When size really matters 

Is the object of your desire the size of golf balls or baseballs?

click to enlarge PHOTO BY GLENDA BARTOSH - Sizing up The age-old question of, 'does size really matter?' can be an especially taxing question for new cooks who tremble at the thought of ad-libbing in the kitchen.
  • Photo by Glenda Bartosh
  • Sizing up The age-old question of, 'does size really matter?' can be an especially taxing question for new cooks who tremble at the thought of ad-libbing in the kitchen.

Add six pears, six peaches and four onions. All this is combined with 30 ripe tomatoes and cloves, yummy cinnamon, sugar and more for a giant batch of chutney that just won't quit. (Christmas giving idea, anyone?)

Then there's the recipe for plum cake calling for 11 Italian plums. And my fave, the one for figs with ouzo that takes 15 figs.

All of these recipes are from my own recipe box. Some have been downloaded and printed out because I can't drag my beautiful iMac into the kitchen, and I love scribbling notes to myself in the margins. Some are handwritten family favourites in my mom's beautiful script, which says "mom" louder and clearer than her classic perfume.

They all embody that age-old question: does size really matter?

This can be an especially taxing question for new cooks or those who tremble at the thought of ad-libbing in the kitchen when it comes to a numeric list of ingredients and you've got a bag of tomatoes or whatever in a range of sizes that make you wonder if they all came from the same planet.

This is truer than ever today. For one, maybe you've got your basic older recipe, say, from the 1950s or '60s, when standard-issue tomatoes in Canada were more, well, standardized.

Now you're trying to extrapolate that to today's world where everything from the eternal quest in agro-economics to produce evermore profitable commercial crops—namely ones that are cheaper and easier to produce and pick, which results in hybrids like grapes that are bigger than cherries and cherries the size of apricots—to changing tastes enabled by travel, trade and improved transportation that mean we can find an unprecedented range of beautiful options for ingredients. I've seen Indigo Rose tomatoes the size of a squash ball and the mysterious colour of midnight nestled next to scarlet red, aptly-named Belgium Giants, which can weigh in at five pounds (2.2 kilograms) apiece.

Add 30 tomatoes, indeed.

The recipe for plum cake seems pretty safe given most Italian prune plums are about the same size. But then we've all seen plumpish-plum differences, depending on growing conditions, how the trees are pruned (add winking emoji), when the fruits were picked, and more.

There are early Italian prune plums and late Italian prune plums, and if you don't quite know what you're looking for or the signage is lame, you might mistake big, dark purple Friar plums for those Italians, and end up with a real mess on your hands.

As for the figs with ouzo recipe, it's a good one from the inimitable Aristedes Pasparakis, engineer-cum-restaurateur/chef and one of the original owners of Orestes' restaurant in Vancouver, "the longest running hit show on Broadway," who used to read me Ntozake Shange's poetry while I was waiting on tables to pay my way through j-school.

Again, you're pretty sure just counting out 15 figs will get you where you want to go. But then again, there are 800-plus species! (Figs are notorious for localizing.) Are they from the spring, or breba, crop, or are they figs that ripen in late summer? Are they persistent or common figs, like Black Missions or Brown Turkeys? Or are they Smyrna figs, like Marabouts? How fresh are they? How moist?

All of which brings us to no conclusion other than, yes, size definitely matters, at least in the kitchen. So, it's a good, even fascinating, scientific kind of thing—especially if you're either in the early days of learning to cook or have years of experience under your belt and are getting bored or sloppy with the whole damn thing—to get into the habit of measuring, really measuring, your ingredients for a recipe.

I know in Canada we are diehard measurers of volume, as in one cup, two cups, three cups, four. But even that has its drawbacks, and you can't correlate it with the true metric to end all metrics: weight.

To explain why, I turned to the gurus of the whole post-post-modern cooking scene and true believers in weight measurements at Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine lab near Seattle. (Check out my earlier recommended reading of Modernist Cuisine at piquenewsmagazine.com/whistler/summertime-and-the-readin-is-easy/Content?oid=9556523.

"Different ingredients have different densities, which means there isn't a sure-fire trick or rule of thumb for cleanly converting volume to weight measurements or vice versa. One cup of water, for example, doesn't weigh the same as one cup of maple syrup even though both are wet ingredients," Francisco Migoya, head chef and co-author of Modernist Bread, explains via email.

"I can't iterate enough how much I recommend kitchen scales—a scale will always give you a more precise and accurate measurement." And precision means success with a recipe, while volume leaves much to chance.

Good news, though. According to Francisco, it doesn't matter if you get a $20 scale or a $2,000 scale, so you won't be out much more than you would for a set of measuring cups.

"Scales are governed by a system of weights and measures that is applied to all brands, so cost doesn't matter regarding quality. A more expensive scale won't weigh 'better' than a cheaper scale," he adds. "Often the price difference is about capacity. A more expensive scale will be larger and be able to weigh larger amounts. Additionally, more expensive scales might be able to weigh in smaller multiples, as in fractions of a gram."

But you don't really need to worry about that unless you're weighing out special ingredients used in tiny amounts, such as yeast or hydrocolloids like xanthan gum.

So there you have it. Quit counting and start weighing.

Maybe that should go for our bodily selves as well.

As for those recipes using six pears, six peaches, a dozen plums, and more, there's no easy fix. All you can do is mentally travel back in time to when you think the recipe originated and use your good common sense as to the size of fruits or veggies that will deliver the intended results.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who has a couple of very funky weigh scales in her kitchen.

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