You may have noticed that I’ve started including weight measures wherever possible. You may have even been a little annoyed by this practice (as I once was). But there’s a good reason for why I’m doing this, and that’s because volumetric measurements (cups, tablespoons, teaspoons) are the wrong way to measure large amounts of anything that is not a liquid.
It’s not that volumetric measurements are inherently bad, but they’ve long been misused, and provide a false sense of accuracy when in fact they can be wildly inaccurate. Take flour for example. It’s a loose powder with a lot of air between each particle of wheat. This means that it can be compressed, which drastically alters the amount of flour that can fit into one cup. Depending on variables such as your angle of approach, the force with which you scoop and the shape of the measuring cup, you could be adding way too little or far too much into the dishes that you make.
To test this I tried scooping 1 cup of flour with the same cup using different amounts of force and angles of approach. The lightest cup of flour came out to 157 grams while the heaviest cup of flour came in at 201 grams. That’s a 28% difference in the amount of flour measured out by the same cup.
The differences can be even bigger for leafy items like herbs, which are often measured volumetrically, or even worse, by approximation. Does a quarter cup of basil mean that it’s so densely packed that there’s no air between each leaf or does it mean loosely? If it’s loosely packed, then how big are the leaves supposed to be, because different sized leaves will settle with different amounts of looseness. And what does a sprig of thyme or a handful of parsley mean anyway? How big is a sprig? How big is your hand? Are you confused yet?
And then there are items such as tomatoes and onions. I don’t know about you, but the last time I checked, they came in a huge variety of sizes. Even using descriptions such as “small” or “large” is pretty meaningless in a world with melon-sized heirloom tomatoes, pea-sized cherry tomatoes, and everything in between.
So here’s my list of 5 reasons why you should have a digital scale in your kitchen.
They’re more accurate – For all the reasons listed above, volumetric measurements are inaccurate for anything except liquids.
They’re easy to use – In case you’ve never used a digital scale, it’s a totally different experience from a traditional scale. They have large digital displays that show you the exact weight of your item within seconds. The tare button lets you put a bowl on the scale and zero out the scale. If a recipe calls for 250 grams of flour, 10 grams of yeast and 5 grams of salt, you can stick the bowl on the scale, tare it, pouring each ingredient directly into the bowl all without dirtying a single measuring cup or spoon.
They do conversions – most digital scales can be easily switched from metric to imperial. While metric tends to be easier to use than the Imperial system, especially when you’re dealing with small quantities (0.17637 ounces of salt vs. 5 grams of salt), using a digital scale obviates the need to do conversions.
They’re cheap – Digital scales are inexpensive, the cheap ones can be purchased for around $10.
They’re small – I know what it’s like having to pick and choose your kitchen gadgets due to limited space, but digital scales are no bigger than a small paperback book.
So which camp are you in?
Marc Matsumoto is a culinary consultant and recipe repairman who shares his passion for good food through his website norecipes.com. For Marc, food is a life long journey of exploration, discovery and experimentation and he shares his escapades through his blog in the hopes that he inspires others to find their own culinary adventures. Marc’s been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and has made multiple appearances on NPR and the Food Network.