Cooking, Measurements of

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Cooking, Measurements of

If asked to think of a measurement that relates to cooking, most people would immediately think of dashes of salt and teaspoons of sugar rather than ounces or pounds. In a household kitchen, a cook deals with small quantities

of ingredients like cups and tablespoons. In the kitchen of a restaurant or hotel, however, the recipes are more likely to require ounces and pounds. The reason for this is quite simple: restaurants must cook for a lot of people and cannot cook each meal individually.

Increasing The Size of a Recipe

To bake a cake in a household kitchen, a recipe will probably call for onehalf cup of butter, usually packaged in a one-pound box containing four sticks. A recipe requiring a quarter-pound of butter will make a cake that will serve about ten people. If using that same recipe in a restaurant, a chef would need to provide for as many as two or three hundred people, and it would be unreasonable to have the chef make twenty individual cakes.

This problem can easily be solved using the mathematics of proportions. If one stick is used for ten servings, the chef simply needs to figure out the number of sticks needed for two hundred servings. Since two hundred servings is twenty times larger than ten servings, the chef would need to use twenty times the amount of butter for a single recipe, or twenty sticks of butter.

Unfortunately, there is a minor complication. When the chef goes to the refrigerator to get the butter, he or she will find butter in one-pound or fifty-fivepound blocks. Because they are dealing in such large volumes, chefs use cooking measurements like ounces and pounds that can easily be adjusted for servings both great and small. The original recipe requires one-half cup of butter or one-fourth of a pound. Twenty times that amount would be five pounds of butter, or five one-pound packages. A fifty-fivepound block of butter has the approximate dimensions of one foot by one foot by two feet, and amounts are sliced off using cheese cutters (a length of wire with wooden handles at each end).

What would the chef do to determine the amount of flour that would be required? If two cups of flour are needed for the recipe that serves ten, the chef could attempt to count out forty cups, but it would be too time consuming, easy to lose count, and generally unreasonable. Is it possible to figure out the flour necessary by converting forty cups of flour into pints, quarts, or gallons? Given that there are sixteen cups in a gallon, could the chef use two gallons (32 cups) and two quarts (8 cups) to measure the flour? The answer is no. Pints, quarts, and gallons are liquid measurements, not dry measurements. The flour will have to be measured using ounces or pounds.

Measurement Conversions

For the most part, all measurements in a commercial kitchen are done by weight. One cookbook lists that four cups of flour equals one pound. The two cups of flour for the cake that serves ten would weigh one-half pound. Therefore, for a cake that serves two hundred, the recipe would call for twenty times that amount, or ten pounds of flour.

Chefs are extremely well versed in making measurement conversions such as ounces to pounds and teaspoons to quarts; measurement conversion is a tool of the trade. In actuality, it would be extremely uncommon for a chef to bring a recipe from home in the hope of using it for a large group. Most recipes used in commercial kitchens are passed along from other commercial kitchens.

Interestingly, the type of measurement used in a recipe depends on where that recipe originated. Recipes from the United States are written using ounces and pounds, whereas European recipes are written using metric measurements. Dry quantities are measured by weight using grams, and liquids are measured by weight (grams) or volume (liters). In a home kitchen, measuring cups and spoons are used, whereas commercial kitchens tend to use larger metric and standard cups for liquids and a scoop and scale for the dry ingredients. The scoop may seem odd, but in those large kitchens dry ingredients are commonly stored in hefty bins, and the scoop is used to transfer materials to the scale. On the scale sits a removable bowl that is used, after holding the ingredients while they are measured, to transfer the measured quantity into the mixing bowl, or, more accurately, the mixing tub.

The use of metric measurement is becoming more common in commercial kitchens and actually minimizes the necessity for computational conversions. The metric system works so easily because it is based upon quantities of ten and mirrors our decimal number system. Often when a chef receives a recipe that uses standard measurements, he or she will take the time to convert the recipe to metric amounts. Rarely is the opposite true (unless the recipe is being shared with a nonchef).

Attempting to get the correct measurement is not the only obstacle in commercial cooking; the subject of chemistry must be considered when determining whether a recipe can be enlarged or reduced to a great extent. Some recipes can be doubled, but if they are to be increased by three times or more, the recipes will not work. It is not because the mathematics cannot be done but because of the chemical reaction that occurs among flour, baking soda or baking powder, and liquid.

Baking soda and baking powder are leavening agents that react with flour and liquid, but their ratio of use is not linear. Just because a recipe calls for one teaspoon of baking powder, two cups of flour, and one-half cup of liquid, that does not mean that five times that amount (five teaspoons of baking powder, ten cups of flour, and two and one-half cups of liquid) would bake properly. More than likely, only half the amount of baking powder would be necessary, but there is not an exact relationship between the two products. A chef would need to do experimentation to figure out how far a recipe can be taken up or down. Yet some recipes can be increased or decreased endlessly as long as their ingredients do not form specific chemical reactions.

Yeast is another leavening agent, but it is different from baking soda and baking powder. Yeast is actually a live organism. When it is mixed with warm liquid and flour, a reaction occurs in which the organism releases gas. These gases change the organic composition of the mixture and cause a volume increase.

Estimation in the Culinary World

Chefs are not only responsible for doing the actual preparation of food but also for planning menus and assisting in the purchase of groceries. Whether it is a hotel, restaurant, or cafeteria, the chef must estimate the number of people who will eat and plan to have enough food. Not only is it important to have enough food, but the chef must also attempt to minimize the amount of wasted food. One possibility for waste occurs when a chef prepares too much food and the excess cannot be saved and used at a future time. Another type of waste occurs when too much food has been ordered and spoils before it can be used.

When preparing food for a cafeteria, the chef will take into account the number of people who will be eating and the size of a serving for each food item. A cushion amount of about 10 percent would then be added to ensure (or at least hope to ensure) that there is enough food. A cafeteria setting is more forgiving; when an item runs out, the pan can just be removed from the display window.

Determining the quantities necessary for preparation in a restaurant is more difficult, and much is based on previous business. The tricky part is becoming familiar with the number of food servings that can be prepared given a purchased quantity. For example, one pound of uncooked pasta yields three pounds of cooked pasta, beef tenderloin yields about 50 percent to 60 percent when cleaned and trimmed, and one case of romaine lettuce makes about seventy-five salads.

There is more to measurement in cooking than some might think. Not only do chefs deal with precise measurements when following a recipe, but they must also deal with vast quantities (of patrons and of food packaged in bulk). Chefs are also responsible for measurement when planning menus and purchasing food. For the most part, these skills are not learned from a textbook but rather from experience.

see also Restaurant Manager.

Elizabeth Sweeney


Career Information Center, 8th ed. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2002.