Toss Your Measuring Cups

Chefs relate an urban legend about a cook with an uncanny sense of weight. One morning during prep, his boss orders him to weigh out 100 portions of 300 grams each of butter to be molded for the dinner service. The cook immediately starts slicing chunks off a huge block, without using a scale. His boss screams at him to weigh each portion, but the cook assures him that they’re 300 grams each. The chef grabs a scale to prove him wrong but finds that each portion indeed weighs precisely 300 grams. It turns out the cook’s former career was dealing drugs.

Scales are particularly important in restaurants, where inaccurate amounts of ingredients can translate into a lot of money down the tube. But they’re valuable for anyone who desires consistent results in the kitchen—and are especially helpful for the novice cook.

Take a cup of flour, for example. I recently had a kitchen assistant measure one. She untangled a one-cup measuring cup from its ring; scooped into the bag of flour, spilling some on the counter; and then, remembering something she’d heard from cooking shows, grabbed a knife and leveled off the top. That cup weighed 143 grams. A cup of flour—all-purpose, unbleached, aerated (rather than compacted by scooping)—correctly weighs 125 grams. While it won’t kill your recipe, having variations (as in the amount of flour) can make it different every time.

How You Use a Scale

Just place your mixing bowl on the scale’s weighing tray and hit the button marked “Tare” (a term in weights and measures that refers to the weight of an empty container). This will zero out the scale, so that it won’t be weighing the bowl itself. Pour in your first ingredient. By pressing the Tare button again, you can keep adding ingredients into the same bowl, and the scale will weigh only the thing you put in last. For example, if you start with 220 grams of sugar, hit the Tare button, and then add 115 grams of butter, the scale will read 115, not 335.

It’s important to note that cookbooks don’t often tell you how many grams of something to use in a recipe, and volume and weight are very different. A cup of chopped chocolate does not weigh the same as a cup of chopped mint leaves. You can find a good conversion table at GourmetSleuth.com, and some cookbooks do offer both measurements.

Two kinds of kitchen scales are commonly available: mechanical and digital. Stay away from mechanical ones, as you get what you pay for. They’re cheap but imprecise, and are not durable.

I tested Tanita scales because I first used one of their mini-gram scales at El Bulli to measure everything from 8 grams of muesli—to accompany frozen Parmesan air—to 1.5 grams of sodium alginate to make tea spheres, and was impressed by their precision and durability.

Tanita KD-400, $59.99

The Tanita KD-400 is an all-purpose scale every kitchen should have. It’s compact, with a big, 6.25-inch stainless steel weighing tray. Its sizable display folds up for storage, and the base takes up only 2 inches of countertop space. There are just two buttons—On/Tare and Off. When pressed simultaneously, they switch the measurements from pounds and ounces to grams.

The KD-400 holds a maximum capacity of 11 pounds, which you definitely need if using the bowl of your KitchenAid mixer, which weighs around 3 pounds when empty. Some lightweight scales only go up to 5 pounds. The Tanita runs on a lithium coin battery—one’s included—and shuts off automatically after 10 minutes. When your battery runs low, the display reads “Lo.”

I used the KD-400 during the holidays, measuring for massive quantities of cookies, including my friend and pastry chef David Lebovitz’s blue chip chocolate chip cookies from The Great Book of Chocolate (Ten Speed Press, 2004). Lebovitz writes his recipes with both volume and weight measurements. Because I like cookies to be of a uniform size, rather than trying to plop two tablespoons of cookie dough onto my baking sheet, I just placed the entire sheet on my scale and dropped 35 grams of dough per cookie onto it.

(The scale also came in handy when checking the weight of overstuffed holiday cards to ensure that I had correct postage.)

Tanita AP-101, $169.99

The AP-101 is made for measuring tiny weights, such as chemical additives used in experimental dishes like spheres, in which a little extra sodium alginate can ruin your things. It’s the world’s first Legal for Trade pocket-sized scale. Legal for Trade scales are typically used for diamonds, gold, pharmaceuticals, and narcotics—law enforcement agencies use them legally. Their precision is critical. To earn the Legal for Trade designation, they must be certified by the National Type Evaluation Program, a rigorous process administered by the National Conference on Weights and Measures, a private trade organization.

The scale comes with a hard protective cover to ensure that the weighing tray is not pressurized while it’s being transported. There are also just two buttons: On/Tare and Off. The scale measures in 0.1-gram increments to a maximum capacity of 120 grams (a little over 4 ounces). It uses two lithium coin batteries, with a two-minute automatic power off and a low-battery warning. This is not a scale for your KitchenAid bowl—you should not put anything on it weighing more than a stick of butter.

The AP-101 functioned with beautiful precision when measuring out the numerous chemical cooking additives I tested from Texturas and Willpowder. You will want to place just a tiny piece of parchment paper on the weighing tray to protect its surface.

If you get a scale, don’t throw out your measuring cups and spoons quite yet—not until American recipes adopt a weight standard. In the meantime, use the conversion table—or Lebovitz’s books—and save the cups for dog food scoops.