For decades, baking professionals have endorsed Everyman use of a scale in the kitchen. The reason: A scale makes baking more successful more of the time.
But American home cooks have resisted the scale in favor of quirky measuring cups used nowhere else in the world. As a result, many baking recipes “don’t work” because people use their measuring cups in so many different ways. Chefs’ recipes are notoriously problematic for home cooks, because weight-to-cup translations are dubious to start with, and measures are often rounded off to the nearest quarter-cup to avoid awkward amounts such as “1
I stand solidly with the scale pushers. Why? Unlike cooking — and regardless of those cooks who pride themselves on never following a recipe exactly or who think that measuring is for wimps — good baking requires measuring. The difference between success and failure, even between pretty good and truly magnificent results, is often a function of accurate measuring — of flour, in particular.
Using a scale can mean the difference between producing flavorful, meltingly tender cookies and chunky paperweights, or between moist, velvety cakes and brickbats. It’s good for general cooking and postage, too.
So, here are my five top reasons why you should own/use one for baking at home, followed by my responses to the top five reasons I’ve heard over the years from home bakers who are not convinced:
1. Better and more consistent results. If baking often doesn’t work for you, or a favorite recipe comes out different every time you make it, a scale might solve both problems. Bonus: If you are someone who loves to tinker and change recipes to perfect them or invent new ones, recording small changes in weights makes experimentation easy and accurate.
2. No ambiguous dry-ingredient measures. Too much or too little flour is a prime suspect in baking disasters. Good baking books today call for flour by volume and by weight. If you measure with a scale, you will use the same amount of flour the author or chef used. When you measure with a cup, you may inadvertently be using far more flour than was intended.
The amount of flour — or any dry, powdery ingredient — that fits into a cup depends on whether you dip the cup into the flour or spoon the flour into the cup; whether the flour was compacted in a sack or loose in a canister; whether you shake the cup to settle the flour or heap the flour above the rim and sweep it level. Even those of us who create recipes don’t all necessarily use a cup the same way. (We describe our methods in the front of our books, but most readers don’t bother to look, and directions are not universal for all recipes or all books, anyway.) My cup of all-purpose flour weighs 4.5 ounces, and another chef’s might weigh a bit more or less; I’ve seen home cooks get more over six ounces in a level cup!
3. Less cleanup. Using a scale requires few utensils, none so special that you don’t already have them. When several ingredients are to be added to a batter at one time, you can weigh them sequentially in the same container by resetting the scale to zero (“tare”) between each addition. You can cut down on the use of bowls and containers by using (and reusing) wax paper, aluminum foil or plastic yogurt lids instead.
4. Streamlined cooking prep. When recipes include weights, you needn’t chop small handfuls of veggies or nuts at a time until the measuring cup is full, typically ending up with extra. Instead, you can weigh whole (trimmed) veggies or whole nuts first, and then simply chop them. When a recipe calls for measured quantities of leafy greens, toss them on the scale instead of trying to stuff them into measuring cups; never again wonder how tightly to pack them.
5. International access. Once you have a scale, a world of recipes will be open to you, as originally written. Just flip the switch on your scale from ounces to grams, as necessary. I don’t trust international recipes that are translated into American cup measures. I don’t mind an inaccurate measure for chopped carrots, but I am rightly suspicious of any flour measure that was changed from weight to cups.
As for those excuses:
I don’t like math. No math is required to use a scale. Some people think you have to add the weights of ingredients when you measure several into one container, or that you have to subtract the weight of a container when you put it on the scale. The scale does the work instead: The touch of a “tare” button resets the scale to zero after each ingredient is added to a container and/or after you put a container on the scale.
I don’t know whether to get a scale with units in grams or ounces. No need to choose: Most scales toggle between ounces and grams. You don’t even have to know what a gram or an ounce is — just add the ingredient to the scale until the readout matches the units and amount called for.
A scale is too expensive. Sorry about this one; a decent battery-operated kitchen scale (with ounces and grams) can be had for less than the price of 10 lattes from Starbucks.
Granny [or insert appropriate name family member’s name here] didn’t need a scale for baking. So you don’t own a computer or smartphone either?
I don’t know how to use a scale. It’s far less complicated than your smartphone. It takes about five minutes to insert the batteries, locate the tare button and learn enough to measure ingredients for a batch of cookies.
Baking expert Medrich’s most recent cookbook is “Flavor Flours: A New Way to Bake With Teff, Buckwheat, Sorghum, Other Whole & Ancient Grains, Nuts & NonWheat Flours” (Artisan, 2014). She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
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