There’s a special satisfaction in cooking by feel—freestyling it with ingredients, adding a bit of this and a handful of that because you know intuitively that’s the amount the dish you’re tossing together needs. Many cooks the world over don’t ever bother with using measurements, or they instead rely on their own improvised quantities, such as “one empty sour cream container of flour” or “fill this particular saucepan halfway with rice and then add enough water to come up to your second knuckle.”
That’s charming and special and works in a micro sense, but that’s not how we cook in this Blue Apron and Joy of Cooking world. The default language we use is that of recipes, recipes which are (hopefully) designed to for successful results when a person of moderate kitchen literacy follows the steps correctly.
Working chefs cook both by feel and by precision; usually they’ve been at it long enough that the former and the latter are one in the same. But it’s very rare to find a set of measuring cups in a restaurant kitchen. Because chefs use scales, and you should, too.
A scale? Yes. But isn’t that what measuring cups are for, you say? For all these years we’ve been getting along just fine using those dinky cups and spoons. Why start now?
Why, indeed. A digital scale is the one modest investment in kitchen gear that will get you the most dramatic results, paying off with speed, accuracy, and less stuff to wash. Don’t be afraid of it. Especially if you bake.
Just dump your ingredient in a bowl, weight it, press the “zero” button, and add the next ingredient to the bowl. No digging through drawers for that 2/3 cup measure, or rinsing out the 1/2 cup measure because it’s streaked with peanut butter residue.
If anything, this is your selling point right here. Not that baking chocolate chip cookies creates a giant stack of soiled measuring cups and spoons, but hey, every second saved is one you can spend doing other stuff.
Dry ingredients, when portioned in measuring cups, are wildly inconsistent. Fluffing and then lightly spooning flour into a one-cup measure might get you 3 ounces, while heartily dipping the cup into the flour and leveling it could result in as much as 6 ounces of flour.
That’s a 3-ounce difference. That’s significant, enough to alter an otherwise great recipe for the worse.
I see this firsthand in the cooking classes I teach. The recipe packets we use include ingredient quantities in both cups and ounces. Even though I put a digital scale at every station, most students opt to use the measuring cups for flour. Often their baked goods turn out denser than what I get baking the same recipe at home, because the students in the class pack the flour into measuring cups differently than I do, resulting in more flour than the recipe intended. It’s not devastating—the quick breads and cakes are still delicious—but if you’re going through the trouble in the first place, why not do the one simple thing that will get you the best result?
To compound this, every cookbook and magazine or cooking website has its own house style for measuring flour. Usually you’ll see this in cookbooks somewhere in the introduction, under a “How to Use This Cookbook” or “Before You Start” heading. Not everyone reads this before they start, though, or can be counted on to remember if they should be scooping rather than spooning flour the next time they make the recipe. And get this—I was converting weights of flour to volume measurements recently for my own cookbook project, and in spooning and leveling off all-purpose flour into a 2/3 cup measure four times in a row, I got four different weights: 3.1 ounces, 3.25 ounces, 3 ounces, and 3.5 ounces.
That’s what is great about scales. If a recipe says 3 ounces, then weigh 3 ounces of that thing. Period. (Unlike bathroom scales, kitchen scales make angst go away!)
People in the know rely in scales: Chemists. Pharmacists. That flour-dusted hottie who works in the boulangerie. Do pot dealers use measuring spoons when they sell weed? No, and there’s a reason, and I think you already know it.
Like “4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped” when the fair-trade Porcelana bar at the co-op only comes in a 5.5 ounces size. Or “3 ounces gruyere cheese, grated” when you have a chunk in the fridge left from some other recipe and you have no idea how much it weighs. With a scale, the mystery is solved—just weigh that shit, man.
These things are standardized, yes, but that does not mean the standards translated over to the real world. If you have a few different styles of measuring cups, try and experiment and compare the quantities you get using them. (Yes, I know you’ll need scale to do this, but so much the better.) The variations may be slight but, still—what B.S.! You don’t deserve slight variations. You deserve a scale.
A decent digital scale is cheap. Mine, a Salter, cost about twenty bucks. It’s lasted ten years, with very frequent use (I’ve changed the batteries twice). A sturdy set of stainless-steel measuring cups can cost more than that.
Usually I avoid purchasing items that require batteries, but I like digital scales because they are easy to read and easier to zero out. Also, inexpensive mechanical scales tend to not be as precise. If you think your scale is off, here’s a quick diagnostic trick copped from production bakeries: put a pound of butter on there. If it’s a few ounces off one way or the other, you need to calibrate the scale.
It’s, like, barely a skill. You’ve probably stood on a bathroom scale before, so you have some familiarity with the concept.
Ahh, the metric system. It’s so much easier to work with in a kitchen. Consider: If there’s anything as annoying as a recipe that calls for 2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons of an ingredient, it’s a recipe that calls for 5-5/8 ounces of something. (Don’t even get me started on solid ounces versus fluid ounces.)
But 158 grams? Is just 158 grams, plain and simple. Since the metric system is not what we use here in America, let’s just focus on one hurdle at a time. Get a scale first, flirt with the marvelously logical metric system next, and enjoy swift, accurate measuring in the professional manner. I promise it won’t keep you from reveling in your pinches and handfuls the next time you make a big batch of chili or pasta. With a scale, you can have your expertly-measured cake and eat it, too.
Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor.
Derek E-Jay CC BY-ND