Photo Courtesy Sarah-Jane Sanders

Why Weight?

Stella Parks
Mar 4, 2013 · 4 min read

Hobbies work a little something like this: you find something you enjoy doing. You do it all the time, even though you don’t get paid. In fact, you pay for the privilege of doing this fun thing because you probably can’t do it without lessons or special equipment.

As you get better, and gather more tools for the job, you have more fun.

People who dabble in photography buy cool lenses for their camera. Birdwatchers invest in binoculars; golfers purchase new clubs; trekkers get Tricorder apps for their phone (don’t judge). Geeking out with gear opens up dimensions of our hobby we could otherwise never reach.

Then we have bakers, the sorts of people who always volunteer to bring dessert. They’re ones you can count on for a scratch-made birthday cake and a box of Christmas cookies. Bakers have kitchens crammed with cake stands, bread machines, ice cream makers, hand mixers, stand mixers, food processors, Bundt pans, waffle irons, rolling pins, brownie corner pans, pizza stones and all the other highly specialized, expensive accessories that keep Williams-Sonoma in business.

Yet the overwhelming majority of baking enthusiasts have never purchased the most basic baking tool: a scale.

I wanted to find out why a group of people notorious for magpie-level gadget hoarding would leave such a conspicuous gap in their collections. I talked to nearly seventy-five amateur bakers and heard answers ranging from the practical to philosophical.

Pragmatists never bothered because their recipes used a pinch of this and a cup of that. Others felt baking by weight was antithetical to the “baked with love” ethos. Those in middle didn’t see the point. They thought of it as overly technical or something that would suck all the fun out of their hobby.

As a pastry chef, I’d love to mount an impassioned defense of the scale, and implore everyone to go out and pick one up. But I won’t. Almost universally, cook book authors write their recipes in volume. Grandma’s batter stained recipe cards don’t go by weight. The recipes written everywhere from blogs to bags of chocolate chips call for cups.

So I can’t tell you why you should use a scale, only why I do.

It cuts my prep time and cleanup in half. It takes about 4 seconds to dump fourteen ounces of flour into a bowl. How many seconds does it take to scoop 3 cups of flour? Multiply those seconds by every ingredient in a recipe, then by the thirty recipes I make in a given day at the restaurant where I work. That’s how much time I’d spend measuring, not baking.

It gives me extremely consistent results. Using weight gives me the confidence to know my recipes will turn out the exact same way, without fail, every time. Measuring in volume, by its very nature, allows for considerable variation. My friend Kenji once conducted an experiment for which he asked ten people to measure one cup of flour. He then weighed these ten “cups” of flour and found they clocked in anywhere between four to six ounces. Reporting on Kenji’s findings, Farhad Manjoo put that difference into perspective:

“One cook might be making a cake with one and a half times as much flour as another.”

Baking by weight makes dividing or multiplying a recipe easy. If a recipe calls for 9 ounces of mango puree and I want to make a half batch, I scale out 4.5 ounces, end of story. 9 ounces of mango puree equals about 3/4 of a cup. Go ahead, try measuring out 0.375 cups. You can get pretty close, but ingredients measured out “pretty close” result in soufflés that come “pretty close” to rising, macarons “pretty close” to having feet, and banana ice cream “pretty close” to being creamy. Whether I make a half or a double batch, with a scale I never have to worry about missing the mark.

Using a scale makes me Neo in the kitchen. Looking at a recipe written in volume means reading a code. Look at that same recipe translated into weight and you can see the Matrix. For example, if a recipe calls for a cup of flour and a cup of honey, it seems to use those ingredients in equal parts. A 1:1 ratio stares you in the face. That same recipe written in weight shows the disparity between the two: 4.5 ounces of flour and 12 ounces of honey. Understanding the relationship between flour and the other ingredients in a recipe is one of the most important concepts in baking, one you can’t understand by looking at volume based measurements.

If you wanna see the stars, you don’t need a telescope. They shine brightly enough on their own. But if you had one, you could explore the craters of the moon, see the rings of Saturn, and make out the individual points of light in an otherwise blurry nebula. Necessary? Not at all. A lot of fun? Hell yeah.

Likewise, you can do a lot without a kitchen scale, but you can do even more with one. Ultimately, a scale is a key. It won’t open every door, but others won’t budge without it. Deciding whether or not you want the key to those doors depends on you.

How many times have you seen a recipe written in weight and skipped over it? How many times have you busted out a calculator to convert a recipe to cups? How many times have you tried a converted recipe, only to find the results disappointing? How many times have you flipped through a cookbook at the bookstore only to put it back on the shelf because weight measurements made it seem too “advanced”?

If you’ve answered “more than once,” twenty five bucks seems a small price to pay for that key, no?

    Stella Parks

    Written by

    Graduated from the CIA. Lived in Tokyo. Settled in the Bluegrass. Full time pastry chef, part time Cylon, 100% BraveTart.