Monday, April 11, 2011

The Kitchen Scale

I do not own a kitchen scale.

There is a growing number of food writers out there - people I love and follow and read voraciously - that are encouraging and inspiring cooks to put down their teaspoons and cups, and embrace the scale. Measuring by weight gives you better results, more precise amounts, it helps you use a recipe with more efficiency. It gives you, they say, better food.

And I believe them. But I can't bring myself to buy one.

And until I read Grace Young's elegant, beautifully-written book, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen I couldn't figure out why. Why was I balking? It's just a scale. But when I read Grace's chapter, "Cooking as Meditation", I understood what I was feeling. If you've never read her book, you should. She is a graceful storyteller. She writes with economy, every word is essential and necessary. You never feel like it's too much. It's just what it should be. Her writing is precision, craft and heart.

How much do I love this book? I've photocopied this chapter and have it in my kitchen drawer, so I never lose my way in the kitchen. That's how much.

Grace writes:

I was taught early in my life to appreciate the fragrance, texture, succulence, and taste of a well-composed dish. Baba and Mama pointed out to me how a chef achieves greatness only after years of practice. They called this honing of skills mastery, or si fu. I have since learned it is also possible for nonchefs to master cooking without relying on elaborate techniques. When certain virtues are applied, an experienced cook can take the simplest ingredients and techniques to form a work of beauty. The most important virtue is alertness to senses; knowing when an ingredient has the correct visual cues, smells, sounds, tastes, and texture is more valuable than mastering the intricacies of a complicated recipe.

In the modern home kitchen, the true art of cooking by instinct is diminishing, partially because of the emergence of so many appliances that replace the need to rely on one's own cooking judgement. Kitchen gadgets have replaced culinary expertise. Rice cookers alleviate the cultivation of judgement of when to slow the fire and when to simmer the rice to begin the steaming process. Deep-fat-fry thermometers indicate when the oil has reached the right temperature for frying, and instant-read thermometers take the intuition out of knowing when the meat is cooked. Food processors grind meat that was once hand-chopped with a cleaver...My parents maintain ardently that the patience to hand-chop or hand-shred produces a tangible difference in taste and texture.

...My parents teach that when you cook you must be able to change directions, chun bien. You must use your powers of observation, regarding every situation as unique, and adjusting accordingly...The high heat on my parents' front burner is more powerful than the setting on the back burner. This simple fact affects cooking time.

...As in life, one must observe the subtleties of cooking and adjust, remembering not to be enslaved to a recipe's cooking times or measurements. It is mindfulness, attentiveness, and gaining self-confidence through experience that nourish success.

Sometimes the reason we cook or write about cooking gets lost. We think it's about complexity and difficulty and impressing people. We think it's about gadgets and equipment and perfect outcomes. We stupidly think the meal is about us, our way to express ourselves, and show who we are to an audience of hungry eaters. But what I want to be in the kitchen is also what I want to be in life: mindful, attentive, self-confident. And this is what I want my girls to be.

This isn't really about the scale, which has it's usefulness, but I think I just want less stuff, more intuition in my life. And the kitchen seems like a good place to start.

Thanks, Grace.

xo Kim

The picture (above) is from Splorp



Mick said...

i cook by instinct, it's how i've learned, by doing. when people ask me for a recipe i can only give them ingredients and a sense of how it comes together,what you taste. i've tried to explain it . this article does a much better job of it. doing it another way would rob me of the joy i experience in the baking i usually rely more on measurments, the chemistry.but i still have to "tweak" it.
speaking of joy, it's what i experience when i read your posts.thank you for writing.

The Yummy Mummy said...

Mick -

I get what you're saying. I couldn't really articulate it either. That's why Grace's book was so transformative for me.

And thanks for the kind words.


Barbara | VinoLuciStyle said...

I may cook with some instinct now but I sure did not when I started on this journey so there was a time when careful attention to measurements was important for fear I would create a disaster if I didn't pay close attention.

Yet to this day I've managed without a kitchen scale yet admit I recently bought one. Why now? For me, the global ability as a result of the Internet to share recipes has seen me often stopped in my tracks due to metric measurements; this scale has made it easier to try recipes from European blogs that I would once just gloss over.

Still, I love the diligence to the preparation; the actual process is what I enjoy, what even calms me when I need it. But I can't deny that I also enjoy that the 6 pounds of meat I buy in bulk is now more precisely divided!

Winnie said...

Totally appreciate where you are coming from Kim. And I did not buy a scale for a long time, either. It's just that if you want to make something like French macarons or bake something decent gluten-free, a scale does come in handy. In fact, I did not have success making these without one. It's also nice to have for following recipes written by people in other parts of the world who don't use cups (Americans generally do, but that's not so everywhere else). So owning a scale has brought a new kind of joy into my kitchen. Just saying.

candy / musik said...

truly a good blog here. I hate measuring, my husband hates measuring even more than I do. It makes so much sense!

The Yummy Mummy said...

Winnie -

I get it. The baking, the gluten free. In some ways this really isn't about the scale, or one piece of equipment, but I was just thinking about how much stuff I have and how it all seems important, but just gets in the way.

Anyway, I like the idea of having less and just focusing on being in the moment. I like the idea of doing things the way our grandparents did it.

