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The Kitchen Scale Manifesto


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#1 eGCI Team

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Posted 26 March 2006 - 01:54 PM

The Kitchen Scale Manifesto
Justice with Balance

by Darren Vengroff

What's the Big Deal?

In modern home kitchens in Europe, a kitchen scale is standard equipment. In the US, one rarely sees them except in the kitchens of compulsive dieters and very serious amateur pastry chefs. Because most people in Europe have scales, recipes generally specify quantities of bulk dry ingredients as weights. For example, a cake recipe might require 250 grams of flour. In the US, the same recipe would most likely use cups, which measure volume, not weight.

So why the difference, and does it really matter? Is weighing ingredients just a complicated, confusing, and unnecessary consequence of going metric? The answer is that it does really matter, and once you get the hang of it it's actually easier than using cup measures.

It matters because the amount of an ingredient that fits in a cup varies a lot depending on how coarse the grain is and how tightly it is packed into the cup measure. Weights, on the other hand, tell you exactly how much of the ingredient you have, independent of how much air space exists between the particles. The amount of flour in a cup can vary as much as 25% depending on how it is packed. Sifting before or after measuring can make the difference even greater. Needless to say, this kind of disparity makes a tremendous difference in how a recipe comes out. One morning pancakes are light and fluffy, the next they are thin and rubbery.

Another advantage to weighing ingredients is that when you share your recipe with others, they can more easily reproduce results similar to your own. The number one complaint of home cooks is that they followed a recipe, but it didn't turn out. The number one reason this happens is that although they used the same number of cups of each ingredient as the recipe author, they actually used a very different amount.

For ingredients that require cutting or chopping, there is even more ambiguity. Despite claims to the contrary, "one cup chopped onions" isn't really a whole lot more informative than "one medium onion, chopped." How finely are they chopped, and how tightly are they packed into the cup? It makes a big difference. "Two hundred grams of chopped onion" is a much more reliable description.

Weights also help you shop for a recipe, especially if you are not familiar with some of the ingredients. For example, if you don't regularly cook with parsnips and a recipe calls for "three medium or two large parsnips," what are you to do? You go to the market, and you see parsnips for sale, all about the same size, but you have no idea if they are small, medium, or large. If the recipe called for 20oz of parsnips, you could weigh them at the store, and buy just a little extra to account for loss due to trimming.

Aside from being more accurate, weighing is usually easier and less messy than scooping and leveling ingredients.

Breaking the Cycle

So if weighing ingredients is such a good idea, why don't we all do it? The problem is a classic case of the chicken and egg. American cookbooks, magazines, and web sites don't publish recipes by weight because most of their audience don't have scales. Americans don't buy scales because few recipes call for ingredients by weight.

Well, we here at the eGCI have never been ones to let convention get in the way of the quest for a good meal. So, with this manifesto, we are drawing a line in the flour.

We highly recommend that every member who doesn't already own a kitchen scale make one their next kitchen equipment purchase.

We request that everyone who contributes recipes to RecipeGullet specify weights of dry ingredients rather than volumetric measurements.

This manifesto will introduce you to the various types of scales that are available, and guide you through the process of shopping for and using a kitchen scale. It will also show you how simple it is to update existing recipes to use weights instead of volumes. No math is required, except for the "difference method," and then it is only substitution.

Types of Scales

There are three basic types of kitchen scales on the market: spring scales, balance scales, and digital scales. Spring scales are the least expensive but also the least accurate. Balance scales were, for centuries, the most accurate available. Although they are extremely accurate, they can be difficult to use. Digital scales are the best of both worlds. They are extremely accurate, and simple to use. In recent years, they have even become affordable.

Most kitchen scales have a maximum capacity between two and twenty pounds. The smaller the maximum capacity of the scale, the more accurate it is likely to be in the range it covers. For most home kitchens, something in the five to ten pound range is just fine. If you cook very large quantities or certain items, or are dying to know exactly how much that Thanksgiving turkey weighs, then you may want a larger scale. But in that case, you probably want two, one for every day use, and the big one for special occasions.

Spring Scales

Spring scales, as the name implies, use springs to measure weights. The more weight that is placed on the scale, the more the spring stretches. A needle attached to the spring moves as the spring deforms, causing it to point to a number indicating how much the item on the scale weighs.

