Culinary Sagacity

~Thought for Food~

The Cathayans believed that the soul or mind is located not in the head but in the stomach.

Doubtless this explains why they fret so much about the preparation and serving of food.

It may also explain why their memories are so much better than ours.

Information is stored not in the finite head, but in the expandable stomach.

--Cyrus Spitama in Gore Vidal's Creation

Friday, November 14, 2008

Kitchen Scales: The Tool Every Baking Enthusiast Needs, And Every Pastry Pro Has

Why is it that in the United States we home cooks are forced to bake inaccurately, using cups and spoons even when we've been baking for years? As any professional (or genuine enthusiast) will tell you (and I'm telling you now), you just can't bake well without a kitchen scale. For while artistic in presentation, baking is a science, and you need precision in preparation. So when that "one cup" of flour in your recipe can weigh anywhere from 100-140 grams depending on how you fill the cup, it doesn't take a genius to recognize that's no way to be precise.

Lucky for me, long before I moved in with my Parisian Pastry Chef boyfriend I started using a kitchen scale—had I not, he would have mocked me into it. He just doesn't get how anyone can bake with confidence not knowing precisely how much flour, sugar, butter, etc., they're actually using. He scoffs at the idea, waves his hands in a dismissive gesture, and says, "zees littel cups and spoons, you never find zem in a professional kitchen becauze zey are uzeless."

The trouble for him—and for you and me—is that almost all recipes in America give measurements in cups and spoons, despite the fact that when developing those recipes the pros rely on scales. Then they translated their weight measurements to volume for us low-brow home cooks . Noted exceptions are Rose Levy Beranbaum's Pie and Pastry Bible, and Jacques Torres' Dessert Circus.

How much does everything weigh?

If you're not baking from Beranbaum or Torres, how do you know how to translate those cups and spoons into weight? Well, it's rather simple actually.

Every ingredient you could possibly use has it's weight by volume on the package. If you look at the Nutritional Facts on your bag of flour, sugar, walnuts, whatever, it will tell you in Serving Size just how much it weighs. On a bag of King Arthur all-purpose flour it says "1/4 cup = 30g" (and 30g x 4 = 120g = 1 cup). I'll admit that in the beginning it can seem a bit of a pain to do this, but if you bake as much as I do (a lot, a lot), then you'll have these things memorized in no time.

Weigh your way to better baking!

The end result of anything you bake is largely dependant on the precision with which you measure your ingredients. Too much flour and your cake will be heavy, not enough sugar and it won't be sweet enough, too much baking soda and it can fall flat, and nobody wants that.

Or maybe this has happened to you: you want to bake, say, cupcakes, but you don't want the two dozen cupcakes your recipe will produce, you want to halve the recipe so you only get twelve. So what do you do if the recipe calls for 1/3 cup of packed dark brown sugar? I don't have a 1/6 cup measure, do you? Can you eyeball a sixth of a cup accurately? When you know that one cup of packed dark brown sugar weighs 240g, it's easy to calculate how much brown sugar you'll need for 1/6 cup.

I'm totally in the habit of penciling in weight measurements every time I translate a new recipe (or if I halve or double a recipe). This way the next time I make that recipe I already have the weight marked on the page. This habit will save you time for sure.

Is weighing worth the effort?

This may all sound like more trouble than its worth. It's not—even for a math dummy like me. Measuring in grams and fluid ounces is the difference between the seemingly perfect cakes and pastries you find at a good bakery vs. the ones that never seem to come out just right at home. It's the difference between knowing how to scale down, halve, or triple any recipe without worrying if you got the measurements right. And it will save you time in washing dishes too, because now you can measure all those dry ingredients into a single bowl atop your scale.

There's a reason why all of my friends always ask me to "bring the dessert"—even when my boyfriend isn't making it—it's because time after time my desserts come out consistently good. And the reason why they always come out the same is because I always use my scale. As your knowledge of weight grows, and you can rattle off the grams of ingredients as easily as you can the days of the week, it won't take a genius to recognize you're truly a baking enthusiast (and you'll get props from the pros too).

Kitchen Scale on Foodista

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