Consider the Parmesan problem: Imagine that you’re making lasagna with a recipe that calls for topping it with “a cup of grated cheese.”
This was a straightforward instruction when the box grater was the only way to shred cheese. In the last few years, though, more cooks have bought Microplanes, which can turn a small chunk of Parmesan into mountains of billowy ribbons of cheese. And there lies the difficulty: The heavier shavings of a box grater can fill a cup with twice as much cheese as a Microplane’s fluffy snow.
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, 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.
Professional chefs have long argued that there is nothing simple about a simple cup of flour. Nor is there anything foolproof in that cup of grated cheese, a half-cup of diced carrots or a tablespoon of butter. When you fill a measuring cup or spoon with any ingredient, the amount you get depends on a number of factors: how small you’ve sliced it, how tightly you’ve packed it in, how carefully you’ve scooped and whether you manage to get all of it out of the spoon. (Consider the mess of getting all the honey out of a tablespoon measure.)
But when you weigh the same ingredients on a scale, none of these factors comes into play.
Over the last few years digital kitchen scales have become cheap and widely available.
Yet the scale has failed to become a must-have tool in many kitchens. Cooks 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. In the U.S., cookbooks, other than baking books, and magazines and newspapers generally specify only cup and spoon measurements for ingredients. A few, like Cooks Illustrated, offer weights for baking recipes, but not for savoury cooking.
Consider this a plea on behalf of the kitchen scale. It’s time for recipe publishers to recognize this humble gadget for the amazing tool that it is. If more recipes began specifying weight measurements, more cooks would buy a scale. And they would instantly recognize it as one of the most useful gadgets in their kitchens.
Cooks who have ditched cups and spoons for a scale can be rhapsodic on the subject; many describe getting a kitchen scale as an epiphany on the order of sharpening knives that haven’t had an edge in years, or buying a new set of eyeglasses. Not only does a scale provide the most accurate measure, but also, as you get used it, you’ll notice it begin to change how you move about the kitchen.
With a scale, you can get your ingredients together more quickly, and with less clean-up. “The greatest feat the kitchen scale accomplishes is that it turns almost any recipe into a one-bowl recipe,” said Deb Perelman, who writes the blog Smitten Kitchen. “You’re not hunting for six cups and six spoons to make a cake.”
Perelman and other cooks who’ve taken to using scales say that over time, they begin to pick up the weight-volume conversions of common ingredients whose weight barely varies. This lets you use a scale even for recipes that don’t specify weights. If you know that a cup of sugar is 225 grams, why bother reaching for the cup?
But the scale is handy even if you’re not converting recipes. For instance, it makes getting the right portion size for dinner a breeze. When I’m preparing pasta for two, I lay the box of linguine on the scale, and then pull out 113 grams for each person.
The scale also ensures repeatability. I once calibrated exactly the amount of beans that I need to make coffee the way I like. Now, every morning, I place my can of beans on the scale, and then scoop out 28 grams – allowing me to repeat the same pot every day.
But these are all ancillary benefits. A few new cookbooks offer recipes that specify weights for every ingredient, and it’s when you cook from those that you notice the true brilliance of using a scale.
The other day I made the delicious macaroni and cheese from “Ideas in Food,” the new cookbook by the husband-and-wife chefs H. Alexander Talbot and Aki Kamozawa. The recipe included shredded cheese, butter and several other ingredients that would have been a mess to measure with cups and spoons.
With the scale, I made the entire casserole with just a grater, one knife, one spoon, one bowl and a baking dish.
Cookbook publishers: every recipe can be this friendly