Kitchen scales: They're tidier and more accurate than cups and teaspoons.

What to eat. What not to eat.
May 11 2011 7:19 AM

Weighing In

Kitchen scales are tidier, simpler, and more accurate than cups or teaspoons.

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Furthermore, there are some cooks who purposely avoid precision in their recipes. If Ruhlman and Myhrvold find freedom in digital exactitude, there are others who want to remind their readers that cooking is not about accuracy, but about feel. Take Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, one of the kings of the British pastoral cooking movement. In the American edition of his new book, River Cottage Every Day, he makes a point of using approachable, folksy measurements—"a little brown sugar," "a good pinch of cayenne," "a fat clove of garlic," along with measurements in standardized cups. This casual style is meant to encourage improvisation, and Fearnley Whittingstall's recipes—long, slow braised meats; custardy, unstructured desserts; pretty jumbled salads—can handle a little bit of variance.

While looseness works well for people who already feel comfortable in the kitchen, it's less successful for cooks who need more guidance. With the help of my scale, I'm trying to push the recipes I write toward more precision, and I'm grateful to those most scrupulous contemporary cookbook authors (more and more of them these days) who include multiple measurements: calling for, say ½ cup/4 fl. oz./115 g of turbinado sugar.

Whenever someone asks me which gadgets to purchase, I recommend a basic kitchen scale, like the Escali model I have—and love. Oddly enough, I'm most grateful for my scale with old-timey projects. After coming home from a day in the brambles with a few pounds of blackberries, I just wash the berries, place a bowl on my digital scale, press the tare button to zero it out, and then weigh the fruit (in kilograms, no less, to make the multiplication even easier). I press the tare button again, and then, in the same bowl, I pour sugar on top of the fruit until I reach the correct ratio of berries to sugar (I like 1 blackberries/0.8 sugar, as Christine Ferber recommends). Then into the pot they go. Likewise, when making bread, or homemade sausage, or feeding the sourdough starter I keep in my fridge, I find that the measuring process is neater and more accurate if I use a scale.

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I'm not ready to pitch my old measuring cups just yet: When it comes to everyday cooking in small quantities, measuring in cups feels neither too onerous nor crushingly inaccurate. It's part of the folk tradition of cooking that's been passed down to me by my mother and countless cookbook authors from the past century. The recipes that got me cooking in the first place were written with cup measurements, and so I have a certain, perhaps sentimental, fondness for the old system. But the bigger the cooking project and the more old-fashioned the recipe, the more I appreciate the tiny circuitry in my digital scale.

Quiz answers:
a) 3 teaspoons are in a tablespoon.
b) 16 tablespoons are in a cup.
c) 8 fluid ounces are in a cup.

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