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.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

Americans are not a systematic people, at least not when it comes to measuring out cooking ingredients. Pick up just about any cookbook and you will find a hodgepodge of units—pinches, teaspoons, cups, ounces. Take, just for example, the recipe for butternut squash gnocchi in The One-Block Feast, an appealing new book by the staff of Sunset Magazine. It calls for, among other things, 3 pounds of butternut squash, 1½ tablespoons of honey, ¾ teaspoons of sea salt, 9-10 ounces of chard, and a single large egg, as well as both dry ingredients (the flour), and moist ingredients (ricotta) measured in cups. Someone following the recipe would presumably scoop the salt or honey into standardized measuring spoons, use graduated liquid cup measures for larger volumes, and possibly weigh the produce.

Such variation and, particularly, the reliance on volume measurement, drives technically minded cooks absolutely bonkers. Scooping teaspoons of dry ingredients and eyeballing liquid cups, they argue, is imprecise, and messy to boot. One of the most active protesters, food writer Michael Ruhlman, wrote of his frustration in following a roll recipe which called "maddeningly" for 5 cups of flour: "I found myself scooping out cups, scraping off the top, flour drifting over the counter and cutting board. But more than the mess, was the variable amount: given that flour can weigh 4 ounces a cup or as much as 6 ounces, I didn't know if I had 20 ounces of flour or 30 ounces—a 50% difference." Ruhlman ended up with strangely stiff dough. To avoid such confusion, Ruhlman urges cooks to weigh ingredients with kitchen scales.

Ruhlman is not alone: When Nathan Myhrvold and his crew put together their magnum opus Modernist Cuisine, they made a point of measuring everything in metric weight (even water). "If you use a fraction of a percent more or less of certain gelling agents or thickeners—for example, one extra gram of the compound per liter of liquid—that imprecision will ruin the recipe," Myrhvold writes in an introduction to the book's methodology. Likewise, Ferran Adria, the iconoclastic Catalan chef and one of Myrhvold's inspirations, cites the 1999 adoption of precision scales in his kitchens as a major creative breakthrough. The scales allowed him to calibrate the quiver in his otherworldly gels, and eventually other surreal textures as well.


But you don't need to be an iconoclast to appreciate a scale in the kitchen. Digital scales today are small—they fit into kitchen drawers—cheap, and straightforward to use. A perfectly good digital scale runs about $30 (roughly the price of a set of dry measuring cups plus a liquid cup measure). With it, you can measure directly into a mixing bowl, pushing a tare button to subtract the weight of the container. And if you're working with a recipe that's written with metric measurements, your computerized scale will switch the units for you.

Weight measurements also make scaling up or down particularly easy. Once everything is measured in either ounces, or even better, grams, there are no more fractions to screw up, as with cupfuls of flour; no tricky conversions from fluid ounces or tablespoons to cups. [Pop quiz: Do you know a) how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon? b) Tablespoons in a cup? C) Fluid ounces in a cup? See answers below.] Typically, professional recipes are written up as formulas pinned to an anchor ingredient. So a bread recipe that is anchored upon flour (which is assigned 100 percent) might then call for 1.7 percent yeast and 80 percent water. To change the recipe, a cook can simply weigh out the amount of flour she wants to work with and then multiply that amount by .017 for the yeast, and 0.8 for the water.


Volume measurements used to be state of the art: When Fanny Farmer and her immediate predecessors rejected vague quantities like "a handful" and pushed American cooks toward standardized measuring cups, it seemed like significant progress toward consistency in the kitchen. Why did they stop short of scales? As historian Laura Shapiro points out in her book Perfection Salad: "the European practice of weighing ingredients on a kitchen scale, precise though it was, seemed slow and cumbersome to impatient American cooks."

Today, however, scales are so simple it seems odd that cooking magazines and book publishers haven't embraced a shift. The real problem is that Americans are pretty stubborn—otherwise, we'd be in sync with the rest of the known world on the metric system. And admittedly, changing a system of measurement isn't easy—it's a bit like switching languages. (I can eyeball a cup of flour, for example, but I'm not so good at guesstimating ounces of it.)



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge


The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.