaps: instead of ground beef, use shredded beef, turkey or chicken, or vegetarian meat crumbles Veggies: fresh or frozen corn, chopped red or green bell pepper, cubed pumpkin or butternut squash Liquids: red wine, water, apple juice, and beer
Toppings: tortilla chips, finely chopped red or green onion, cilantro, parsley, salsa, sour cream (non-dairy unless using veggie meat), or hot dogs – make chili dogs by spooning chili over boiled or grilled hot dogs in buns!
For more master non-recipes and tips and tricks to eliminate measuring in the kitchen, check out Rachel’s new book on Amazon: Cooking Without Measuring: Taste and Approximate Yourself to a Great Dish.
Rachel Wizenfeld is an avid cook, writer, wife and mom. A frequent contributor to The Jewish Press and other publications, she now brings her diverse experience to the kitchen, designing easy tricks to streamline cooking and make life more manageable, every day.
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