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Gourmet's Flirtation with Weights


Chris Amirault
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I was fascinated to notice that, in the last two issues of Gourmet, there seems to be a new predilection among certain recipe writers to list ingredients by weight and not by volume. It's not true throughout, though: two different recipes include ricotta, one by weight (ounces, natch) and one by volume.

Measuring by weight is standard in professional recipes, of course, but rare in home ones. I'm an adherent of the Kitchen Scale Manifesto, so this Gourmet change is good news for me, albeit a half-hearted effort. I haven't seen weights consistently in the other cooking mags I read, and the only recent cookbook that seems devoted to weights is Ruhlman and Polcyn's excellent Charcuterie (discussed at length here and here).

Are you noticing this anywhere else?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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the first draft of my book was all weights. then they made me add volumes. it makes for a lot of numbers in each recipe.

apparently, home cooks do not cook by weight. at least North American home cooks. you're right though - books I have from Europe and Australia go more for weights.

I like weights. weights are good.

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I wish we'd switch to weights, and I wish we'd go metric - it's a pain in the ass trying to convert back & forth. I've found that weights are more accurate and faster (though I use volume here at home).

Good for Gourmet!

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I can't tell you how many Europeans ask me why Americans don't measure ingredients by weight. As a cookbook author, it makes things so much easier. I've seen people mis-measure (to the extreme), and I once saw a chef (actually, the chef) in a restaurant pushing flour into a measuring cup until it reached the quantity he needed.

I've started writing recipes for both, but it does clutter the page and that's my biggest fear.

Recipes must be re-tested as well...how many of us have books that have been translated, but no one bothered to re-test the recipes? Perhaps they just sat down with a calculator, which doesn't work.

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I can't tell you how many Europeans ask me why Americans don't measure ingredients by weight. As a cookbook author, it makes things so much easier. I've seen people mis-measure (to the extreme), and I once saw a chef (actually, the chef) in a restaurant pushing flour into a measuring cup until it reached the quantity he needed.

I've started writing recipes for both, but it does clutter the page and that's my biggest fear.

Recipes must be re-tested as well...how many of us have books that have been translated, but no one bothered to re-test the recipes? Perhaps they just sat down with a calculator, which doesn't work.

As a recipe writer, I can tell you that a LOT of recipes start out as weights and as they're scaled down to a workable, home-cook's proportion, are converted to volume measure. Editors generally round up or down, depending on whatever factor is important that day (salt might be rounded down, for example). Plus, the gram to pound conversion can be odd, too. I'd rather just do everything by weight. Love my digital scale; it has an easy function for tare weight and gram/lb conversions.

"Oh, tuna. Tuna, tuna, tuna." -Andy Bernard, The Office
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Most disappointing to me was the recent comment by a cookbook author that it's much better to use a scale and weight ingredients when baking but americans don't do that so the book wouldn't do that. Geez, at least try and make a change for the better.

Bryan C. Andregg

"Give us an old, black man singing the blues and some beer. I'll provide the BBQ."

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Most disappointing to me was the recent comment by a cookbook author that it's much better to use a scale and weight ingredients when baking but americans don't do that so the book wouldn't do that. Geez, at least try and make a change for the better.

we should be clear that the decision to use volume rather than weight measurements is more likely to be made by the publisher rather than the author. cookbooks go through many hands with many decisions being made by people other than you (having just come through a one-month search for a subtitle that involved everyone from my agent to the head of the house).

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I wish we'd switch to weights, and I wish we'd go metric - it's a pain in the ass trying to convert back & forth.  I've found that weights are more accurate and faster (though I use volume here at home).

Good for Gourmet!

Convert back & forth? Why not just keep a set of each - standard and metric - and use whichever one the recipe is written for? I'd be delighted to send you a set of metric measures if you are unable to obtain them in the US.

Don't try to win over the haters. You're not the jackass whisperer."

Scott Stratten

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Darren Vengroff did a terrific lecture for the eGullet Culinary Institute (eGCI) called "The Kitchen Scale Manifesto," which makes the definitive case for weight over volume measures.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I'd never considered the subject until I bought The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. That cookbook presents recipes by both weight and volume, but it was her very persuasive prose about the virtues of measuring by weight that prompted me to buy a digital scale. I am now a convert.

