Like many old-fashioned cooks, my mother has a personal approach to measuring her cooking ingredients. She scoops up flour with a particular ceramic rice bowl that she got free for buying above some dollar amount of groceries at the Asian market. A specific Chinese soup spoon is used for fish sauce and soy sauce. She reaches for a metal serving spoon to measure sugar and loves to use heaping spoonfuls of this and that. But ever since I was a kid, I remembered Mom keeping a scale in the kitchen too. In her written recipes, she often has weighted measurements in both kilos and pounds for meat and flour. I recently found out that she’s taken to weighing her reconstituted shiitake mushrooms too. “They come in many sizes and I want the food to be good every time,” she told me.
The lesson learned from growing up in my mother’s kitchen is that the scale never lies, and that it pays to be consistent in how you measure ingredients. Weighing ingredients may seem fussy to many home cooks but that’s what the professionals do. My friend Christophe Lillienfeld, a classically trained French pastry chef and cook since he was 14, loved to give me exact weighted measurements, such as 335 grams of flour, 45 grams of sugar, etc. Precision is important as you never know how you may weigh something from day to day.
Back in May, acclaimed author Michael Ruhlman wrote a wonderful piece for the LA Times Food Section on the importance of using a scale in the kitchen. While working on his latest book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, Ruhlman discovered how off he could be when measuring flour. I had the same problem when developing the dough recipes in Asian Dumplings. One level scoop could weigh 5 1/2 ounces while another could weigh 4 3/4 ounces. Did I fluff the flour too much or too little before scooping and leveling? I’ve seen my friend Carolyn Jung of Foodgal.com spoon flour into a cup then lightly shake it. The best option at the end of the day is to use a scale.
Cook’s Illustrated employs a weight of 5 ounces for each cup of all-purpose flour. I tested their measurement by measuring all-purpose flour about 10 times using the scoop-and-level method. Indeed, the most common weight I got was 5 ounces per cup. Given that experience, I started weighing all the flour and starches for my dumpling doughs and – not surprisingly – got consistently fabulous dough. That’s why in Asian Dumplings, you see weight measurements before cup measurements. Definitely go with the weight when it comes to flour and starch.
We all have our good and bad days in the kitchen, and using a scale makes for a good insurance against culinary mishaps. You barely have to think when weighing ingredients! I encourage you to get a scale for precision cooking. It’s one of the most valuable and often used tools in my kitchen.
Tips for Buying a Kitchen Scale
- Where to find a scale: Head to houseware shops or cookware shops. Or, shop online.
- What to look for: Digital is conveniently accurate. Make sure you can wipe the scale clean easily. Check to see if you can read the numbers even if you have a sizable bowl on the scale. The scale should run on long-lasting batteries. There are super slim ones these days too, if you want to be ultra modern and chic.
- Tare: Is a term that refers to setting something on a scale, like an empty bowl, and pressing the tare button to set the display weight to zero. Add your ingredient to a bowl after taring and the weight does not include the weight of the bowl. The tare function is my favorite on a scale!
- Cost: Anywhere from $10 to $50, depending on the maker, size and quality. In general spend at least $20 for your scale to ensure better quality.
- Kitchen vs. Postal scales: If you want to weigh heavy stuff (say 50 pound or more) as well as a letter, look for a postal scale. I’ve seen them at Amazon.com. Normal kitchen scales usually go up to 5 kilos (11 pounds). Postal scales are bulkier and heavier than a kitchen scale but they take more weight. On the other hand, I’ve weighed letters and packages on my kitchen scales.
Do you use a kitchen scale? Got any tips on kitchen scales? What brand do you have, like, or dislike?