Culinary Chemist: Why I Switched to Measuring by Weight
An Ode to the Kitchen Scale
As a gluten-free home cook/baker, I make substitutions all the time. Sometimes I convert a recipe from “glutenicious” (this is a word I’ve coined to express “containing gluten”) to gluten-free, and sometimes I’m just trying to find another GF flour because of the gazillion different GF ingredients available, and the one called for in the recipe doesn’t happen to be one of the myriad I keep on hand in my pantry. Everyone who cooks gluten-free is bound to be confronted with this situation, and it is natural to want to (or need to) alter recipes no matter what your specific dietary restrictions may be. In that sense, I am a recipe developer. We all are.
But I am also a scientist, and for the better part of the last decade, I have studied various processes in nature that are really just a complicated set of chemical reactions. And I’ve meticulously measured and recorded masses of everything I use in my lab book. I needed precise amounts of various compounds in order to know I was observing the right chemical reactions.
Really, cooking and baking are not so different, minus the mathematical equations and beakers. Well, at least without the math, because my measuring cup is even in the shape of a beaker! We can see the chemical reactions happening, transforming our dough and batter in the oven into bread and cake, right before our very eyes. No matter how much I learn about the chemistry of these events, it’s still quite magical to me.
But what defines the difference between cake and muffins? Between cookies and brownies? How do we control our ingredients so that we are sure when we take our creations out of the oven we end up pulling out brownies instead of cookie bars? The key is in the ratios of ingredients. A bit more flour, a bit less liquid, an extra egg, and you’ve got yourself an entirely different baked good. It seems obvious framed in this way, that the proportions of ingredients dictate what the end product becomes.
As an American, I grew up weighing by volumes whenever I wanted to cook. My dad diligently taught me all the rules behind measuring. Always pack down brown sugar. Never pack down flour. Level off the cup with a knife to help avoid the inevitable risk of imprecision (for example, 1 cup of flour can weigh between 4 – 6 oz. / 113g to 179g), according to Michael Ruhlman). I continued measuring by cup for a long time, even while I was making sure to be so precise in the lab.
Why it never dawned on me earlier to extend this to the kitchen, I don’t know. All of my European cookbooks list ingredients by mass; I’ve discovered it’s simpler. No stress. No set of rules to learn like when using cups. Just place a bowl on the scale, and add until you reach the number required by the recipe. Done. Fini. And, you gain precision. A difference of 1 or 2 grams on the scale will certainly be much more accurate than a difference of 1 or 2 oz in a cup! This can especially make a difference in the success of your food if you are scaling up a recipe in size, where generally the error in measuring is also scaled. For example, you have to measure four 1-cup portions rather than just weighing 4x the original amount on a scale. Measuring by weight is just easier.
Aside from the logistical simplicity, it has really helped me make substitutions in gluten-free baking. Depending on the brand, the elements comprising a GF mix, or the type of ingredient used, each flour can have different densities, adding to the complication of converting a recipe.
For example, 1 cup of all-purpose wheat flour weighs around 125g. However, 1 cup of rice flour is closer to 160g. If I made a 1:1 substitution by exchanging 1 cup of AP wheat flour for a cup of rice flour, I’d be adding in 25% more flour than the recipe called for and in essence altering the ratio. Chemistry-wise, it’d be as if I had added an entire extra ¼ cup of flour into my batter. You can easily see why this might lead to a different end-product than the original recipe had in mind. (OK, there are also other things, such as hygroscopic properties, but that’s a different subject for a different day).
This is one of the reasons why many gluten-free cooks and bakers will tell you that in general 1:1 substitutions do not work. When people say this, they are referring to substitutions by volume, 1 cup for 1 cup. However, if I make a 1:1 substitution by weight, 125g is 125g. Always. Now, I can maintain the ingredient ratio with ease.
Ideally, when I start to convert a glutenicious recipe to gluten-free, or even just adapt a recipe into something that fits my ingredients, I like to start by keeping the relative proportions the same as the original recipe. Maybe I just don’t have that innate sense of things, but if I am going by volume, for me it ends up being all just a bunch of guesswork, a “trial and error” method. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. For example, adapting this cornbread from an already gluten-free recipe worked great. However, my puff pastry did not fare so well. I only got something reasonably flaky (and still not totally successful) after I switched to measuring by weight.
Measuring by weight allows me to interchange ingredients easily, and think directly about their ratios to one another. I can approach altering or adapting a recipe in a systematic, logical fashion. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it’s been a rather recent switch in my kitchen (the past year or two) – and I promise I have plans to add the equivalent masses to all my recipes on Jenn Cuisine (which have historically been written in volume amounts).
But I want you to be able to play with your cooking, to have fun and be inspired when you bake, and have a realistic plan when you want to adapt a recipe. If you don’t already measure by weight, please give it a try. You may just find your kitchen scale is your kitchen’s new best friend.
What about you? Do you measure by weight or by volume?
Which do you find easier?
Some interesting links about measurements and ratios:
The Kitchen Scale, Unsung Hero of Great Cooking – Michael Ruhlman
Baking Tips – Is it Better to Measure by Volume or by Weight? Jeanne, Art of Gluten-Free Baking
Mélange Maison de Farines Sans Gluten – Flo Makanai, Makani
Gluten-Free Whole Grain Muffins – Shauna Ahern, Gluten-Free Girl