If I need scales, I'll just come to your house!


Mommy Lisa said...

OMG - and people make FUN of me for not wanting a rice cooker -claiming all Chinese or Japanese cooks use them. I HATE rice cookers because I feel like I know how to make rice. And everyone always says how perfect my rice is, but why don't I just get a rice cooker??? Its maddening.

I need that book now. I want to read it.

Molly said...

My mother in law is forever asking for my recipe for something I've made, and when I tell her that I don't have one, she has a hard time disguising her frustration with me. Oh well. She gets no joy out of cooking, only wants what she can eat a lot of, and has no patience for tasting and adjusting and fiddling. These are, unsurprisingly, a metaphor for what's wrong with the rest of her life.

This is exactly what I needed to read today. Thanks. XO

Janis said...

I am with so with you on this one. I forget picture taking for my blog. I really can't take a decent picture. I cook the way I of consciousness i.e. On the edge?

Loved this post.

The Yummy Mummy said...

Mommy Lisa -

You know, I read a lot of family cooking/food books and there's a lot of pseudo-advice in them about feeding picky eaters and how to seduce kids into liking/eating food, how to tackle "the food issues" one meal at a time. They always feel like they are trying so hard - food as painful, uncomfortable lesson.

What I love about Wisdom - and what you'll see when you buy it - is that it is the consummate family cookbook (even though it's not a family cookbook as we know it), because it proves that it isn't about whether kids eat one meal or five meals, or whether they ever try broccoli, it's about creating an aura/culture around the kitchen that is honest, intuitive, in the moment, playful, curious, adventurous - food loving without being consumed by it and all its issues and political correctness. Mindful and in the moment.

That is a feeling, a way of being with food that transcends tips and tricks. This book is the real thing and that's partly why I was so impacted by it. I know you'll get it too.

Let me know what you think after you read it.


The General said...

I use instinct a lot of the time as well, not all the time, but I've been doing it long enough that I've finally got a feel for things. It drives my husband batty, he hates my vague measurement instructions. How long in the oven? "Until it's done" How much flour? "Oh, use about 4 heaped spoonfuls of that big spoon" (as opposed to the 1 cup measuring cup!)

I like cooking and baking that way, it feels real. Though, occasionally, if I don't know a recipe inside and out, it will get me in trouble...

Margie said...

I use the old Eyeball Method as well as the Taste As You Go Along Method. I learned this from my mom who learned from hers, etc. We call it Tantiando in spanish and it means to gauge. Besides, do I really need another piece of cooking equipment?

The Yummy Mummy said...

General -

I kinda like the whole danger of not knowing if you are going to have a successful dish or not. It makes the cooking exciting.

In Wisdom, Grace talks about the luck that is involved in cooking. How sometimes you just get lucky and sometimes not. That makes cooking more like extreme sport for me.

I like it that way. You too, I bet. :)


Roving Lemon said...

I have a long-held theory that some people are cooks and some are bakers. Cooks tend to do more by taste and experimentation; bakers like precision and a framework to follow. I am definitely a baker: I needed to know and be comfortable with the rules and structures of cooking (what I think of as the grammar) before I could start branching out. But, paradoxically, it's the knowledge and confidence I've gained from working within that structure that has given me the courage to step outside the lines more and more. And my beloved scale was a big part of that process!

Dan.Eliot said...

Home cooking can also promote quality time with your family. Dinner tables are a good venue to share experiences and exchange opinions after a long day from work or school. In this way, you can acquaint the children with healthy eating and be their role model as well. In doing this, you get to save money and instill the value of eating together as a family while taking care of each family member’s health.

Healthy cooking tips

Kate said...

There's a lot to be said for instinct in cooking, but at the same time, I think it only comes when you've used enough teaspoons and tools and measurements to learn it as perfectly as you've learned to breathe. And not everyone has that, either in desire or ability. We all breathe, and we all eat. But far too many people don't do them consciously or with any thought to how it unfolds in their lives.

I have a rice cooker, and I love it. I do know how to make rice but the rice cooker makes it better so I use it because it allows me to focus on something far more important in my meal prep. I use my measuring spoons only when I'm baking, although I often don't think I need them. It's more habit. I don't own a scale and likely will never buy one. My most memorable meals are the ones where the fridge and pantry doors are wide open and I'm pulling out this and that, throwing caution to the wind and creating from my own instinct, honed by a lifetime of practice and teachings. Not everyone has it, nor really, does everyone want it. Some people just want to eat. And they don't care how it got to their plate, the means through which it came and the method of how they did it. For them, I feel sad. And for the rest of us who do care, I quietly raise my glass in praise.

nmaha said...

Being Asian, all the mothers and grandmothers around here cooking only by instinct. Even when they trade recipes it's Luke a quick verbal shorthand. My generation is now trying to record all our family recipes but we still use only natural measurements and weights.
This is a lovely post which I'm sure all the women in my family can relate to. I adore your blog, it inspired me to start cooking with my toddler and that's a priceless gift.

The Crumby Baker said...

I LOVE the tension of not knowing if a dish will work out or not! I think figuring a dish out is so much fun. What worked, what didn't, how could it be better?

Thanks for the insightful post. I think I'm definitely going to check Wisdom out!

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