Cookery is not chemistry. It is an art. It requires instinct and taste rather than exact measurements. —Marcel Boulestin
When I first started blogging, not too long after I returned from the US from many years abroad, I used to write my recipe posts the Italian way—with minimal measurements, thrown in as and when needed. My emphasis was on telling a food story, describing the act of making the dish. To me, this made the recipes so much more friendly and accessible. But I soon learned that many English-language readers—and that’s most of you, of course—found this casual approach to measurements challenging. Some reader wrote in to say that my recipes were difficult to cook from. And without a list of ingredients and their measurements, this style also made it more difficult to come up with a shopping list.
So I switched my approach to a more traditional recipe format. I do hope that, along the way, I haven’t lost the story-telling character of my posts. I now give measurements—most of the time—but I try to keep some aspects of the Italian approach. While it may take a little getting used to, this more easygoing approach, I think, leads to better cooking in the end. Here are some key points to bear in mind when reading recipes on Memorie di Angelina:
Measurements are given when they’re actually useful
I am always quick to point out when measurements are not really that critical to the success of the dish, which is more often than not when it comes to everyday Italian cooking. I also like to use loose terms to help you free yourself from over-reliance on measurements—a dash of this, a dab on that, a few sprigs of parsley, a handful of breadcrumbs, a good ‘pour’ of olive oil, a ‘glug’ of wine and so on. And most often of all, I like to use that all purpose Italian measuring term q.b., or quanta basta, which means literally ‘as much as you need’. This generally means ‘to taste’, especially when you’re referring to seasonings. It can also mean literally to use as much as you need, in cases where exact measurements are impossible. This applies, for example, to using broth for a risotto, or to adding enough water to just cover cubed meats you are about to braise.
I sometimes get complaints about this from readers, but I’m sticking to my guns on this one. There are times when measurements do more harm than good. And this is perhaps the most important thing to grasp about measurements: use them but don’t let them use you! So long as you keep things in balance—something you’ll develop an intuition for as you gain experience with Italian cooking—you can use measurements as guides, not rules. Angelina never measured, most Italian cooks I know never measure, and neither do I most of the time. At most, one learns some ratios and other rules of thumb, like using the same amount of condimento as pasta by weight. Otherwise, let your eyes tell you how much to use of this and that. You’ll be a better cook for it.
Measurements are given (mostly) by weight—unless otherwise specified
Italians, like most Europeans, measure solid food stuffs by weight, not by volume. Once you adopt this practice, you realize how flawed any other method really is. What does, for example, “one cup of chopped spinach” really mean? Depending on how tightly you pack those spinach leaves into your cup, you can vary the actual amount of spinach by factors of two or more. So when the measure of an ingredient is important, I use measurements by weight for solid ingredients (even if they’re pourable like flour) and volume measurements for liquids only.
Metric vs. Imperial Measurements
Another big difference between the Italian approach to measurements and the US approach is, of course, units of measure. First off, as we all know, the US is one of the very few countries that has not adopted the metric system. (The only other ones: Myanmar and Liberia—how’s that for company!) That’s too bad, as the metric system really does make life in the kitchen much, much simpler. You only realize how utterly illogical and clumsy Imperial measurements are when you switch to metric, as I had to do when I moved to Europe. But I don’t hold out much hope for a transition to metric in the US any time soon, and since Americans make up about half my readership, I always give both measurements.
This same laissez-faire attitude goes for cooking times, too, by the way. With very few exceptions, you’ll see a range of cooking times specified on this blog, together with a description of what the food will look and act like when it’s done. It’s the latter that you should always focus on. The cooking is only there as a guide. Don’t fall into the trap an old buddy back in our college days did once, when making a recipe for steak au poivre I had transcribed for him from a French cookbook. The recipe may have said something like “5 minutes a side”. When I asked him some time later how he liked the dish, he said it had come out terrible. He had managed to burn the steak to a crisp. “If you saw it was burning, why didn’t you take the steak off the fire?” I asked. “Because the recipe said it still needed to cook,” he explained.
You may see a pattern here. Recipes are great for learning, but they can’t cook for you. Only you can do that.
Finally a note on portion sizes. Unless otherwise indicated, recipes on the blog serve 4-6. Obviously, appetites range enormously from culture to culture (Americans famously favor portions that are enormous by the standards of most other cultures) and from person to person. The portions given here are standard for the Italian table. That means, among other things, the portion sizes given here assume you are having a multi-course meal in the Italian style. If you are making a particular dish as a one-course meal, then do up the portions accordingly. Ditto if you have an especially hearty appetite…
Well, that’s the scoop about measurements on this blog. Hopefully this will help clear up any misunderstandings. But if you have any questions on measurement in my recipes, don’t hesitate to drop me a line!
I’ve got a recipe for spelt soup with tomatoes and potatoes,and its asking for 3 punches of pearl barley what does 3 punches mean thanks
Ha! It’s a mistranslation of “pugno” which has a double meaning: punch and handful. Obviously when it comes to a recipe, it means a handful, not a punch!
What is the equivalent to 12 glasses of olive oil? Or 1.2 glasses.
I’m not quite sure if I understand the question. Are you asking about a particular recipe that calls for olive oil?
America did try switching to metric in the late 60s. Medicine is measured in metric in the US too. I think metric is easier and more precise and that’s what I use in my daily life. I generally stay away from any baking recipe that’s not converted to metric.
Metric really is so much simpler once you learn it. As for America trying to switch, yes, I’m old enough to remember it. It didn’t get very far, a combination of people being stuck in their ways with some rather short-sighted resistance from business due to the cost of converting equipment, etc.
Thank you! After cooking and baking for more than sixty years I figure I can look at something and tell if it is a cup of sugar or teaspoon of baking powder so I don’t even measure when I am baking…let alone cooking. It gives one a sense of freedom plus no cups or measuring spoons to wash!
Thank you again,
You’re welcome, Elizabeth. I couldn’t agree more!
My grandchildren always ask me for my recipes, esspecslly around Christmas Eve when I cook about 15 dishes. I tell them I can give them the ingredients but not how much of each. Now after reading your comments I won’t worry about not being able to give them exact amounts of any thing. Thank you!