We weigh in on the hows and whys of weighing and measuring your ingredient in baking, where it's all about precision!
So you want to be a baker and make fabulous cakes and cookies? It’s as easy as dusting off your kitchen scale, placing a bowl on it, and weighing your ingredients. I have had a fair number of people come up to me, exclaiming that they simply cannot bake. From conversations with friends, I realize that many people do not quite like to stick to the recipes they are baking from, let alone measure out their ingredients. They fall into the bad habits of guesstimating amounts and eyeballing. Perhaps eyeballing works when you are making soup, but if you are making a batch of cookies, precision really is the key to success and a consistent result, from one batch to another.
Baking is a science. Unfortunately, this means that you cannot simply mix up a dollop of this, a pinch of that, a handful of flour and a few eggs, and expect to get the perfect chewy chocolate chip cookie. Baking does not work like that (unless you have years and years of experience making your favorite cake recipe). For example, if you add too much butter or not enough flour, your cookies will spread. If you add too much baking powder, your cakes will taste funny, and will rise rapidly and then sink in the middle.
Dry measuring cups vs liquid measuring cups, there is a difference. Dry measuring cups are made to be filled to the rim with a dry ingredient (like flour), and then leveled. Sure, you could measure a cup of milk in a dry measuring cup, but filling it to the rim and transferring the liquid to your mixing bowl is awkward to say the least, and you’ll probably spill a little along the way. This is when liquid measuring cups come in handy. Liquid measuring cups are usually made with a pouring spout and graduated (with volume marks) for easy and clear measuring of liquids. The volume marks on liquid measuring cups always fall well below the pouring spout, making it easier to transfer liquids from cup to bowl. It also means that measuring a dry ingredient, like flour, isn’t so easy in a liquid measuring cup because you can’t level the contents. So, use dry measuring cups for dry ingredients (flour, sugar, etc.), and use liquid measuring cups for liquid ingredients (milk, water, oil).
Better yet, ditch your dry measuring cups and weigh your ingredients on a scale. The fact is that how you fill your dry measuring cup with sugar or flour will affect how much of that ingredient you are adding into your mixing bowl, and therefore how your baked goods turn out. Ideally, you spoon flour and starch ingredients into the measuring cup before leveling it off. On the other hand, with brown sugar, you should pack it into the cup measurer like you are getting ready to build a sand castle. Some people might not know to pack the brown sugar into the measuring cup. Maybe I prefer to simply scoop and level flour, while you fluff up the flour before scooping and leveling. In all cases, the way you fill your measuring cup is a key step that makes your cookies different from mine, even if we are using the same recipe. The only way to avoid discrepancies is to weigh your ingredients. It may seem like an extra step or a pain at first, but soon you will come to realize that you end up dirtying fewer dishes, making less of a mess and, more importantly, your cookie and cake recipes will yield better, more consistent results. I pretty much weigh everything on my scale. I even use my scale to evenly divide cake batter among my cake pans when I’m baking layer cakes.
You have a scale but you don’t know how to use it? You are not alone! And, if it makes you feel any better, I have seen university-trained chemists flummoxed by a scale. I kid you not. In fact, many universities now offer science students extra lab sessions on how to measure using a scale or a graduated cylinder (which is basically the same idea as a liquid measuring cup).
If you have a digital scale, start by placing a bowl on the platform and “tare” or “zero” it to account for the weight of the bowl, and then measure your ingredients into that bowl. If you are using a mechanical (dial) scale, make sure that the hand lies at zero before you begin weighing into the bowl (there should be a dial at the back of the scale that allows you to adjust the position of the hand).
For the love of cake, if your scale has a button for milliliters, do NOT use it! Here’s where I unleash my inner chemist on you. The milliliter button on your scale is making the assumption that the liquids you are weighing all have the same density, specifically a density of 1 gram per 1 milliliter. Basically, your scale is assuming that all liquids have the same density as water. Unfortunately, this just is not true. Some liquids, like oils, have a lower density than water, and some have a higher density than water (like corn syrup). So please, for the love of cake and all things sweet and delicious, ignore the milliliter button on your scale.
Take-away message. Sure, baking may require a little extra care in the measuring department, but it is well worth it! Practice makes perfect and think of all the yummy cakes and cookies that will come from your endeavors.
Recommended scale. I have tried out a few digital scales (and one mechanical) over the last few years, and my favorite one by far is this one: OXO Good Grips Food Scale with pull-out display. The buttons are the easiest to press, it handles both metric and imperial measures. This scale does not feature a nonsensical milliliter button, and it can handle negative numbers (which makes weighing by difference significantly easier). The stainless steel top is removable so that you can clean it without damaging the scale. I’ve had my OXO scale for years and I honestly love it.
Janice Lawandi has a PhD in Chemistry, but has also been baking for 15 years. For many of those years, baking was just a hobby, but since 2007, she has taken a number of courses in pastry and dessert-making in Montreal, and even did a certificate in Pâtisserie de Base at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa. Visit Janice’s blog, Kitchen Heals Soul, for more baking inspiration. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.