It is always best for the novice cook to measure ingredients exactly until the “feel” of cooking is obtained. An experienced cook knows, however, that measurements down to the last grain of salt are not always necessary. That is to say, if a recipe for soup calls for a quart of broth, ½ cup of the broth more or less will probably not be critical; neither would a single rib of celery, ¼ cup of chopped onion, nor a whole or ½ clove of garlic.
Ingredients can and should be varied by an imaginative cook. When a recipe says “season to taste” or “salt to taste,” it means precisely that. It leaves the seasoning to the palate of the cook.
But be cautious when using salt. Remember that it can always be added but never subtracted, and if you have a stock or sauce that is to be simmered for a considerable length of time it will become increasingly salty to the taste as the liquid cooks. Caution is particularly important in the making of beef or chicken stock, because it is frequently desirable to reduce the liquid after the original stock is made. By reducing a stock, you have a concentration of the good flavors.
To measure solid fats such as non-liquid shortening, pack the fats into a metal measuring cup or spoon pressing down to prevent air space. Level the fat off with a straight-edged spatula or knife. Scoop the fat into a skillet, saucepan or whatever with a rubber spatula.
There are many dishes where the beginning cook is admonished to use his or her own judgment where measurements are concerned to gain a desired effect. For example, in making dishes with cheese, the quality and strength of cheese varies tremendously. Perhaps the recipe specifies Cheddar cheese. The strength of Cheddar varies from the insipid and bland to biting and strong. Thus in making the dish, use less or more cheese than called for according to personal preference.
The same could be said for the various kinds of chocolate. Use the chocolate according to taste. Chocolate ranges from mild and sweet to bitter and strong. If on the other hand the recipe spells out the kind of chocolate, such as bittersweet or semisweet, then by all means use the one recommended.
There are some ingredients in recipes that are “critical,” however, and should always be measured. These include baking powder and baking soda, things that make pastry or other baked goods heavy or light.
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