Having said that, I'm really only aware of the limitations of measuring by volume when I'm baking. Maybe because I'm more confident in cooking, and there's usually more of a margin of error.


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Switching to weights could have other advantages; ingredients such as herbs, which in their whole form are impossible to measure, would be simple to weigh. Even chopped herbs will measure differently, depending on the size of the chop.

Personally, I'm on a rant about recipes that call for things like "the juice of 1 lemon." It's more than obvious that lemons and a lot of other things can vary greatly in size, and therefore so can the amount of juice and zest from them. After we standardize recipes for weights, let's keep the ball rolling with other imprecise measurements.

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Well, I thought I'd weigh in (ho hum) with a European view on this. Here (in the UK) cook books always use weight, with the exception of spoon measures (eg teaspoons, tablespoons) for very small quantities. When I was a kid, everything was in ounces, now measurments tend to be given in both ounces and grams. On the continent, of course, they just use grams. But never, never, are volume measures used for larger quantities.

Of course, nowadays I sometimes use American recipes - not least when I use recipes from Recipe Gullet. Which means using 'cups'. And do you know what I find myself doing for baking recipes I use regularly, say for bagels or pancakes? The first time i make the recipe, I measure out the flour, the sugar, etc in cups, then I weigh the cup of sugar, the cup of flour, etc. Even if just one cup of an ingredient is called for, I weight out a cup say three times, take the average weight, rounded off to the nearest 25g, and I write that alongside the volume measurements on the recipes. Next time round, I weigh everything.

Why do I do this? Because I am not used to using cups as measures, and I know full well that I will never measure out exactly the same 'cup' each time. There will be variations. So, easier for me, for recipes where precision is called for - mainly baking - to convert to weight measures and then use those.

However, and I feel quite strongly about this, despite preferring weight measurements for situations where it really matters, I have to disagree with jgm:

Switching to weights could have other advantages; ingredients such as herbs, which in their whole form are impossible to measure, would be simple to weigh.  Even chopped herbs will measure differently, depending on the size of the chop.

Personally, I'm on a rant about recipes that call for things like "the juice of 1 lemon."  It's more than obvious that lemons and a lot of other things can vary greatly in size, and therefore so can the amount of juice and zest from them.  After we standardize recipes for weights, let's keep the ball rolling with other imprecise measurements.

Admittedly, there are recipes where a precise quantity of, say, lemon juice is called for. For example, a lemon mousse recipe I use, which specifies 'juice of one lemon (80ml)'; a large lemon would yield too much juice and I'd end up with lemon gloop instead of mousse, so precision is necessary.

But, weighing herbs?!. Not likely. Surely the addition of more or less herbs is a matter of taste, an integral part of cooking, of experimenting for oneself? And there are plenty of situations where 'juice of one lemon' is all the precision I need. I can taste to see if I think I need more, or not put it all in at first if I think I have a particularly juicy lemon.

I mean, who around here slavishly follows recipes time after time, without adding 'a little more of this, a little less of that', other than where to do otherwise would result in a sunken cake, etc. Personally, I much prefer recipes that call for 'a small bunch' of this or a 'handful' of that. The point is, I can decide how small is small, how full is a handful. I can decide if I want more thyme, less garlic, etc. The reality is that, even when precise measurements for things such as herbs are given, I rarely keep to the exact recipe anyway.

And, really, do you actually measure a tablespoon of chopped herbs? I just chop until I have what looks like roughly a tablespoon's worth on the chopping board, then keep chopping if I reckon more would be nice, or keep some back if I think it's too much.

Basically, I don't much like being told what to do in itsy bitsy detail unless it is essential. Cooking is a creative activity and precise instructions such as '15g of chopped parsley' or the like would drive me nuts (and almost certainly make me leave the cook book in the store).

So, precision where it matters, but let's have space to decide for ourselves. Cooking by numbers just doesn't sound that much fun.

pigeonpie

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

Virginia Woolf

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I adore weights, especially for two things:

1. When the recipe has multiple cups (or tablespoons or whatever), I inevitably lose count and have to measure a few times. You know the story. The phone rings. The kids start talking to you, etc.

2. Those recipes that call for, let's say, one "medium" onion. Just what is a medium onion? 5 sprigs of thyme. Are they talking about the 2" sprigs or the 7" sprigs (my plant sports both and many of various in-between sizes).

