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What’s the difference between wet and dry measurements when you’re cooking?

Numbers and Math in Everyday Life Read more from
Chapter Everyday Math

Many cooks know there is a difference in the kitchen when it comes to dry and wet measurements. In particular, such differences are seen when one measures a cup of something as an ingredient in a recipe. For example, when measuring dry ingredients, cooks use a “dry measuring cup,” in which the ingredient is easily scooped into the cup, filled to the brim, and leveled with a knife or other flat-edged utensil. Most of these cups are made so one cup of an ingredient will fill the cup.

A “wet measuring cup” usually has increments written on the side and a spout for easier pouring. A measured cup of liquid is below the outer rim of the cup, making it easier to see the meniscus (the concave upper surface of a still liquid caused by surface tension) that one lines up with the desired increment on the side of the cup. It would be rather messy to use a liquid in a “dry measuring cup,” whereas, it’s not as bad using a wet measuring cup with dry ingredients. Some cooking purists use a wet measuring cup for dry ingredients, then weigh the amount used. After making the desired recipe, the cook can judge just how much “dry” ingredients to use with a “wet” measuring cup.

For most of us who are not as picky in the kitchen, the dry or wet measuring cup is just fine for either type of foodstuff. The main reason for remembering that there is a difference may be for those who want to one day start their own cooking school; and it’s also for chefs who make up recipes for publication or special uses. This is because measuring accurately is the most important cooking skill that can mean a good tasting meal versus a bad one. In particular, test kitchens need to know the differences between dry and wet measurements to test recipes. They vary the amounts of the ingredients—called “tolerance testing”—to make the best-tasting recipes, all helped by the knowledge of the basic rules of measuring.

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