Some spring scales allow the position of the indicator to be adjusted. This is useful for resetting the scale to zero after placing an empty bowl on it. This is called taring the scale. It allows you to weigh only the product you put in the bowl, not the bowl itself. It also means that you can measure one ingredient into the bowl, then tare the scale back to zero and add a second ingredient without dumping the first out. This is convenient because you can measure and mix in the same bowl.

There are two types of spring scales you are likely to see. The first is a stand-up type with a either a needle that moves up and down or a large round dial on the front to indicate the weight. The second is a low profile model where the dial is built into the base of the scale. The low profile type is normally much easier to tare. To do so, you just rotate the base. The stand-up type generally has a small knob on the side or back of the scale for taring. This is much less convenient than the low-profile type. Effectively, it means that you always have to weigh in the same bowl, and dump each ingredient out into a mixing bowl before weighing the next one.

Balance Scales

Balance scales determine the weight of an ingredient by comparing it to known standard weights. There are two basic varieties of this type of scale, and a third variety that combines the first two.

The first type is the straight balance. This is what you see blind justice holding up. The item to be weighed goes on one side, and one or more standard weights go on the other. If the two sides are in balance, then the item being weighed weighs exactly the same as the sum of the weights on the other side. A straight balance is very accurate. Some laboratory models are good to a small fraction of a gram. But it's not very practical for the kitchen.

The second type of balance scale is the sliding scale balance. With this type, there is a single known weight, but you can slide it from left to right along a scale until it balances. You have probably seen one of these in your doctor's office. These aren't as absolutely accurate as the straight balance, but they are easier to use and there are no little weights to lose.

The third type of balance is the hybrid. It allows you to use individual weights like a straight balance, but also provides a sliding scale.

Another drawback of balance scales is that that have the most delicate mechanical parts of any of the three types of scales. The main pivot on which the balance rests is particularly crucial. It must be as close to absolutely frictionless as possible. Over time it can wear down or become gummed up, causing the scale to lose accuracy.

Balance scales can still be found, but unless you really like how they look, you are probably better off with one of the other types. Spring scales are less expensive and digital scales are as accurate, if not more, and much easier to use.

Digital Scales

Digital scales are the newest form of kitchen scale. As with all things digital, their prices continue to fall. Digital scales work by passing a small electrical current through a material that is pressure sensitive. A sensor determines the weight on the scale by the amount of current that flows. This is converted to digital form and displayed on a small screen.

Digital scales are extremely accurate. They are also very easy to use. Taring is generally just a matter of touching a button. Most digital scales are quite small, like low-profile spring scales. Some of the newer models also have additional features, like timers, built in. Others, aimed at dieters, contain databases of common food items and can tell you not only the weight, but also the fat and calorie content of food.

Historically, digital scales were quite expensive, ranging up to $250. However, that is no longer the case. As of this writing, entry-level models are selling for as low as $30. There are a number of very good full-featured options in the $60-70 range. More expensive models generally add more stainless steel, chrome and glass, but
they don't weigh foods any more accurately.

Shopping for a Scale

Now that you know the three types of scales, it's time to start shopping for the specific model that will work best for you. For most home kitchens, a digital scale is going to be the best bet. Ten years ago, this might not have been the case due to the high cost, but that is now much less of an issue. If you really want to save money, you can get a mostly plastic low-profile spring scale for as low as $10, but chances are it is not going to be incredibly accurate or built to last.

Three primary factors differentiate one digital scale from another, and determine the price for which any given scale sells. These are durability, appearance, and extra features. All digital scales are more than accurate enough for kitchen use. Some are more precise, in the sense that they measure in 1 or 2g increments instead of 5g increments, but this only matters when measuring very small quantities of ingredients. It is wrong to think that spending an extra $50 is going to get you a substantially more accurate model.

The durability of a digital scale depends primarily on what materials it is constructed from and what kind of buttons it has. The most durable scale surfaces are made from stainless steel. They wipe clean and wont react if you spill acidic materials on them. Some scales have glass surfaces. These are also very easy to wipe clean, and they are stain resistant. The only drawback is that if you use your scale often you are likely to end up chipping the glass against a backsplash, mixer, or other counter-top appliance. A few digital scales are made of plastic, but this is generally reserved for low-profile spring scales.

Another thing that affects the longevity of a digital scale is the type of buttons it has. Every digital scale has at least one button, for taring; some have many more for all kinds of advanced features. Ideally, these buttons should be flat sealed buttons, like those found on most microwaves. This way, food particles can't easily get into the interior of the scale and interfere with the operation of the electronics. Some models have individual buttons with gaps between them and the shell of the scale. These are less desirable.

