Weighing in

Scales aren’t just for the doctor’s office

May 24, 2007

Europeans do it better.

I’m talking, of course, about how they measure their ingredients. Of all the issues that divide North Americans from their Continental compatriots, none is more crucial (to the cook, at least) than measuring by volume versus weight.

So why is it that Americans refuse to use kitchen scales?

You may be skeptical. Does it really matter whether you put in five ounces of flour or one cup? Are you about to be subjected to an entire column on this topic?

Weigh your food.

The answers are yes, and yes again. But if you love to cook, kitchen scales are downright exciting, and I’ll try to demonstrate this without resorting again to cheap sexual innuendo.

Digital scales are more accurate than measuring cups. One cup of flour, measured by volume, can weigh anywhere from 4 to 6 ounces, depending on how tightly it’s packed. That goes double for even more compressible ingredients, like grated Parmesan cheese or brown sugar.

But scales are also more fun, even if you’re not the kind of person (the medical term is “a guy”) who thinks an object with a digital display is a cool toy. With a scale, you can measure several ingredients in the same bowl. Scoop in the flour. Push the tare button (which resets the scale to zero). Add the sugar. Tare again. Add nuts. Total cleanup job: one bowl.

The scale is an even bigger friend to chunky ingredients like butter and chocolate, which never fit into a measuring cup properly.

Now add a small child to the mix. (Er, not to the bowl.) I tried to teach my three-year-old, Iris, to use measuring cups, and I quickly realized how many ways this can go wrong. If the kid slings a random amount of flour into the bowl before you can level it off, are you going to pour it out and re-measure it? If you’re using a scale, it’s easy to adjust. And any counting-obsessed three-year-old can learn to stop scooping at, say, 5 ounces.

But if you want to measure your ingredients in the stylish and modern way, you have to be a pioneer, as few American cookbooks or magazines list ingredients by weight. (Notable exceptions include the Cook's Illustrated and Fine Cooking magazines.)

First, it helps to know that a cup of water (or milk, or other thin liquids) is 8 ounces, a cup of all-purpose flour is 5 ounces, and a cup of white or packed brown sugar is 7 ounces.

Second, you can order cookbooks from Europe, via sites such as Powells.com or Amazon.co.uk. This is especially nice for books like Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess, where you can find her musing, “I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups . . ." Also look for the UK edition of Tamasin Day-Lewis’s Art of the Tart, which has a recipe for Fig Tart with Tobacco Syrup that the publisher deemed too hot for most American bookshelves.

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Scales aren’t just for baking. Ever run across a recipe — for, say, spanakopita — that calls for 16 cups of loose spinach? Weigh it. If it’s a favorite recipe, wrestle the spinach into a measuring cup as you normally would, then weigh the result and write it down in the cookbook. (Any amount of spinach will, of course, cook down to an amount so small you’ll have hire a private investigator to find it.)

When I bought my digital scale in 1999, the options were limited and the scales expensive. The top choice of Cook’s Illustrated was a snazzy-looking number from Soehnle that retailed for $130 (this model has mercifully been discontinued and replaced with a $70 model, which Cook’s still likes). I paid $60 for a less-sleek Soehnle that has served me well but has some design flaws: the grams/pounds switch is on the bottom, and the platform is so small that when you put a plate on it, the display is concealed.

These days, you can get a great digital scale (don’t even think about an analog scale) for much less than $60. Many professionals, including pie-and-cake whiz Rose Levy Beranbaum, swear by the MyWeigh line, sold at SaveOnScales. Beranbaum recommends the KD-7000, which sells for $45. It has a 15-pound capacity and tons of cool features. (Incidentally, any digital kitchen scale is accurate enough to be used for postage as well.)

Also, if you click on the link to Beranbaum’s blog post and read the comments, you’ll find a MyWeigh rep trying to placate some dissatisfied customers. At one point, the service rep posted a photo of a customer’s returned scale in an attempt to prove that it wasn’t actually broken. I’m not sure if that was good customer service, but it sure was funny.

You can spend even less than $45 on a scale and still do fine. I was at a department store recently and found that all of the digital scales looked good, even one selling for $25. The key features to look for are an easy-to-read display; easy access to the grams/pounds button (because you’ll likely be switching between your Euro and American cookbooks); and a platform large enough that small plates won’t cover up the display. Some scales, including the MyWeigh, have a Hold button that lets you lock the displayed weight in place for when you can’t see it without removing the item you’re weighing.

Most scales have an 11-pound capacity, which is plenty. King Arthur Flour sells one, the Escali, for $27.50, and it even comes in several colors.

So run out and get your scale now, before rhubarb season is over, because you’ll need it to make my all-time favorite dessert, Nigella Lawson’s rhubarb crumble.

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

There are 8 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by Shelley Wiseman on May 29, 2007 at 8:30 AM PDT

Thank you, thank you. I am a food editor at Gourmet Magazine who has spent many years living and working in France and Mexico. Trying to promote the use of a scale in the American kitchen has become a crusade for me. I think it would be most useful single leap we could make towards better (and easier!) cooking and recipe writing. As the internet provides international access to recipes), using weights would allow them to be globally user-friendly. It is easy to convert ounces and grams.

2. by Matthew Amster-Burton on May 29, 2007 at 2:16 PM PDT

Thanks for the comment, Shelley. I develop recipes using a scale and then have to make (clumsy) conversions to volume measures. My friends are really tired of me talking about scales.

3. by anonymous on Jul 16, 2007 at 3:20 AM PDT

I couldn’t agree more! As a European, I’m always having trouble with American recipes. The exact size of “a cup” always baffles me. How large is “a cup” supposed to be? In my cupboard I have small cups and large cups, but I’m pretty sure they are all the wrong size. I use a digital wall-mounted scale myself, which is perfect for measuring both grams and pounds, so that I can use both local (Dutch) and British recipes. If publishers were to include weights in their cookbooks, they may be able to sell many more items over the internet to international customers. Food for thought, I would say.

4. by M&C Future Enterprises LLC on Oct 3, 2007 at 8:11 PM PDT

You are providing a great service to the Internet with this useful information on digital scales. Keep up the good work!

5. by Lexica on Nov 25, 2007 at 11:26 AM PST

One cup is 236.5 ml: http://www.google.com/search?q=1+cup+in+milliliters

6. by Katherine on Dec 23, 2007 at 2:17 PM PST

Lexica, with your comment you’ve demonstrated precisely Matthew’s point about why weight measurements are so much more practical.

A cup is 236.5ml, yes. But only if your recipe writer is using US measurements. Even then, that’s only the commonly accepted size of a cup. The US government considers a cup to be 240ml, and sets that figure out in law in its food labelling standards.

Or is it a British recipe? Then a cup is 284ml. Or an Australian recipe? Here a cup is a nice round 250ml measure. How about an Indian recipe? There they use a 243ml cup.

But a gram is a gram, and an ounce is an ounce, and 28.3 of the former equals 1 of the latter. How nice it would be to have just one conversion to make, which digital scales will happily do for you at the press of a button.

(Having said that, I rarely measure anything except using my standard units of “some, enough, or about that much”. Makes sharing recipes more exciting!)

7. by Gourmet Metrics on Jan 2, 2012 at 9:59 AM PST

Could not agree more. Switched when I cooked privately in France and just never bothered to switch back!

8. by Shipping Scale on Dec 16, 2012 at 10:28 PM PST

Nice post, thanks for sharing information, however, a good quality scales will have features that make them safer and easier to use!

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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