Friends, this is the most fundamental of fundamentals. And it’s something that the average home baker resists most mightily. I know; I was one of them. The first day of culinary school, they set scales in front of us. And not those cute little glass ones you can get at Bed, Bath and Beyond, either. No, they were big old doctor’s office-looking balance scales with sets of weights and everything. Our heads collectively exploded.
Even though I got used to using the balance scale, it still kind of makes my head explode. I feel like I’m doing algebra when I have to replace a bunch of smaller weights with a bigger one and then add on more. Yuck. A few weeks into culinary school though, our personal scales arrived. Nothing flashy. Nothing fancy. Just small plastic oval shaped scales made by Escali. (Affiliate link) I still have that scale plus a matching friend for him.
The Importance of Using a Scale
Like all of us in our initial baking class, you’re probably wondering “What’s the big deal about using a scale?”
Here’s the thing. Measuring cups are made to hold a certain amount of Stuff. Once the measure is full, you level it off, and you’re done. If you fill a cup measure with sand, you have a cup of sand. If you fill it with salt, you have a cup of salt. If you fill it with flour, you have a cup of flour. When we use measuring cups to measure, we’re measuring volume or how much room something takes up.
Now, pour each of those cups of Stuff onto a scale. Each one will weigh a different amount. Even though each ingredient took up the same amount of room (8 ounces of room, since there are 8 ounces of volume in a measuring cup), since different ingredients have different densities and some can be packed down, their weights will all be different.
To illustrate the confusion, here’s a quoted comment from my friend Jennifer’s fantastic Savory Simple blog in response to a post about Grain-Free Paleo Pizza Crust in which she gave measurements in both cups and ounces:
I am confused about the recipe. It says add – “4 ounces (1 cup) almond meal” and “4¼ ounces (1 cup) arrowroot flour” – but… 4 oz does not 1 cup make. 🙂 Did you possible [sic] mean 1/2 Cup … or the 1 Cup for each?
On the surface, it does seem confusing. If I may be so bold, I think this is how that commenter’s thought process went: What the what?! A cup is 8 ounces, right? Then why would anyone specify one cup of two different ingredients and say one is 4 ounces and the other is 4 1/4 ounces? That’s crazy all by itself. Aside from that, she surely must have meant half a cup since half of 8 is 4. I will gently remind her of this, softening the blow and keeping it light by making a smiley face.
What Jennifer’s instructions indicate is that, if you’re using a scale, you’ll need 4 ounces by weight of almond meal and 4.25 ounces, again by weight, of arrowroot. And if you don’t have a scale, the best you’ll be able to do is use a one cup volume measuring cup and get pretty close.
It’s like that old riddle, “Which weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of bricks?” The answer is that they weigh the same: one pound. Volumetrically though, the feathers will occupy a ton more space since they weigh so much less than bricks. It takes lots of feathers to add up to one pound, but you’ll have to break a brick into six pieces to get a piece that weighs a pound (standard building bricks weigh about six pounds each). You could easily hold a pound of (part of a) brick in one hand. You might need a pillowcase to hold a pound of feathers, though.
Okay, back to the conversation. Remember I was going to tell you about my conversation with Jennifer?
It all started when I saw this update on her facebook page, which I later came to realize was in response to the above comment (see, we really do try to clarify things for people):
Hey folks! There’s often a bit of confusion when I specify ounce measurements next to cup measurements in a recipe. I think this is worth repeating periodically for those who are new to baking:
-1 cup of liquid = 8 fluid ounces.
-1 cup of dry ingredients does not = 8 ounces. It will vary depending on what the ingredient is. For example, 1 cup of bricks will weigh more than 1 cup of feathers. Make sense?
Liquid measurements are different than dry measurements. I highly recommend investing in a kitchen scale!
Now, this sort of post is music to my ears, because I have been preaching the gospel of weights lo these many years I’ve been lost and wandering in the wilderness. But, many people (especially in the US) only understand cups. To wit, this comment on this very update:
Glad you posted this different sites say different things. I guess flour, sugar butter would weigh the same?
I always use scales but thanks for the advice if i [sic] stick to 8oz = 1 cup for things like butter, flour, sugar it should be ok. How many fluid ounces in one cup?
I feel badly for this person. She is stuck in 8 ounces equals one cup. And that’s true, but only by volume. For example, a cup of wheat flour takes up 8 oz worth of space, but it weighs only about 4 ounces.
I’m going to stop here and wait to hear from you. Does what I’ve said so far make sense? Do you already use a scale or are you on the fence about buying one? After reading this, are there any other questions that come to mind regarding weighing ingredients that I can address for you?
And I really will get to the actual conversation Jennifer and I had about using scales. I’ll leave you with this video I made about how and why to weigh your ingredients. After my introductory “I’m going to start making videos” video, it’s the first how-to video I ever made. Sadly, it shows, but the information is good and may help to clarify things a bit more.
Thanks so much for spending some time here today. Have a lovely day.