How large is a large onion?
May 7, 2012 8:19 AM   Subscribe

Are there any guidelines for the sizes of food called for in recipes in books and magazines? Basically, I'm wondering how long it takes for new recipes to catch up to changes in food packaging, how large is large, and who decides that?

I've noticed both downsizing in food packaging and also some upsizing -- for instance, my grocery store used to carry 1 lb packages of ground turkey, and now they are 1.3 lbs. How long does it usually take for recipes to adjust to current packaging sizes?

Also, does anyone decide the size of, say a medium eggplant, or could that be different for any recipe?

Bonus question: I grew up at the knee of a Czech grandmother and still have her kitchen scale with brass weights. Why don't American recipes use weight?
posted by amarynth to Food & Drink (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Why don't American recipes use weight?

The most common reason I've found is that Fannie Farmer's 1896 cookbook was the first to introduce standardized measures for the home cook (as opposed to things "a pinch" or "a handful"). She picked measures over weights and for whatever reason it became popular and stuck.

There are plenty of American cookbook writers and food scientists nowadays who use weight instead of measures (or provide both, with an explanation of the scooping method used when measuring): Rose Levy Beranbaum, Shirley O. Corriher, and the folks at King Arthur Flour, for example. It's definitely become more popular, especially in baking.
posted by bcwinters at 8:42 AM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's a tangental comment to your question, but I would look at the prices of the turkey per pound, and see if the "new" size is the same price for weight as the "old" size.

In the UK, we are seeing food package downsizing as witnessed by the "supermarket shrink ray", by which the prices remain constant, however the volumes change.

As far as recipes and cookbooks, I was always under the impression that recipes were sized to common industry packaging. And let's not even discuss that we live in a time of electric cars and solar power, hot dogs are ten to a pack, and buns are eight to a pack. Still. When we live in the future.

Not all decisions are rational. Some are just arbitrary. Somewhere a turkey executive may be reading this and have a chortle.
posted by nickrussell at 8:46 AM on May 7, 2012

Only baking is really chemistry that requires any exacting things, and that's because, for example, the water hardness or pH or salt level can massively affect the lifespan of the yeast. But that's also the sort of thing that gives bread and other baked goods a local flavor. (Watch out for having a baked-good inside a cooked dish, i.e. chicken-pot-pie has a pastry layer, or chicken and dumplings has a bready dumpling element.)

Cooking is alchemy; large medium and small are matters of judgment and you've got to develop a sense of judgment for portion and proportion. This does mean having a good number dishes that come out with you thinking "too much this" "should've added more that" and only a few of these things can be remedied at the end.

There are two kinds of magazine recipes, and both have their places in your recipe file; some of them call for a can of this and a stick of that. These recipes tend to be very practical and rapid (and there's no reason to shortcut a process like "cream of mushroom soup," which is thankless and potentially expensive if you tried to make just 12 ounces of the stuff). Most importantly, though, these recipes are tolerant. If an ingredient is altered by 20% here or there, the recipe will not fail. It won't look like the picture. [Note: It'll never ever look like the picture.] It will always be edible, and pretty good. You might have missed "delicious," but you'll be close.

The second kind is a bit more high-falutin', but they know what they're doing; weights and measures are used, even weights for dry ingredients. They're asking you to get a very specific taste/texture/appearance. These recipes are less tolerant of changes, substitutions, and whatnot, and if you can dig that, then you can continue to cook with these magazines. They do this even with homier dishes that grandma made from muscle-memory without looking away from the TV. You'll learn your threshold for this sort of thing.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:50 AM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've been cooking since I was 12 years-old and I only measure for baking and rice. Everything else is a guesstimate.

Food, veggies, meats etc, don't come in standard sizes in nature. Pork chops may look uniform in the package in the store, but no two are exactly the same.

A recipe is a guideline, these things in about these quantities will taste good together. For example, remoulade, there's a butt-load of stuff that goes in it, and everyone's taste is different, you might like more horseradish, I might like more ketchup, in the end we're still better off than a blob o'mayo on the plate.

Any recipe for ground meat is going to be a crap-shoot. How much of the meat is fat or water? (Some stores inject water into their meat--gross!) A pound is a good starting point, if you have a bit more, add more other stuff, a bit less scale back. A package of Lipton Onion Soup mix in 1.3 lbs vs. 1.0 lbs is neither here nor there. I'll be fine.

Look at your eggs, there's a question mark right there. How do you alter a recipe when it calls for Large eggs, but you only have Jumbos? Personally I just use the Jumbos, really, how much more egg is there anyway?

Stretch your muscles and see what happens. Keep tasting as you cook (I actually have never been a taster, it's really weird, but I just don't) and adjust as necessary.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:11 AM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Look at your eggs, there's a question mark right there. How do you alter a recipe when it calls for Large eggs, but you only have Jumbos? Personally I just use the Jumbos, really, how much more egg is there anyway?

