How important are measurements, really?

Anna Berrill
·3-min read

A recent Feast recipe uses three types of flour: two requiring 55g and one 50g. Surely 5g won’t make a difference? US cups are less accurate than British pounds and ounces, and American cooks get by on those. Why not use teaspoons for smaller quantities and round figures otherwise?
Judy, Leamington Spa

“I get Judy’s frustration,” says Feast perfectionist Felicity Cloake. “It often doesn’t make that much difference at all.” In fact, Nigella Lawson writes about this very predicament in her latest book, Cook, Eat, Repeat: “I struggle, as many food writers do, with just how precise to be, and my books reflect how I feel at any given time about what is helpful and what is confining.” Lawson might specify “a large onion”, give an approximate weight or simply call for “an onion”. “The truth is, the weight of an onion, or the size of it, is not always critical.” However, as Cloake points out, “Yotam Ottolenghi says that if one of his recipes stipulates an eighth of a teaspoon of ginger, that’s because it has been tested with that – and with more and less, too – and that’s what works.”

Essentially, it mainly depends on the ingredients you’re using – and what you’re making. As Nik Sharma, author of The Flavour Equation, explains, “The zest of one lemon won’t make that much difference in terms of how big the lemon is – the more flavour, the better – but the amount of juice will affect the dish dramatically.” This, he says, is why he doesn’t tell people to buy one lemon: “It’s misleading.”

Even when writing for an American audience, Sharma first measures by weight before translating into cups for the simple reason that certain ingredients just don’t lend themselves to the latter: “It’s a game of numbers. Two pounds of spinach is more than 30 cups, which sounds humungous even though it’s not.” Plus, he says, spinach is sold by weight, so measuring it in this way makes shopping easier. When it comes to smaller quantities, however, Cloake is #TeamTeaspoon: “I’m a big fan of measuring spoons, so my solidarity is with Judy.” But don’t be tempted just to reach into the cutlery drawer: “Make sure you’re using an official 5ml teaspoon.”

As for the specifics of Judy’s flour question, Sharma says she’s right in that 5g flour won’t make a whole lot of difference. The larger the amount you’re weighing, the more forgiving that error margin will be. “If I weigh out 100g flour, but I’ve actually got 95g, my recipe will be fine,” he says. “With baking, we always talk about this degree of accuracy, but it’s within some limits.”

It also depends on what kind of cook you are. “Some people want accuracy to the nth degree, while others are more fluid,” Sharma says, “so it’s better to give as much information as possible, and let people then choose what’s best for them.” But if you do deviate from the recipe, it’s at your own peril, Cloake says: “There should be some wiggle room, but you might want to blame any tweaks you make that don’t work on yourself.”

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