The appearance of a scale is largely a matter of personal taste. Some people like the simple industrial look of a basic metal model with a stainless steel tray. Others prefer the high-design Euro-style models made of glass and brushed aluminum, chrome, or stainless steel. At the extreme end, some of these scales look more like sculpture than kitchen appliances. When it comes to appearance, everyone's tastes are different. The best thing you can do is choose a model that you will be happy to keep out on your counter-top, instead of buried in the back of a cabinet. The more accessible your scale is, the more you will use it.

Beyond just weighing things, some newer digital scales offer a number of additional features. Some, for example, include clocks and/or timers. This can be a convenience, or an unnecessary gadget. Most of us already have clocks and timers on our ovens and/or microwaves. You may also be the type who has no need for yet another appliance to constantly blink 12:00 along with your VCR.

Another feature some scales offer is a calorie computer. You select the type of food you are weighing from a menu, and then the scale determines not only the weight of the food, but also the number of calories. If you really think this is a must-have feature, try to get one that lets you select by the name of the food being weighed, as opposed to entering a code number in a guidebook.

Finally, there is at least one scale now for sale that includes a thermometer. A temperature probe plugs into the scale and displays temperatures on the scale's screen. This is possibly convenient for making chocolate or candy. The down side is that you may not necessarily use your thermometer directly adjacent to where you weigh raw ingredients.

As you can probably tell, we aren't huge fans of lots of extras on digital scales. A scale is already a wonderfully multi-tasking device. What else other than a bowl can you use to help you make almost any dish you would ever want to make? Pushing it further than weighing things just puts all your eggs in one basket. If one part malfunctions, you have to replace the whole thing.

Using Your Scale

So you've got that new scale home, and it's time to start cooking. Of course you've popped over to RecipeGullet and found several tempting treats that you are eager to re-create in your own
kitchen.

Luckily, using a good kitchen scale is easy. In fact, it's substantially easier, not to mention a lot less messy, than old-fashioned cup measures.

Taring

The most important thing to remember when using a kitchen scale is to always tare it properly. Taring means eliminating the weight of the bowl of other container from the weight of the food item it contains.

Normally, the best way to do this is to put the empty bowl on the scale by itself. If you are using a spring scale, there will be a knob or dial somewhere on the scale that you can turn until the scale indicates zero, even though it has a bowl on it. On most digital scales, there will be a tare button you can press which will reset the scale to zero. On a balance scale, you will either have to add some weights to the side of the balance opposite the bowl or move a sliding weight along the beam of the balance to counter the weight of the bowl.

Once you have properly tared your scale, you can slowly add the ingredient you wish to measure to the bowl, carefully watching the needle or digital display until it reaches the desired weight. If you add too much, you can obviously scoop it back from the weighing bowl into the storage container it came from. With a little practice, however, you will find that you can dump in most of what you want, then carefully sprinkle in the last ounce or two so that you never overshoot your target.

For ingredients where a tablespoon or less is involved, it's generally wise to stick with teaspoons and tablespoons. The reason is that many kitchen scales are just not accurate enough. For example, if you have a digital scale that works in 5g increments, and a recipe asks for 7g, what do you do? Your scale either says 5g or 10g. It can't display a 7. Newer scales are more commonly accurate to 2g, or sometimes even 1g, which makes this problem less severe.

The big exceptions to the volume for small amounts rule are salt and yeast. Salt is an exception because kosher salt takes up twice the volume of regular salt, and so people will either put in double, or half the amount they need if they mistakenly use the wrong kind. Luckily, though, salt in many recipes is a matter of taste, rather than an exact amount.

Yeast is an exception because getting it significantly wrong in either direction can make a mess of your bread. Getting it wrong a little can affect the rising time, which can be annoying, but is not the end of the world. If you are using fresh yeast, many recipes call for enough to weigh reasonably, around 15g or so.

The Single Bowl Approach

Weighing a bunch of ingredients for a recipe can take some time, although rarely as much as carefully scooping and leveling with measuring cups. Once you get pretty good at judging quantities by weight, you may wish to adopt a single-bowl approach to weighing several ingredients. The idea here is that instead of pouring each ingredient out of the weighing bowl into a mixing bowl after weighing, you simply re-tare the scale and load the next ingredient right in on top of it. There are some risks to this approach; in particular, if you put in too much of the second ingredient, you may have a hard time scooping it out without removing some of the first ingredient. Whether you use this technique or not depends largely on how careful you generally are in adding ingredients, and how much you really care about not having to wash that second bowl.

