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Cooking Skills - 11. page

In Recipes, a Comma is More Than Simple Punctuation

Do you know how to read a recipe? Or, better yet, do you understand the recipes you read?

You might be looking at me like I’ve got a balloon whisk for a head but I do have a point, here. The more you cook, the more likely you’ll run into subtle variations in written recipes that can make a difference in the finished product.

There’s a way to read a recipe (preferably before you chop your first vegetable) that will prepare you for making a dish the right way the first time and never having to call for take out due to user error.

Once you’ve read through your recipe fully to make sure you’ve got all the ingredients and tools you need and find out if it’s going to take 2 hours in the oven or only a few minutes on the stove, look a little bit closer at your ingredients list.

There’s an order of operations that takes place with some ingredients that should be noted. For instance

1 cup flour, sifted  vs 1 cup sifted flour
1 cup cheese, shredded vs 1 cup shredded cheese

The things that happen after the comma happen after you’ve measured the ingredient in question. In the case of flour, settling occurs during packaging and shipping and sitting on your shelf. Some recipes (mostly baking, in the case of flours) are so fine-tuned that the difference in weight or volume between a cup of sifted flour versus the same cup of flour straight out of the bag can change the end results in not good ways.

The cheese is a little different but easier to see. If you buy a block of cheese to save money (you pay more for pre-shredded, after all) and remember reading somewhere that 1 cup equals 8 ounces, you might go and grate that whole 8-oz block of cheddar thinking you’re in the clear.

If the recipe called for 1 cup shredded cheese you’re going to end up with twice as much cheese as you need! Why? Magic.

No, not really–shredding cheese spreads out something that was very tightly compressed and it takes up more space.

Does food always grow when you break it down?


Cubed bread into crumbs in an excellent example of how much certain items can compress when it’s shredded or ground. If the original state is light and fluffy or groups of them don’t fit together perfectly (nuts, I’m looking at you), breaking them down into smaller units allows them to fit together more tightly and get rid of all that trapped air.

And let’s not even start on rice. Read carefully, my friends, because 2 cups of cooked rice is very different from 2 cups rice, cooked. (We’re back to the expanding thing, again, if you weren’t sure.)

Next week we’ll talk about weights and measures and when conversions can be safely made! Until then… have you ever had a recipe mishap or seen something you just didn’t understand? All comments welcome!

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