Thursday, 15 March 2012

Augenmaß und Handgewicht...

Doc, over at Medieval Cookery, posted a nice entry titled "The Measure of a Cook".
The TL;DR: Measuring helps, and even if an experienced cook does not measure using an item, there's still some hand-eye-measuring going on. Pure "cooking from the heart", when done by a novice, can go spectacularly wrong due to lack of this built-in measuring and lack of experience of how something should look, feel or behave. And when we are talking about historical recipes, most of us, even experienced cooks, will count as novices since we just don't know how the concoction described in the text was supposed to behave and taste.

I find Doc's observations very true - measuring really does help, and it is more important if you lack experience with the kind of food you are trying to prepare. On the other hand, I have made the experience that some (novice) cooks will stick to a given recipe down to the last letter, including perfectly substitutable or omissable ingredients even if they do not like their taste at all. And that is... not so good either.

I am one of those lucky folks who got a good grounding in how cooking works back at home, when I was quite young. The first thing I learned how to cook was noodle soup - because it is so easy. You put in some stock, get it to boiling, just add noodles and wait a few minutes. I also remember, vividly, that I made some on my working mini child's play stove one day, and then forgot about it until it had cooked to noodles, no soup. (It was still edible, though.) I was sad about that - and then got told that yes, things like that just happen once in a while when you cook, and it's no big deal.

I learned that it's good to have a recipe with measurements as a guideline, but that they are not set in concrete, and it is perfectly okay to experiment a little, or to substitute ingredients if you do not have or do not like something. And that once in a while, things will not turn out quite as they should - but that those failures are just a part of life, and most times the food will still be edible if not very yummy, and in our age it's not too big a deal. (It was back in post-war times. My gran tells this story where someone found a pot of grease left by US soldiers and used it to fry a portion of potatoes in it. Unfortunately, it was non-edible grease for leather, and thus the fried potatoes were non-edible as well. That was a really, really big deal.)

When I started to cook stuff for groups while not in the safety of my home kitchen - especially out on living history ventures - I started seeing measurements even more as guidelines. I remember making dough for waffles without any measuring tools apart from counting out four eggs and adding other stuff until the consistency was about right, and the waffles turned out really well. But yes, that is only possible when you know how a given sort of dough should look, or what the right consistency for this or that is. And then you do measure with your eyes and hands and experience.

A friend who was a professional cook once told me "Augenmaß und Handgewicht verläßt die deutsche Küche nicht" (measuring by eye and weighing in the hand will not leave the German kitchen), and I say this to myself whenever I'm not going to measure - because I do not have the implements, or because I am feeling frisky. And I have some recipes that just state what the ingredients should be and how they should be treated and combined, but no amounts - because when I make that Irish Stew or that "Szegediner Gulasch", I will buy and cook an amount of potatoes, peas and carrots to fill the bellies and an amount of meat that will add flavour and interest but will not empty my pocket too much.

And today I'm feeling really lucky that I have learned this approach to cooking. Thanks, Mom. And Dad. And Gran.

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