Learn to cook without measuring ingredients

Jun 25, 2018 | Cooking Tips

I was recently asked for advice on how to learn to cook without measuring ingredients. As I actually get asked about this a lot and so I thought a blog post about it would probably be a good idea. I think people are interested in this because they see chefs cooking without measuring and it looks cool. But, I should say before we start that even if it doesn’t look like we are measuring, we are kind of. We’ll get into that in a minute. In the meantime let’s talk about…

How you can learn to cook without measuring ingredients.

First and foremost it is really important to rely on all of your senses when cooking. This is generally true but even more important when cooking without measuring, or without a recipe for that matter. Obviously, your senses of taste and smell are paramount in cooking. However, don’t underestimate your other sense. Being able to tell if something is cooked with just a cursory glance is a very valuable skill. As is being able to tell at what stage in the cooking process something is just by how it sounds.

These skills are developed over a long period of time but you should have them in the back of your mind when cooking. Pay attention to everything that is happening not just the one thing you are doing in that specific second.

Measuring without measuring.

To say that chefs don’t measure ingredients isn’t entirely true. All chefs measure just about everything. The difference and the confusion come from the tools that are used. Where you may use a tablespoon I may use the cup of my hand. You use a teaspoon, I use the cup of my hand again but with less. If you use an eight or quarter teaspoon, I use a big pinch or a small pinch. When you use a cup, I may use a three-second pour. So, like I said, chefs measure we just use different tools.

George Martin, who was The Beatles record producer for most of their albums said that he never really cared if an instrument was tuned perfectly. He said that to him it was always much more important that the band be in tune with each other. If all of the instruments were slightly out of tune, but together, it worked. That’s kind of the idea. As long as all of the measurements are relative to each other, everything will be okay.

Build a relative framework. 

Start building a relative framework by finding measuring tools and techniques that are similar. An easy way to start this is to measure out a tablespoon of something and dump it into the cup of your hand. Now you have a reference. You have a general idea of what a tablespoon looks like in relation to the size of your hand. Now do it with a tsp.

You can use the same principles for larger measurements as well. If you have a pot or a pan that you use more than most, get it out and pour one cup of water in it. Look at the volume of liquid in relation to the pot or pan. Do this for two cups. Then do it for one liter. Now you have that reference in your mind as well.

Cooking isn’t an exact science. 

I don’t really like calling cooking an art. It sounds pretentious and makes it inaccessible. So, it’s not an art, but it’s also very much not a science. This is really important to keep in mind. When you get experienced at cooking you realize quickly that things change. I can’t remember who said it, and I think I’ve quoted it before but, “You never cook the same recipe twice.”. No matter how much you try nothing will ever be exactly the same as it was before.

No two tomatoes taste exactly the same. They have different sugar contents depending on the time of day they were picked, if it was sunny or overcast, and based on the soil they were grown in. Some can be more acidic than others or even have a higher moisture content. And to be clear I am talking about the same variety of tomato. Because of this, and this is true of all ingredients, treating cooking like a science experiment where every single measurement is exactly the same as before doesn’t work.

Measurements have to be tuned to the specific ingredients and circumstances. This is done through relative measurements, tasting, and smelling. This is how you learn to cook without really measuring anything, but also how to cook without a recipe.

Start building your relative framework and experience the joy of cooking without the stress of trying to make sure everything is measured perfectly.


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