Measuring ingredients by weight, rather than by volume, is the way to go, according to the pros. And it’s not that expensive or difficult.
WHEN IS A cup of flour not exactly a cup of flour? Almost always, as it turns out.
Most home cooks in America routinely measure ingredients using cups and spoons. Most professional cooks rely on a scale, and they often calculate the weight of their ingredients in grams. Why? Accuracy, speed and consistency, they say.
When Ethan Stowell is at home making pancakes for his two boys, he uses measuring cups, but at the restaurants, “We weigh almost everything, mostly in grams,” he says. “It’s a much more accurate and error-free way of doing recipes that need to be the same no matter who makes it.”
Maximillian Petty agrees. “A gram scale is easy to find, and it’s not much extra effort to weigh than measure by volume, but well worth the precision.” In his tiny kitchen at Eden Hill, efficiency is a factor, too; weighing streamlines the steps of an intricate recipe.
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“My strong preference, as a professional chef, is to work by weight,” says ChefSteps founder and “Modernist Cuisine” co-author Chris Young. “It’s faster, cleaner and more reproducible — all of which are really important in a professional kitchen.”
How important is it in the home kitchen? Let’s consider that cup of flour. Typically we measure dry ingredients by scooping with a measuring cup, overfilling it, then sweeping a leveler across the top. But the scoop-and-sweep method can come up short: Testers have found as much as a 20 percent difference in the weight of an ingredient measured that way.
You can test this yourself in your own kitchen but, of course, you would need a scale. Compact digital models that switch between ounces and grams are widely available for as little as $20 to $50 — relatively cheap as kitchen appliances go. Yet many home cooks don’t own one. That’s a big reason recipes and cookbooks written for general audiences continue to list ingredients by volume rather than weight. The few that give both tend to be about baking.
“The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook” is the only one of the four Tom Douglas cookbooks that lists both volume and weight measurements. “Bread and pastry bakers measure by weights, but we figured most home cooks would probably use the volume measurements,” says co-author Shelley Lance. “In the restaurants, bakers do a lot of scaling up and scaling down. They might be making four loaves one day and 24 loaves another day. Mathematically, it’s easier to multiply and divide when you’re using weights.”
“I always appreciate it when a recipe provides both weight and volume,” says food writer and avid baker Rebekah Denn. She’s convinced the meringue recipe from Renee Erickson’s cookbook, “A Boat, A Whale and a Walrus,” works so well because she weighs the ingredients. “ ‘Equal weight of egg whites and superfine sugar’ is a lot more precise than, ‘8 egg whites and 11/3 cups superfine sugar.’ The weight of eight egg whites can vary dramatically depending on the size of the eggs I have at hand.”
Cookbook author Leora Y. Bloom owns three scales — an old Salter, a digital scale that measures tenths of grams and one she bought “just because it’s beautiful.” She always uses weights when developing recipes. “I use the ‘accepted’ volume measurements to convert, and then I test the recipe again with the volume measurements.” (King Arthur Flour’s website has a conversion chart for many common ingredients.)
The other big reasons to weigh, say Denn and Bloom (both working moms), are that it’s faster and easier, and there’s less to wash up. You just hit “tare” to zero out the scale, and dump in the next ingredient.
For many dishes, “adding a slug of olive oil, a dash of vinegar, a sprig of thyme or salt to taste isn’t going to make a big difference,” says Young. “On the other hand, if I’m making something like a ragù, which takes a lot of time and labor, then I’m going to make sure it’s going to come out the way I expect by scaling my ingredients by weight, since it lets me work fast, efficient and guarantees I’m going to get what I expect.”
Over the years at ChefSteps, he’s found, “Once a home cook learns to work with a scale, they never look back to the archaic approach of using volumetric measures.”