Kitchen Scales for Better Baking

by Elizabeth Skipper | January 22nd, 2014 | Ask the Chef

sugarscaleI’ve read a decent amount of articles that encourage the use of a kitchen scale when baking.  Is it a necessary purchase, or can I just be sure to measure carefully with my current set of cups?

How much baking have you been doing, how successfully, and how much baking do you anticipate doing in future? If you’re happy with your results up to now, maybe you want to keep on doing what you’re doing. If you’d like to improve both the ease of and the results of your baking, though, read on.

Kitchen scales have been around for centuries; digital scales, which are extremely accurate and easy to use, are much newer. When they first arrived on the scene, they were costly, but now you can get them for $35.00 or less. That’s what I paid for mine a couple of years ago, and when I bought one for my travel kit recently at a discount store, it was only $20.00. So price isn’t a reason not to own one.

Think about how we measure foods here in the U.S. We’re the only country, besides the UK and Australia, which uses cups (and our cups and theirs aren’t even the same.) It makes sense to measure liquids in cups, but dry ingredients are another matter. Although cookbook authors or recipe writers may try to describe accurately how to measure flour, for example, by asking you to “dip and sweep” or “sift three times before measuring”, the truth is that your cup of flour may weigh significantly more or less than what they mean. In experiments, people asked to measure out a cup of flour have produced results varying from three and a half to six ounces! A cup of flour is generally considered to weigh four ounces. That’s a huge difference, one which can make or break a cake, or produce a batter that’s much too thick or too thin.

How do you grate cheese? Using a box grater, a Microplane rasp, or a rotary grater will all give very different results. The rasp produces slender, fluffy shreds, the box grater thick, heavy ones. The rotary grater, depending on the manufacturer, produces a third kind of shredded cheese. If you know what the weight should be, the type of grater doesn’t matter so much. If you’re making cheese bread, for example, adding two ounces to the dough is much different than adding four ounces.

I want to add here that measuring cups and spoons aren’t always precise, either. Tests done by Cooks Illustrated on 11 different brands of measuring cups found that some were off by as much as 6%. If the ones you have are among those brands, that alone will skew your baking results. What also can help with measurements is installing kitchen lights.

Professional bakers wouldn’t dream of working without scales. Baking is much more precise than cooking and scales make precision possible. Digital scales make it easy. And with the ability to return the scale to zero after adding things to it, you save on dishwashing. For example, you can put a mixing bowl on the scale and set the weight back down to zero. Add flour bit by bit until the scale reads 4 ounces (there’s your cup of flour.) Zero it out again and add cocoa powder until the scale says you’ve added the right amount. If sugar goes in now, the process can be repeated, and so on. No measuring cups were dirtied, and the measurements are accurate.

Scales are wonderful for someone who’s not a baker, too. I’ve written about this before, but recipes would be so much more precise and easier to follow if they were given in weights. Half a cup of onions, chopped? Or half a cup of chopped onions? The latter makes more sense than the former, but neither is precise — two ounces of chopped onion is. Instead of eyeing the pasta in the box and trying to measure out enough for four people, put a bowl on the scale, zero it out, and add pasta until you have eight ounces (the average serving is two ounces/person), or 12 ounces if you want heartier servings. Make a note of how many ounces are left, and you won’t even need to measure when you finish up what’s in the box.

This all presumes, though, that the recipes you’re using specify weights. Not all do, more’s the pity. Some years back, when attempts were made to switch the U.S. over to the metric system, recipes were written using all three systems, with quantities called for in cups, in ounces, and in grams. They were annoying and confusing to read – “flour, 1 cup, 4 ounces, 112 grams.” If you weren’t careful, you’d mix and match between systems, with disastrous results.

It’s a Catch 22, now. People who have digital scales and have learned to love them, would like to have more recipes that use weights. But many people haven’t switched, so recipes are still written for the existing way of measuring (in “stupid units”, as my brother-in-law calls them.)  Because we haven’t gone metric, recipes could simply add weights in pounds and ounces to the ingredients list in parentheses, and confusion would be avoided.

Bottom line, I would urge you to invest in an inexpensive digital scale; one which measures up to 11 pounds is adequate for most home cooks and bakers. Keep it out, use it often, and I’m sure you’ll find yourself wondering why you waited so long to get one.

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