MLITKE: Work Smart. Measure by Weight.

Cooking with a kitchen scale

This post is part of the series, Make Life In The Kitchen Easier (MLITKE), where you will find Revel-worthy tools and techniques. that make your time in the kitchen easier, more efficient, more accurate, more fun, or all of the above.

Imagine at your job, if there was a simple tool that would help you work cleaner and quicker with greater accuracy and efficiency. It would sweep away ambiguity, giving you confidence to forge ahead. Imagine that this tool also made work disappear. Would you use it?

Simply put, the kitchen scale is an essential tool for cooking with precision, speed, and ease.

You may think you’re doing just fine without one and have been for years. However, after you do develop the habit of using a scale, you’ll wonder how you muddled along that way for so long. Measuring by weight can help you produce better results and reproduce them consistently, while saving yourself the hassle of dirtying then cleaning unnecessary bowls, utensils, measuring cups and spoons.

Precision

Weight is the most direct measure of an ingredient itself. In other words, it’s the best method at our disposal to measure “how much _<insert food here>_ do I have here?”  0.5 ounces of salt is 0.5 ounces of salt. A pound of diced onions or a pound of flour is just that.

Salt on scale

Measure with cups and spoons and things can get complicated. We know a teaspoon of table salt can contain twice as much pure salt as a teaspoon of Diamond Crystal or Maldon. For flour, even if the same method is used to measure by volume (such as the favored “dip and sweep” method), the weight can vary widely depending on who is dipping and sweeping.

Aerate Flour
Dip and sweep

Even experts don’t agree. At King Arthur flour, one cup of flour weighs 4 ¼ ounces in their recipes, at America’s Test Kitchen one cup weighs 5 ounces, and in Modernist Cuisine, Myhrvold et al call it 160 grams (or 5.644 ounces), more than 30% more flour per cup than King Arthur.

Bad Dip and sweep
Dipping directly from the bag of flour compacts it in the cup

Volume measurements are subject to wide variation from factors such as cut size, how densely the ingredient is packed or pressed down, or how much of the it was left stuck in the cup or spoon.

Measuring Honey

Despite this fact, many recipes list ingredient amounts only in volume measurements, assuming home cooks don’t have or don’t use scales. I have some handy tools for working around this ahead. But first, consider this.

Speed & Ease

Scale with bowl

Scales have a magical feature known as “tare” (rhymes with dare) or “zero”.

Scale with bowl zero

At the touch of a button, we can factor out the weight of whatever is sitting on the scale at the moment. This allows you to measure ingredients faster and with less work. Going directly from the container into a mixing bowl means fewer measuring cups, spoons, or other bowls to fumble with. Your workspace will be less cluttered. Perhaps more importantly, fewer dishes to wash!

Just place your bowl or pot on the scale and tare/zero it to get started.

Measure by Weight Bowl

Then, add the desired amount of your ingredient. Yes, pour ingredients directly from their containers. Liberating, isn’t it!

Measure by weight Flour

Tare/zero again, repeat with remaining ingredients.

Measure by Weight Honey

You can easily switch between grams and ounces (one touch changes the units), or even add volume measures in-between (just tare the scale before you take the next weight measurement).

Switch Units on Scale

Stepping away from the cups and spoons

If a recipe specifies an ingredient in both weight and volume measurements, try to use the weight measurement. This is the least ambiguous specification for how much of the ingredient was used to develop the recipe. But, don’t go tossing or donating your cups and spoons just yet! For some ingredients and situations it still makes sense or is easier to use a measuring cup or spoon. Over time you develop a sense for when it is powerful to use a scale. You’ll be able to work even quicker as you commit more weights and equivalents to memory.

Here’s a tool to make using the scale even more of a breeze — compile a reference of the ingredients you use often and conversions between their weight and volume measurements. When you need to measure by weight you will have this reference at your fingertips. Many good cookbooks provide a  short list to get you started.

Cookbooks with Weight Conversions

If you find yourself without a volume to weight conversion handy, you can do a quick calculation à la minute. Just use a calculator and the weight conversions listed in the nutrition labels on packages. For example, if a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of honey, check the nutrition label on your honey container. Mine lists a serving size of 1/4 teaspoon which weighs 21 grams. Multiply by four to get the weight of a teaspoon, or 84 grams, and voila! You can squeeze the honey straight into your mixing bowl placed on the scale without dirtying a spoon, scraper, finger, or face.

Here are volume to weight conversions for some common items:

1 tbsp ¼ cup 1 cup
All-purpose flour 9 grams 35 grams 140 grams (5 ounces)
White Sugar 13 grams 50 grams 200 grams (7 ounces)
Brown Sugar 13 grams 50 grams 200 grams (7 ounces)
Honey 21 grams 83 grams 330 grams (11.8 ounces)
Butter 14 grams 56 grams 225 grams (8 ounces)
Water 15 grams 60 grams 240 grams (8.6 ounces)
Dry Yeast (1 packet = 7 grams) 3 grams 9 grams

Sources: McGee, Keys to Good Cooking; America’s Test Kitchen; Myhrvold et al, Modernist Cuisine

For salt volume to weight conversion, see Quick Reference: Common Salt Weights & Substitutions

My scale of choice is this one, by OXO ($50), also Cook’s Illustrated’s winning digital scale.

OXO scale; Photo by OXO

It has a wide and stable base to accommodate your biggest bowls or even a baking sheet or hotel pan. Its detachable face with a large display and big buttons means even as you load up that sheet pan with your market haul, you can easily see the weight readout, tare the scale, and switch between grams and pounds.

OXO scale with baking sheet

With a capacity of 11 pounds, it can handle your biggest kitchen projects, and the stainless steel surface snaps off for cleaning.

Detach Surface OXO scale

I have this other scale by Salter (well, I married into it). No, the metal surface does not come off, you have to squint and poke to use it, and it will only measure up to about 7 pounds. The usable surface is about 4 inches in diameter, and the sloped sides and raised legs mean you’ll probably be cursing as items roll off or your bowl tips.

OXO and Salter scale

There are many less expensive models than the OXO scale that can get the basic job done, but the OXO scale truly rises to a wide range of tasks that others make a struggle.

My only small quibble with the OXO scale is that the precision does not go beyond a whole gram. For weighing some items, such as spices, a difference of 1 gram is significant . Guessing at fractions of a gram is not ideal, but also not a deal breaker by any means.

I’d happily (and immediately) buy another one if this one ever goes kaput!

© 2012 by Revel Kitchen. All Rights Reserved.

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4 thoughts on “MLITKE: Work Smart. Measure by Weight.

  1. I have been trying for a LONG time to convert all my coworkers onto measuring by weight, especially metric. I might as well be telling them to convert from cars to unicycles. It’s unfortunate. Nevertheless, very insightful and well written.

  2. Hi Chris, I can relate :)! Perhaps it’s one of those things that people have to hear at the right time to realize how powerful it is. Glad you enjoyed this piece, and thank you!

  3. Hi Mariel, Thanks for visiting! I’m so glad to hear you liked this post. Yes, easier and more consistent for sure. Thank you for your professional endorsement :). I can see that measuring by weight is indispensable for you as a pastry chef!

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