If you are dealing with metric units, the single bowl approach can be extended to include water as well. The reason is that 1ml of water has a mass of exactly 1g. So if a recipe calls for 400g of flour and 300ml of water, you can weigh out the 400g of flour, tare the scale, and then weigh another 300g of water into the same bowl. Note that this does not necessarily apply to other liquids, which may have different densities than water. Also, this does not work with US standard weight and volume measures. In the US, one fluid ounce of water weighs 1.0425 ounces.

Updating Existing Recipes

If you have a large collection of recipes calling for cup measures, and you would like to convert them to more reliable and repeatable weight-based recipes, it is not hard to do. There are three ways you can do this. The supposedly simplest, but actually not so simple, and unreliable to boot is the estimation method. The second is by converting recipes on the fly. The third is the difference method. The latter two methods are the best to use whenever possible.

The Estimation Method

The estimation method for converting recipes relies on the idea that there is a standard amount of any given type of ingredient in a cup. Unfortunately, that is the same fallacy that makes cup measurement of dry ingredients problematic in the first place.

However, if we are willing to assume that there is a standard for how much flour, sugar, etc., fills a cup, then we can easily construct a table of conversion factors from volume to weight. For example, an entry in the table might indicate that one cup of flour is equivalent to 125g. So, we could convert the 1-1/2c of flour to weight by multiplying 1.5 x 125 to get 187.5g, which we would probably round to 190g. Conversion tables like this can be found at various sites on the internet, but if you examine them, you will see that they don't come close to agreeing with one another.

Despite the problems with this method, it is better than nothing. However, you are much better off using one of the more accurate recipe conversion methods described below.

Converting Recipes on the Fly

The obvious approach is to fill your cup measure with the same two cups of flour you always use, packed exactly as you always pack it, and then dump it into a pre-tared weighing bowl on your scale. Make a note of the weight on the original recipe. Repeat for each dry ingredient, and then you are done.

If you are unlucky with your cup measures, and your favorite recipe doesn't come out quite right when you are gathering your weight information, all is not lost. You still know exactly how much of each ingredient you used in the botched attempt. It's much easier to use a little more or less of a particular ingredient the next time when you know precisely how much you used before. With the variation inherent in cup measures, this would be almost impossible.

The Difference Method

Weighing each ingredient as you go is not the only way to determine the weight of each ingredient in a recipe. If you are the kind of cook who goes more by appearance and texture than by weight, adding a few extra tablespoons of this ingredient or that, you can still accurately record how much of each ingredient you used. The method for doing this is called the difference method.

The first step in the difference method is to gather each of the ingredients you intend to use, leaving them in their storage containers. Before you start cooking, weigh each container. Don't worry about taring the scale with an empty container first; simply weigh the whole container and its contents. You can record the weights either on a sheet of paper or on a post-it affixed to each container.

The next step in the difference method is to actually cook your dish. But you already know how to do that. So let's move on.

Once you have finished cooking, go back and weigh each of the ingredient storage containers again. The weights should be less, since you used some up. Now, subtract the after-cooking weight of each container from the before-cooking weight to determine how much of the ingredient you used. For example, suppose that before you started your flour storage container weighed 5lbs 2oz (=82oz) and after it weighed 3lbs 14oz (=62oz). This means that you used 20oz, or 1lb 4oz of flour.

The difference method is also great for reconstructing secret or unknown recipes, like your grandma's famous biscuits. If she has been making them the same way for 65 years, she may not use a recipe at all. If she does, it may be a cryptic one that only makes sense to her, or in her kitchen. It may call for 2 regular scoops of flour, but only she knows which scoop that means and how to pack it. If you weigh her flour before and after the biscuit making, you'll know she uses exactly 7oz.

What to do with Your Leftover Cup Measures

Once you start weighing ingredients, you'll never want to go back. So what should you do with all those cup measures you have lying around. One good thing you can do with them is put one into each of your dry ingredient storage containers. You can still use them for scooping the ingredient out onto the scale, just not for measuring.

Liquid volume measures are also fine to keep around. Liquids may change slightly in volume with changes in temperature, but the variation is miniscule compared to the variation in weight of a particular volume of most dry ingredients.

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