Several years ago, my daughter was mystified how I could “measure” things in the palm of my hand, and why she was completely incapable of doing so. For the first time, I was teaching someone how to cheat on the rules of measuring ingredients, something that every cooking teacher would shake her head about.
I guess its a good thing that I never took home economics in high school. I had deemed it beneath me, for I had my mother to teach me those things, as well as having been inflicted with the very same lessons in years as a girl in 4-H. Why take a class about something I’d been doing for years already? I’d much rather take a foreign language or something else!
Now I have another reason why I should skip that class in preparation for life–I could teach my daughter the same things that any good home cook knows well.
How to cheat and speed along the process.
We are all familiar with the measurements. The teaspoon and its fractions, and that three teaspoons make a tablespoon. Four tablespoons equal a quarter of a cup. Two cups make a pint, two pints make a quart, four quarts make a gallon. Learning to use those measurements is something we do from the moment we get involved in cooking, and especially baking.
To teach her my alternate method of “measuring”, I told her to measure salt out with the measuring spoons into the palm of her left hand, and “eyeball” it. Then, after she was certain she could visually figure out exactly how much of her hand was covered by the small pile of salt, to “measure” with her hand, and then measure what she’d done with her hand into the measuring spoon. It works–anyone can learn to tell fairly closely exactly how much of an ingredient is cupped in the palm of their “off” hand. (Tip the salt onto a piece of paper to make it easier to carefully pour it into the measuring spoon after your palm measurement.)
Okay, I know…the pastry chef never gets the respect that goes to other chefs, but we’re not chefs here. The reality is that baking is not as forgiving as the other forms of cooking. In baking, it’s all about chemistry, and if you goof up those proportions (also known as a chemical formula) you end up with goop, glop, flop, and/or an inedible mess. The recipes keep the formula in a clearly understood form, and that is what it is all about–reliably reproducing the dish/cake/cook/bread/pastry/pie/cookie.
Certain ingredients are “critical” ones. Those involved with texture and leavening are particularly critical. Flavor can be fudged a bit more, because the fact is…few people are going to taste the difference between 1/4 tsp. cinnamon and 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, but forget the salt entirely (or add it twice!)…and everyone will notice.
Butter, margarine, shortening, and oil are the primary fats used in baking. Sometimes these fats can be altered, such as substituting margarine or shortening or oil for butter. Other times, substitutions are disastrous. (I discovered this decades ago when I made croissants with margarine…I had a greasy mess of crescent rolls but not a single croissant!) Be careful about substituting until you are certain you understand exactly what the fats in a recipe are accomplishing. I know that I can have flaky biscuits using vegetable oil, but I always want shortening for pie crust. Some cookies are just fine with margarine, others just have to have butter. A few cookies can be made with shortening, oil, OR butter. Almost no baked goods will come out right if you use “soft” (the kind sold in tubs as being spreadable) margarine.
Milk is another staple with substitutions. If you are out of milk, instant dry milk and evaporated milk can be reconstituted to replace “regular” milk. Do not use sweetened condensed milk unless it calls for that particular ingredient, as it contains sugar and cannot be reconstituted to replace regular milk. I keep instant dry milk on hand, just in case, as I often will run out of milk, since we’re not milk drinkers and typically only have it to add to coffee, tea, recipes, cereal, etc. (My brand of preference is Nestle’s Nido, an instant whole milk that is available in a #2.5 can.) For “creamy” soups, I have also been known to use non-dairy creamer, (the powdered kind) to increase creaminess without using whipping cream. Just stir it into your hot liquid before beginning to thicken it for best results.
For eggs, there is virtually no substitution, unless you keep dehydrated eggs on hand. (I’ve never tried “egg substitutes”.) These work far better for baking than they do as scrambled eggs, in my opinion, but I often can still taste the difference, especially if the eggs are not as fresh as they could be. For the homesteaders and other country sorts, duck and turkey eggs can be substituted quite nicely, and turkey eggs make the lightest and fluffiest cakes! If you have small (or giant sized) eggs, you’ll need to alter your method of measurement, as recipes are written for large eggs. A standard large egg equals 1/4 cup measurement.
Flour is another place where we may find substitutions attractive, but never, ever substitute self rising flour for regular flour (or vice versa) without adjusting the recipe accordingly. Some recipes don’t allow for substitution of self rising flour (they typically are recipes depending on other ingredients rather than soda or baking powder for leavening.) Whole wheat, rye, or other flours can be substituted for all or part of the flour in many recipes, but there will be a substantial difference in texture and flavor of the resulting product. Experimenting is the only way you can discover which ones are pleasant and which ones are just ho-hum. Standard recipes use half whole grain and half white flour, typically, and sticking with that formula usually means the results are going to be acceptable.
Sugar. Diabetes is on the rise, and many people are looking for ways to cut their sugar consumption, remaining ignorant that the other carbohydrates cause the same responses in their body. Not all recipes accept sugar substitutes agreeably either, and some substitutes change during baking, causing bitterness. In addition, many people are suspicious of the safety of the substitutes themselves. Experiment with recipes, and I suggest replacing no more than half of the sugar in most baked goods until you are certain that they will work. Probably the safer course to choose in reducing the carbohydrate consumption is to serve smaller portions of high-carbohydrate foods to diabetics or those watching their intake. Its much better to have a small slice of pie that tastes great than a huge slab of crappy tasting goop, isn’t it?
Get a three ring binder to use in your kitchen, and fill it with page protectors to allow you to slide in recipes trimmed from newspapers, magazines, and packages. Add notebook paper to write down substitutions that work for you. Get your favorite recipes from friends and family, and put them in it too. Dividers can be added to help sort your accumulated knowledge and make referring back to your notebook much easier too. Slide some extra paper in the pouches for writing down your grocery lists, and before you know it, everyone will be begging you for your recipes and helpful hints too!