Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How to Weigh Ingredients

My previous post could have been titled, "Why to Weigh Ingredients," so read that first if you aren't convinced you need to read this one. I'll discuss how to make the most of your kitchen scale.

I have two scales in my home kitchen; an analog scale and a digital one. The analog one has a shiny red metal casing, a big dial that goes up to about 2-1/4 lb., and a little metal pan that rests on a bracket on top. I use it often -- I toss letters and packages on top of the pan to see if they need more postage, fill the pan with tomatoes or mangos when I have recipes that require me to know how much I have to work with, and, very occasionally, use it to estimate how much of an ingredient I have for baking -- just to make sure I have enough before I start a recipe.

But when I want to measure ingredients for baking, I pull out the boring, scientific-looking digital scale, with its useless flat pan and its technical numbers. Why? Because baking is, in many ways, chemistry. You need accurate measurements to get successful results, and consistent results. If you have two ounces too much or too little flour in a cake, your leavening (baking powder or baking soda, often) won't be in the right proportion, and the result will be a cake disaster.

The digital scale has another advantage -- the tare feature. If you think you don't know what this is, think about the prepared-foods counter in your supermarket. You ask the server to give you a tall container of cole slaw. So that you don't pay $6/lb for the plastic container as well as for the salad it contains, the server has a tare amount or button that subtracts the weight of the container from the total. It's that simple. In your kitchen, what this means is that you can put the empty bowl -- any bowl -- on the scale. Press "tare" or "zero," the scale reads "0", and then you start putting the ingredient you want to measure into the bowl until you have enough. Want to add a different ingredient? Press "tare" again, the scale goes back to zero, and you add the next ingredient. My favorite way to measure flour or sugar involves sifting it as I go; I put the bowl AND THE SIEVE (set in the bowl) on the scale, tare the scale, and then start putting flour into the sieve. I stop to shake or stir the flour through the sieve as needed, until the scale shows that I have the desired amount of what is now sifted, weighed flour. (Don't stop sifting when there's still unsifted flour in the sieve -- that's part of the total measurement, too.) No piles of flour on a piece of waxed paper, no careful piling of flour into the cup, trying not to compact it again. You don't dirty an extra measuring cup, either.

What to measure? Just about anything. Just think of how easy it will be to measure your dry ingredients; no sifting (unless you are trying to get out lumps, you don't have to sift if you don't need to aerate) , no bit-by-bit adding of shortening (6.7 ounces per cup) to a measuring cup, wondering if it's too much or too little or if there's an air bubble. Weigh peanut butter (9.1 oz. per cup) right into the mixing bowl instead of trying to pack it into a cup, and you've saved time and mess. I've found that I can put a recipe together much faster when I weigh instead of scoop. It is hardly worth it to pull out the scale for tiny amounts, like a teaspoon of salt (.02 ounces or 6 grams); your scale probably isn't that accurate, anyway. Even the digital scales may only measure in increments of 5 grams, so it will jump from 5 to 10 and you don't know if you have the right amount of salt. In this case, measuring spoons are the better choice. But for larger amounts, use the scale.

You can cover a digital scale with plastic wrap to cut down on clean-up, or just put a bowl on it, tare it, and measure your ingredients.

So, to conclude: if you weigh instead of measure, you gain accuracy and speed, and avoid mess and frustration. What's not to like?