The Measure of Ingredients in Early Modern Recipes

By Juliet Claxton

Modern cookery books list recipe ingredients that are carefully weighed out using standardized units of measurement. It is precise calibration that allows for a recipe to be replicated with accuracy, even by a novice cook. Early modern recipe collections, however, are often frustratingly reticent about the exact quantities involved – so observation and experience must have been an important part of practical cookery. The expanding demand for texts of culinary and medicinal recipes from the early seventeenth century onwards, however, reveals that measurements, cooking times, and instructions had to become increasingly precise. Cooks and housewives needed the information to reproduce a recipe without prior experience. Knowing the measure of ingredients was a key aptitude, but contemporary inventories show that owning kitchen scales, while recommended, was not habitual until the mid-eighteenth century.[i] How were ingredients measured when the most frequently given instructions were to use ‘a handful’ or ‘a pretty quantity’?

The evidence from one of the earliest volumes of medicinal recipes, A Booke of diuers Medecines, Broothes, Salues, Waters, Syroppes and Oyntementes of which many or the most part haue been experienced and tryed by the speciall practize of Mrs Corlyon, dated 1606 and attributed to the countess of Arundel (Wellcome: MS 213), reveals that ingredients were measured using a combination of weight, volume, and sight. To assist and guide in this procedure the recipes turned to both bodily parts and quotidian, domestic objects that were familiar to the early modern householder.

Nicholas Culpeper. Line engraving. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY
Fig. 1. Nicholas Culpeper. Line engraving. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Naturally a cook’s hands and fingers were the primary gauges.  The recipe for ‘A Medicine for those that have a moist Stomake’ calls for ‘a toste of white Breade of a reasonable thickness and of the breadth of your two fingers’ (MS 213/60). A ‘handful’ or ‘half a handful’ are the volume’s most often cited units of measurement, but hand sizes varied. As Nicholas Culpeper scornfully noted: ‘An Handful is as much as you can gripe in one Hand; and a Pugil as much as you can take up with your Thumb and two Fingers; and how much that is who can tell?'[ii] A need to refine this measurement was often necessary, and the recipe for ‘A Salue to cure every olde Sorre’ calls for ‘3 slyces of yeollowe rustye Bacon the slyces so long and brode as a large hand’ (MS 213/144). In a later printed volume, Natura Extentratealso attributed to the countess of Arundel, the term ‘handful’ was further defined.  Instructions for herbs were marked with the letter ‘M’ indicating a good or large handful, while directions for flowers had the letter ‘P’ to indicate a small handful.[iii] 

Other recipes in A Booke of diuers Medecines turn to kitchen paraphernalia to ascertain accurate quantities. Ladles and spoons appear, but so do objects from the natural world, particularly beans and nuts, which are usually consistent in size. For example, ‘A cure to take away the pynn and webb in the eye’ itemizes ‘fyne white sugar as much as a walnut and a piece of Sanguis Draconis as bigg as a Beane’ (MS 213/12). Sometimes this measurement was even further refined: ‘A Salue for any Soore’ instructs the cook to putt into this salve ‘so much Pitche as a greate wallnut’ (MS 213/144), while another recipe for an ‘olde Sore’ uses ‘a piece of white Copperesse of the quantitye of an Hassell [hazel] Nutt’ (MS 213/151). Even living creatures such as shellfish or birds are regarded as a useful comparable unit. For example, a water for ‘any newe or olde Soores’ uses ‘as much Allome as a crabb’  (MS 213/146), and an ‘Oyntement called Pampilion’ needed ‘a great lappfull’ of Popler leaves ‘before they be opened any bigger than a young cockes combes’ (MS 213/155).

Apothecary dispensing medicine using scales, from Tacuinum sanitatis. Credit: Wellcome Collection.CC BY
Fig. 2. Apothecary dispensing medicine using scales, from Tacuinum sanitatis. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Standard units of pounds and ounces appear less frequently in the manuscript and are often used for ingredients that were purchased commercially and weighed in store – unlike domestic kitchens, apothecaries usually owned a set of scales. The most expensive ingredients, however, were often cited in pecuniary terms. ‘A Medecine food for those that are apte often to caste through weakeness of the Stomacke’ uses ‘two penny worthe of Saffron’ (MS 213/62).  ‘A Medicine for the Collick and the Stone’ uses ‘a pennyworth of cloves and mace an halfepennye worth of longe pepper, and two pennyworth of Turmarick’ (MS 213/68/70), while another has ‘the weight of eyghte pence in Parmacetye, two pennyworthe of cloues’ and ‘half a crowne of the powder of Mastick’ (MS 213/76).

Many elite women of this period were responsible for large households and often relied upon senior servants, both male and female, to produce food, brew beer, and distil medicines. Providing careful notes that allowed for various units of measurement meant that recipes could prepared despite the absence of the householder.

 

[i] Sara Pennell, The Birth of the English Kitchen, (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 98.

[ii] Nicholas Culpeper, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, or, The London dispensatory, (London: 1653).

[iii] Elizabeth Spiller, Seventeenth-century English Recipe Books, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), xxxvi.