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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Most disappointing to me was the recent comment by a cookbook author that it's much better to use a scale and weight ingredients when baking but americans don't do that so the book wouldn't do that. Geez, at least try and make a change for the better.

I am trying to make a change for the better. I am doing all my recipes in cups and metrics now, leaving it up to the cook to decide which to do.

I did it in my last book as well as the current one I'm working on. If people feel strongly that recipes should all be in metrics, support cookbooks and publishers (and newspapers and magazines) that do that. Write a letter to the editor (sorry Russ...). If enough people request it, authors and editors are more likely respond and include them. I did.

Edited by David Lebovitz (log)
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I am trying to make a change for the better. I am doing all my recipes in cups and metrics now, leaving it up to the cook to decide which to do.

I've done in my last book as well as the current one I'm working on. If people feel strongly that recipes should all be in metrics, support cookbooks and publishers (and newspapers and magazines) that do that. Write a letter to the editor (sorry Russ...). If enough people request it, authors and editors are more likely respond and include them. I did.

Then you're doing all that you can and we applaud and support you for it. Thank you, David.

Bryan C. Andregg

"Give us an old, black man singing the blues and some beer. I'll provide the BBQ."

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I wish we'd switch to weights, and I wish we'd go metric - it's a pain in the ass trying to convert back & forth.  I've found that weights are more accurate and faster (though I use volume here at home).

Convert back & forth? Why not just keep a set of each - standard and metric - and use whichever one the recipe is written for? I'd be delighted to send you a set of metric measures if you are unable to obtain them in the US.

Badiane, thanks for the offer. Where I ran into problems was when I was in the UK and doing some baking. Nearly screwed up a recipe when I put 8 oz. of milk into something that called for "a half pint of milk." I forget the difference, but the imperial pint is bigger than the US pint. Ooops. (Two nations divided by the same language, indeed!).

I also was given a recipe for lemon tart by a Frenchman who works as a pastry chef, which was by metric weight. When I got back home, I tried converting it to volume, but it seemed so out of whack that I just went out and bought myself a scale (it didn't convert cleanly into thirds, halves or quarters of cups - that's what I meant above).

I do use whichever measures the recipe is printed in.

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The cheap digital scale is what changes things.

Precision as to what the author intended is now possible.

However, as always, we may go a bit heavy on this and light on that - each to their own taste.

To be more precise about something PigeonPie said above.

Here in the UK, volume measures are routinely given for *liquid* quantities.

The first time that I measured 200ml in a measuring jug, and checked it on the digital scale, was the last time I used a jug for measuring.

I enjoy baking bread.

I now weigh the liquid additions. The improvement in reproducability has been remarkable.

For any aspiring home bread baker, I'd pass on three tips - use 'bakers percentages', in metric (makes it trivially easy) and weigh the water!

There seem to be a new generation of scales, (aimed at diamond dealers or somesuch, and frequently sold in shops with an 'alternative' clientele), that are getting cheaper, and appear to be fantastically sensitive (0.01g !). Overlooking the question of just who constitutes the mass market for these things, it would seem that the days of weighing out yeast and saltpetre (as just 2 examples) could be approaching rapidly.

Having said all that - I really like the way that Nigel Slater emphasises that precision measurement is utterly un-necessary for the great majority of cookery... :biggrin:

Edited by dougal (log)

"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch ... you must first invent the universe." - Carl Sagan

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Slightly Luddite post here.

Weights definitely make sense for things

like baking where precision leads to success

and there is little room to wing it.

But for many other forms of cooking,

insisting on weights (e.g. 0.1 gm of hing)

instead of a more intuitive amount (e.g. 1 pinch)

sounds really pedantic. Whether your pinch size

is large or small won't make any difference to

the finished dish. There's a point where

cooking stops being a science and begins to

be an art.

In these forms of cooking, there's no guarantee that

25 ml of freshly squeezed lemon juice is going

to give you the exact same result time after time

because the lemon itself may be more or less sour, etc.

In these situations there appears to be no substitute

for trials and iterations and experience.

Lack of precision is a challenge for cookbook writers, sure,

and for those trying to learn a new cuisine

solely from a book (instead of from a real

live person). But over-precision in insisting

on specific amounts can be very misleading....

Milagai

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