Sunday, July 06, 2014

Doin' the math

This Facebook photo of Senior Chief
Hunt teaching culinary math to
U.S. Navy culinary specialists
prompted me to write this article.
Senior Chief Hunt is assigned
to Navy Food Management
Team Norfolk, Virginia as an
instructor. She conducted a
coarse in culinary math for
Norfolk area culinary specialists
last month.
The ability to perform basic mathematical calculations is an essential skill for the cook. Converting ounces into pounds, quarts into gallons and teaspoons into tablespoons is frequently done on the fly, without benefit of calculator or chart. The cook must be able to work quickly, and accurately, each time a math problem presents itself.

The number of cooks who have trouble navigating the world of weights and measures amaze me. Experience cooks often ask, “How many quarts in a gallon?” What I regard as elementary easily stumps seasoned cooks. While I don’t expect him to recite the number of teaspoons in a gallon (there are 768 teaspoons), he must understand the relationship between pounds and ounces and the various units of dry and liquid measure.

There are:
  • 16 ounces in a pound
  • 3 teaspoons in a tablespoon
  • 16 tablespoons in a cup
  • 2 cups in a pint
  • 4 cups or 2 pints in a quart
  • 4 quarts or eight pints in a gallon
Once the cook understands the relationship from one unit of measure to another, whether smaller or larger, it simplifies his job. The skilled cook can move between smaller and larger units, and larger to smaller, with ease. The relationship between weights and measures in the American system can only be with difficulty.

Baking steamed rice in the oven will serve as an illustration of culinary math skills. At Oakland Feather River Camp, long grain white (or brown) rice is measured into the standard 12 by 20 by 4-inch hotel pan. The cook measures four pints of rice into each greased pan. (The pint measure is used because it’s handy.) The cook doubles the volume of rice to figure out the amount of boiling water to pour into the pan. At this point, the cook shifts to a half-gallon measure, mainly for efficiency.

To determine the number of half-gallon measures of water, the cook must understand that there are four pints or eight cups in the measure before proceeding. There are two cups in a pint. Since the cook previously measured four pints of rice into the pan, he multiplies four times two (in his head). The product is eight cups. He then doubles that number for 16 cups of boiling water. (I instruct the cooks to use a half-gallon measure because it safer to handle when handling boiling water.)

Sixteen cups divided by two is eight. Thus the cook adds two half-gallon pitchers of water to the rice in each pan. The rice is seasoned with salt and butter, then covered with plastic wrap and a hotel pan lid. It’s baked in a 325-degree convection oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until tender.

Admittedly, this explanation of preparing steamed rice is long. It takes more time to explain the process than to bake the rice! But it serves as an example of how culinary math finds its way into the kitchen. This is basic math to be sure, but it’s an essential skill. Too little water and the rice is dry and crunchy. Too much and you end up with a soggy mess.

There are a number of applications for math in the kitchen. I've addressed baker’s math previously on ‘Round the Chuckbox. The science of adjusting recipes is a crucial skill for the cook as well. I’ll have more to say in a later article.

In the meantime, let’s mind our pints and quarts!

1 comment:

  1. This comment was left by a teacher friend on my personal Facebook page:

    "Love this post! As a math teacher, I have the kids do a recipe conversion project. It's a great way to answer the ever present question, 'When am I ever going to use this in real life?' Now I can validate that professionals need these skills too!"

    Thanks, Elisa. Well said.