thumb in rice

There was a time, before Pyrex and Oxo, calculators and even cookbooks, when rules of thumb ruled the kitchen. My mother taught me my first one when I was six and still standing on a barstool to reach the kitchen faucet, the infamous and eerily accurate “one-knuckle” rule for cooking rice. Like all good R.O.T., the measures were flexible. It didn’t matter how much rice or what size pot or what kind of stove. It worked.

Through the years, others joined my mental chart of measures. Start frying spring rolls when a dry chopstick, lowered into the oil, sends up a rush of bubbles. Don’t eat at a restaurant with the word “authentic” translated into English. A thin girl eats one bowl of rice, a polite girl two bowls. The brownies are ready when only a few crumbs stick to the toothpick.

Cooking school and restaurant work lengthened the list of informal guidelines. Cook a fish ten minutes for every inch of thickness. A properly butchered beef carcass will produce 1/4 steaks, 1/4 ground beef and stew meat, 1/4 roasts, and 1/4 waste. A classic mire poix is 2 parts onion, 1 part carrot, 1 part celery. Roux is equal parts flour and butter by weight. A cake is done when it springs back from a loving tap.

Professional caterers employ some of the most specific calculations for feeding people that are, in their way, merely interconnected rules of thumb. Are the guests standing or sitting? Sipping lemonade or knocking back cocktails? Celebrating a friend’s birthday or waiting around to sign big, fat donation checks? Are the plates 5″ or 7″ wide? Are there mostly women or men? Is it a cold morning or a hot night? Each factor changes what kind and — more importantly, how much — food appears on the tables. In the end, it’s as much a guesstimate as that thumb in the rice: based on experience, fluid, and as exactly right as it needs to be.

At his ambitious and thoroughly enjoyable website,, Tom Parker has collected thousands of informal guidelines from around the world. The simple rules were originally sent to him on postcards in the 80s, when he started the project, but he’s since gathered them onto a site where readers can search by keywords, contribute their own R.O.T., and rate those submitted by others.

Just a few from the Food category:

  • One elephant provides the same amount of meat as one hundred antelopes.
  • For long trips, plan on at least two pounds of food per person per day.
  • The quality of food at a restaurant is inversely proportional to the size of the restaurant’s freezer.
  • If at their first daily feeding, catfish rapidly swim to the surface, stick their heads out of the water, and gulp for food, everything is O.K. If they are sluggish or don’t come to the surface, promptly change the water.
  • One pound of clay thrown with reasonable competence on a potter’s wheel will make a vessel large enough to hold one average serving of most kinds of food.
  • When you order Chinese food, order one entree less than the number of people in the group to avoid unwanted leftovers.
  • To dissolve, without cooking, 17 pounds of sugar requires 1 gallon of hot water. This makes two and a quarter gallons of liquid sugar.
  • If cows remain lying in a group on a rainy day, then fish will not bite.
  • Don’t drink water downstream from the herd.
  • The hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers” sung in a not-too-brisk tempo makes a good egg-timer. If you put the egg into boiling water and sing all five verses, with the chorus, the egg will be just right when you come to Amen.
  • If a choking person can verbally request the Heimlich maneuver, he or she doesn’t need it.
  • You can live three seconds without blood, three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food.

Each of these reminds me how much more interesting human-based measures can be. Forget the conversion charts and fear-inducing recipes that crackle with numbers. What we need are more colorful stories embedded in plain advice.

What’s your favorite rule of thumb in the kitchen? And where did you first learn it?

Rules of Thumb 3 August,2009Thy Tran

  • hahah i totally use that one-knuckle rule! works like a charm. my personal rule of thumb is to always use the zest when lemon juice is called for. i never let those fragrant essential oils go to waste.


Thy Tran

Thy Tran writes literary nonfiction about food, the rituals of the kitchen, and the many ways eating and cooking both connect and separate communities around the world. She co-authored the award-winning guide, Kitchen Companion, and her work has appeared in numerous other books, including Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide and Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fine Cooking and Saveur. A recipient of a literary grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Thy is currently working on a collection of essays about how food changes in families across time and place.

Though trained as a professional chef, she works on cookbooks by day, then creates literary chapbooks by night. An old letterpress and two cabinets of wood and lead type occupy a corner of her writing studio, for she is as committed to the art and craft of bookmaking as she is to the power of words themselves. In addition to writing, editing, teaching and printing, Thy remains active in local food justice and global food sovereignty movements. Visit her website,, to learn more about her culinary adventures.

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