Tipping the Balance - Modernist Cuisine

Tipping the Balance

MCSeptember 16, 2011

When Nathan began seriously thinking about Modernist Cuisine, he was adamant about one aspect of the recipes: they would all be measured by weight. At The Cooking Lab, we believe that precise measuring by weight is the only way to ensure a dish turns out accurately every time.

The other day, Farhad Manjoo published an article–almost a plea, really–in The New York Times advocating for more cooks and cookbooks to toss their cups and spoons and use kitchen scales instead.

While he doesn’t mention hydrocolloids, or other Modernist ingredients that can change a recipe if off by just 0.1 gram, he does give this anecdote in defense of scales:

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, the managing editor of the blog Serious Eats, once asked 10 people to measure a cup of all-purpose flour into a bowl. When the cooks were done, Mr. Lopez-Alt weighed each bowl. “Depending on how strong you are or your scooping method, I found that a ‘cup of flour’ could be anywhere from 4 to 6 ounces,” he said. That’s a significant difference: one cook might be making a cake with one-and-a-half times as much flour as another.

We ran into the same problem during the production of MC when we wanted to give a table of average volume measurements for people who did not own a scale. Yet despite all of our efforts, it is impossible when working with solid ingredients to consistently obtain a given number of grams simply by measuring the volume. The ingredient dimensions, the force with which you fill the measure, and the natural shifts in water and solid content all contribute to inconsistent measurements; there just isn’t any practical way to replicate these factors every time.

Manjoo explains why we don’t see many recipes giving quantities in grams or ounces, despite all of the evidence that everything from carrots to hydrocolloids needs to be measured by weight:

Yet the scale has failed to become a must-have tool in American kitchens. Cook’s Illustrated magazine said scales were in the kitchens of only a third of its readers, and they’re a fairly committed group of cooks.

There’s a simple reason for this: The scale doesn’t show up in most published recipes. American cookbooks, other than baking books, and magazines and newspapers generally specify only cup and spoon measurements for ingredients. A few, like Cook’s Illustrated, offer weights for baking recipes, but not for savory cooking. (The Times Dining section recently began using weight measurements with baking recipes.)

This creates a chicken-and-egg problem for the kitchen scale. Cooks don’t own scales because recipes don’t call for one, and recipes don’t call for one because cooks don’t own one.

Many people argue that they prefer to cook by feel: they don’t measure because they don’t need to. But they are making recipes that they know, and they have acquired a sense of taste and confidence in the kitchen through a significant period of trial and error. The truth is professional chefs, bakers, and pastry artists often do things by feel, too, but only because they have gained such a breadth of experience beforehand.

Because we wrote our book to teach people and to empower them with accurate information, we saw it as fundamentally important to give them the precision of a weight for every ingredient (the sole exception we made is for final fine adjustments to seasonings that are highly dependent on the individual taste of the cook). People who are learning how to cook and follow a recipe according to volume often end up disappointed by failure and can end up losing interest in cooking; that is a terrible shame when it happens.

We are hopeful that more cook­book authors will embrace this philosophy. Good scales are cheaper and easier to find than ever, and we hope they find their way into all modern kitchens. You can read all about them on pages 1·94-95 and 4·41 of Modernist Cuisine, and find our recommendations in our Modernist gear guide.

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2 Responses to “Tipping the Balance”

  1. J. Moragoda

    I would add to the above, that bakers use weighing scales as it is not as easy to adjust a dough, where ingredients need to be added in a particular order as it is say for a curry where you can adjust almost any ingredient along the way.

    Living in the tropics where the average relative humidity is above 80%, I would like to add a proviso: RH does sometimes even mess up the accuracy of weighing ingredients, especially for hydroscopic ingredients such as flour and sugar – as does climatic temperature. For instance, for breads and cakes, since flours absorb more water in humid conditions, sometimes the amount of liquid to dry ingredients used needs to be reduced. However, the same holds for its affect on volume measurements.

    Weighing ingredients is vastly superior and efficient, once you get the hang of it. Rose Levy Beranbaum’s classic book, The Cake Bible published a couple of decades ago was an early American advocate of baking by weight rather than volume. Her cookbook was probably the first US cookbook to provide recipes in tabular form giving comparative volume/weight (grammes and ounces) alongside each other which helped me make the transition as well as to be able to convert between the three systems. In addition, it was one of the first books which employed practical and scientific explanations for the effects of different ingredients on baking outcomes.

    Standardization would be great as when using cookbooks from different countries, each seems to have their own idiosyncracies which make no sense to outsiders and different definitions of what constitutes a cup, teaspoon, etc.

    I measure minute quantities such as salt or spices by volume or feel as it is more practical, but for larger quantities I use the scale. Otherwise, you would need to use two separate scales if you want to obtain accuracy – one to measure minute amounts (eg: capacity of under 100g – these are quite expensive) in addition to one which can handle larger weights such as 5kg or higher.

    Warning – When the supposed standardization to the metric system came about there were more cookbooks which give measurements in both metric and imperial weight measurements. Sometimes when you check the conversions, you find that they really do not match. Seems editors sometimes forget to check the math.

  2. I have long used a scale for all of my baking, using a table of weight equivalents that I put together to translate to weight from cups. I’ve always wondered if humidity affects the weight of flour, since so many recipes for bread say that the exact amount of flour will vary eighths amount of water in the flour.