Recipes: A Tale Of Two Carrots

She measured out the butter with a very solemn air,
The milk and sugar also; she took the greatest care
To count the eggs correctly and to add a little bit
Of baking power which, you know, beginners oft omit,

Then she stirred it all together and she baked it full an hour,
But she never quite forgave herself for leaving out the flour.

We're coming up on holiday time and for me that means Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas cookies, the works. It's a perfect time for kids and parents to be in the kitchen together, not only making food for each other, but also to give away as gifts to friends and loved ones. With the prospect of spending extra time with kiddos in the kitchen in the next couple of months, it's a good time to revisit some of what helps keep cooking and baking lower-stress.

One of the things that adults who have been cooking for a while can forget is how frustrating recipe instructions can be sometimes. Just how big is a large onion compared to a small onion? Or carrot, or potato? What does "season to taste" mean and how do I know? When a recipe calls for a half a cup of chopped parsley does that mean I stuff a half cup full of sprigs and chop them, or do I chop as many sprigs as I need to until I have a half cup?

Recipes and cookbooks have been around for a very long time. One of the older ones that we know about comes from the fourth or fifth century and is a book of Roman cooking called "On the Subject of Cooking" also commonly referred to as "Apicius." Here's one of the simpler recipes:

And pumpkin pie is made thus. Stewed and mashed pumpkin is placed in the pan, seasoned with a little cumin essence. Add a little oil; heat and serve.

So, the ancient Romans made pumpkin pie, that's pretty cool. But where are the measurements? How long do you cook it? What the heck is cumin essence?

By Early American times things had gotten better. Here's a cake recipe from The White House Cookbook, which is a collection of recipes that first came out in around 1887.

One cupful of butter, two cupfuls of sugar, three cupfuls of flour, four eggs. Rub well together and add one cupful of sweet milk or cream, nutmeg to taste, and three teaspoonfuls baking powder or one teaspoonful of soda with two teaspoonfuls cream of tartar. Bake carefully in a quick oven.

We at least have some ingredients with this one, although all I can tell you about a "quick oven" is that it means that it was relatively hot and so things cooked in it would be done quickly.

The fact is that most recipes were more reminders of ingredients for dishes that cooks already knew how to make. Learning how to cook used to be an incredibly important part of a girl's education and they started learning early. They would begin with simple biscuits and boiled vegetables and make their way up to cakes and bread and more complex dishes. Boys would have spent little or no time being taught how to cook, but even a lot of bachelors would be able to make their daily bread. Another interesting thing to know is that standard measures didn't always exist, so your "cup" could be a different size than your neighbor's.

The first cookbook that really starts to look like the recipes we use today was "The Boston Cooking School Cookbook" by Fannie Farmer. Ingredients are listed first, the instructions are in order, and the measurements are exact. Fannie Farmer is also credited with inventing the measuring cup; a cup with markings on it to indicate different amounts.

So where are we today and how do we figure out those things that still seems a little unclear? In general, here's what you can expect from a well-written modern recipe:

  1. The name and sometimes the origin of the dish. Origin meaning "French, Italian" etc. If the recipe is one adapted from an already existing recipe, the original source may be mentioned too.
  2. How much time it will take to prepare the dish from start to finish. Sometimes this is broken into two parts:
    • Active time is the time you'll spend actually working on the dish hands-on.
    • Inactive time is time that is needed for baking, dough to rise, something to soak or anything else where you may be free to do something else.
  3. The required ingredients along with their quantities or proportions. The ingredients will always be listed in the order that they are used in the instructions.
    • So let's answer one of those questions from the start of this article. If a recipe calls for "one small onion, chopped" it means you start with a small onion and chop it. If the recipe calls for "one cup of chopped onion" it means you need exactly that amount no matter what size onion you start with, just look for a comma.
  4. Necessary equipment and environment needed to prepare the dish. This means things like what size pans or bowls you might need and also special instructions like having a cool surface to roll dough out on. Usually these things are included as part of the instructions.
  5. An ordered list of preparation steps and techniques. Good instructions will always give you an idea of how long things will take, what texture or thickness things should be and an idea of what they should look like. So look for words like "glossy," "translucent," "browned."
  6. The number of servings that the recipe makes (sometimes called the "yield").
  7. A photograph of the finished dish is always nice to have as a reference, but books with a lot of recipes in them will usually only have a picture for a small percentage of the total number of recipes.

Some other tips for reading and using recipes:

  • Read the recipe the whole way through before you start. You might notice that one of the instructions calls for soaking something overnight, or chilling in the fridge for an hour or preheating the oven. Make sure you take note of how much time will be needed overall.
  • Read the recipe again.
  • Take note of techniques that will be used in the instructions portion. If you don't know what it means to cream something, or rub butter into flour, definitely find that out before starting.
  • Gather all the equipment you will need.
  • Gather all the ingredients you will need, in the way they are listed in the ingredients list. That means measuring and prepping all the ingredients before you actually "start" the recipe so that when you get to a step, you don't have to break your stride. (This is why professional chefs have all those crazy little bowls hanging around, they're for holding tablespoons of this and cups of that).
  • Read the recipe again!

And now we go all the way back to the beginning. How large is large? Fortunately, as recipe writing has evolved, professional cooks have landed on some good standards for otherwise vague terms.

For onions, potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables here is a good guideline:

  • Small = 4 ounces by weight or about ½ cup chopped
  • Medium = 8 ounces, or about 1 cup chopped
  • Large = 12 ounces, or about 1½ cups chopped

Now what in the world is "a dash" or "a pinch"? Well, when you see these it's really just another way of saying "season to taste." When you add a pinch or a dash of salt or any other seasoning, what you're doing is adding a very little amount (and pinching some between your fingers is perfectly fine) then tasting the food and deciding if you want to add a little bit more, then repeating that until you are happy with the taste. You'll never see baking recipes call for pinches or dashes of anything because you can't taste the recipe until it's baked and then it's too late to adjust. You'll only use pinches and dashes at the end of a cooked dish. One exception might be when you are doing something like sprinkling cookie dough with sugar. That will usually be called sprinkling, and it's fine to just eyeball it.

What about everything else? How much juice is the juice of one lemon? How many zucchini do I need to buy to end up with a grated cup? There are too many possibilities to answer here, but there are some websites that you can visit to look up most of the ingredients that you will have questions about:

Michael Crowdes is a Lakewood resident, former restaurant owner, who loves to cook and loves teaching kids. His favorite students are his two godkids; one of whom is incredibly fussy and mostly likes mac and cheese, and the other who was eating blue cheese stuffed olives and brie almost as soon as she could chew. There are more articles and recipes at

Michael Crowdes

Lakewood resident since 2005, member of the Lakewood Historical Society Board of Trustees, avid cook and ecommerce professional.

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Volume 12, Issue 23, Posted 3:38 PM, 11.09.2016