It's not just that. Say you do have "large" eggs on hand, the contents of those can vary by age of the egg, what kind/how much food and water the chicken ingested before laying your egg in addition to her general health... cooking is nothing but variables. The best cooks are going by what ingredients are supposed to do rather than what they will certainly do and then varying the recipes based on the actual results at the time. Written recipes are suggestions rather than scientific formulae.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:18 AM on May 7, 2012

Sorry, I should have been more clear -- I'm interested in the recipes writer's perspective more than the cook's perspective. I'm comfortable with improvising and adjusting in my own cooking.
posted by amarynth at 9:23 AM on May 7, 2012

When I write out a recipe to give to a friend, I tend to say, "1 onion," and that means I probably had one the size of a softball and I used half of it. Especially with onions and things that are adding flavor, it's like, I don't really like too much onion, but you may love it. Use as much as you like.

Salon had an article on this some time ago.
posted by Medieval Maven at 9:28 AM on May 7, 2012

Well, for recipes from magazines, shifts like that should be adjusted for in at least six months to a year. Generally hard-core recipe testing for Thanksgiving was in May-June, so if there was some kind of general shift in, like, sage size, it would be adjusted in that timeframe.

The USDA specifies the size of, say, medium onions, PDF (between 2 and 3.25 inches in diameter) and eggs, for example. Probably other vegetables too, but I'm on my phone and the USDA appears to love PDFs.

Recipe writers generally follow USDA standards in the US ("an egg" probably means a particular size of egg, which should be specified in an appendix or foreword), but they otherwise eyeball a medium bunch of parsley.

This is one of the perils of using old recipe books. A large tomato back in the day was not as big as a large tomato today. Any cookbook or magazine worth its salt will have tested the recipes with multiple retesters to try to iron out differences like that. (I am thinking of the huge Gourmet cookbook out a couple of years ago; all those recipes would have been retested.)

This is not to say that outdated info doesn't make it into recipes. For example, lots of quinoa recipes stress how important rinsing it is to get rid of the soapy-tasting saponins. I have made a ton of quinoa over the past decade and it's always been prewashed and doesn't require that step.
posted by purpleclover at 9:31 AM on May 7, 2012

There are some canned goods that are probably pretty immune to the grocery shrink ray. The manufacturer knows that if they ever change the size of a can of broth, or a can of sweetened condensed milk, or the two sizes of canned tomatoes, or stick of butter, that the customers would be very displeased, there would be all sorts of complaints about recipes, and Brand B would become the more popular choice because Brand A screwed with the sizing.
I find it interesting that bags of flour are always 5lb, and baking powder comes in identical sized-shaped tins - it's not like a recipe ever calls for a whole tin of baking powder, but the atmosphere of "don't mess with my ingredients!!" extends, to that keeps those things from changing.

If it's a finished product, on the other hand, the size of a package can zoom all over the place - a can of chicken noodle soup, a box of crackers, a shaker of grated parmesan.

For produce, I always assume that if it really mattered, the recipe would say "6 oz diced onion" or "1 c diced onion" instead of "2 medium onions, diced", though watching my husband measure out 1c onion dices and try to figure out what to do with the remaining 2T is kind of hilarious.
posted by aimedwander at 9:51 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

The manufacturer knows that if they ever change the size of a can of broth, or a can of sweetened condensed milk, or the two sizes of canned tomatoes, or stick of butter, that the customers would be very displeased

Sadly, this doesn't seem to be the case. Sweetened condensed milk (for instance) comes in 14 ounce cans in the US now; recipes from maybe 2 decades ago call for 15 ounce cans. Large cans of tomatoes, similarly, are now 28 ounces instead of 32. Ellen's Kitchen Can Sizes and Equivalents has some more info that might be interesting.
posted by bcwinters at 10:03 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are there any guidelines for the sizes of food called for in recipes in books and magazines?

Each of the magazines I've done recipes for (though I haven't done that work in years) has had a fairly comprehensive style sheet. Similarly, when I've edited cookbooks, the editor has had a style sheet.

Here's the Ten Speed Press style sheet, as an example.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:04 AM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Standardized measurements were a late 19th invention as part of the larger home economics/domestic science movement that sought to make cooking "scientific." bcwinters is right that Fannie Farmer was the first to really popularize standardized measurements during her time at the Boston Cooking School, but she didn't invent them. Domestic science authorities had been pushing for standardized measurements for roughly a decade before Farmer made them popular. Farmer did probably invent the practice of using level measurements; before that most writers used a "rounded" spoonful or a "heaping" cupful (units that had their own precise definitions) in their recipes.

As to why the US doesn't weight ingredients like the Europeans do, Laura Shapiro writes in her book Perfection Salad simply that it seemed too slow a method for busy American cooks. (Shapiro's book is an excellent history on the turn of the century cooking, and well worth the read for all the ways our modern cooking habits developed.)
posted by lilac girl at 12:51 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

> Are there any guidelines for the sizes of food called for in recipes in books and magazines?

No, not in my experience, and I used to tech edit recipes.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:08 AM on May 8, 2012

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