DON’T Get Nonchalant About Recipe M.O.!

To take your cooking and baking up a few notches, you need to know how to read a recipe. “DUH!” you say? Well it’s not as elementary as it sounds. Recipes can be surprisingly perplexing, if you don’t know recipe M.O. (modus operendi).

A typical for instance is nuts. You peep at a recipe and when it comes to nuts, you see one of the following: 1 cup of chopped nuts. OR! 1 cup of nuts, chopped. What’s the difference? Is it just in how the author chose to phrase things?

Nope, it’s not about the phrasing. And there IS a difference—sometimes a BIG difference. “1 cup of chopped nuts” means you measure out 1 cup of nuts, then you chop them up. “1 cup of nuts, chopped” means you chop up a bunch of nuts, then you scoop nuts into a 1 cup measure until you’ve reached 1 cup’s-worth.

The difference between these two is this: Chopping up nuts and scooping them into your measuring cup can yield more nuts. As much as 20%, depending on how small you’re chopping.

Does this 20% difference matter? In the grand scheme of things? Nah. Who in the world complains about more nuts in their cookies? I sure don’t. And generally, extra nuts won’t affect your recipe at all. Adding more chopped nuts to a cookie is no more different than adding more chocolate chips. (And again, who’d complain about that?)

So, with nuts and cookie recipes, no big deal how you read the recipe. But it is a big deal with lots of other ingredients and other types of recipes. Flour is a good example. The recipe can say “1 cup flour, sifted” or “1 sifted cup of flour.” Generally, there is less flour in 1 cup of sifted flour (if you scooped it into your cup correctly—no tamping down, etc).

Therefore, the highly recommended recipe M.O., then, is to always to read a recipe’s ingredient list closely to check whether an item is MEASURED BEFORE OR AFTER some form of preparation.

Believe it. Although the differences between the “before” or “after” measuring are sometimes not visible to the eye, they can seriously affect the outcome of recipes, especially when you are engaged in the exacting chemistry of baking.

Baking truly is a science, and no cook, let alone a beginning cook should be nonchalant about measuring. The success of a recipe depends on it. Of course, we Cook’n cooks know how it goes: As we begin to feel more comfortable with baking, we’re inclined to experiment a bit, maybe add some chocolate chips to peanut butter cookies, or throw some nuts or dried cranberries into oatmeal cookies, or substitute pecans for walnuts. That’s all well and fine, but the best Cook’n cooks understand that we’re never too good or experienced to measure accurately.

Enough said, then. We get it…we’ll read the recipe carefully and dutifully pay attention to whether we measure BEFORE or AFTER prepping an ingredient.

In closing, I have a clever tip for you and a terrific recipe for practicing your nuts measuring. First the tip: If you’re measuring fats, an easy way to keep the cup clean (and save yourself time by not having to wash it) is to place a piece of plastic wrap in the measuring cup first. Then, after the shortening or butter is measured, pull the ends of the plastic out of the cup. The measuring cup stays clean and you have a perfectly measured ingredient!

Now the recipe. This is from FOOD & WINE and consistently received 5 stars out of 1,189 ratings. Bronson Van Wyck, considered the nation’s most successful event planner (aka “Mr. Hospitality”), created this recipe. Since it’s pleased many thousands of his event attendees, I bet our “event attendees” will like it as well.

Sugar and Spice Nuts

Yield: 5 cups


3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 large egg white
2 cups raw cashew nuts (about 9 ounces)
2 cups raw almonds

Step 1: Preheat the oven to 300°.
Step 2: Coat a rimmed baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
Step 3: In a small bowl, whisk the sugar with the salt, chile powder, cinnamon and cayenne pepper.
Step 4. In a large bowl, beat the egg white until frothy. Add the cashews, almonds and spiced sugar and toss.
Step 5. Spread out the nuts on the prepared baking sheet and bake for about 45 minutes, stirring once, until browned.
Step 6: Let the nuts cool on the baking sheet, stirring occasionally.

Recipe formatted with the Cook'n Recipe Software from DVO Enterprises.

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    Alice Osborne
    Weekly Newsletter Contributor since 2006
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