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Culinary Lesson #20 - Baking with a Scale

Sunday, February 09, 2014

You've probably heard that you should weigh your ingredients when baking rather than taking volumetric measurements, but how many of us really do that?

When a recipe calls for a cup of flour, most of us don't think twice.  We just pull out our measuring cup, scoop, and level.  But how accurate is this?  When you think of all of the variables involved in determining the amount of flour you have in a given cup, it gets a bit complicated.  First, what brand are you using?  Densities between different brands of the same product can vary quite a bit.  And then there's that whole issue of how you're actually filling your measuring cup.  Do you just scoop from the bag of flour with your measuring cup?  Or do you use a spoon to add flour to a measuring cup, as you're technically supposed to do?  Lastly, do you level off the cup?  And if so, do you shake off the excess, or do you use the back of a knife?  It may sound like I'm worrying a bit too much over something so trivial, but the truth is that all of these variables play a huge role in how your baked goods turn out.

One good example that illustrates the benefits of weighing dry baking ingredients is when I made bagels for the first time.  The recipe calls for a total of 7 3/4 cups of bread flour, or 35 ounces according to the author.  Using my single-scoop and level technique, I used the full 7 3/4 cups of flour and had a mess on my hands.  The dough was so dry that no amount of water could save it.  Recreating the situation, I found out that my 7 3/4 cups of bread flour translated to roughly 39 ounces.  Now these extra 4 ounces might not sound like much, but looking into the author's weight per cup, this translates into almost an extra cup!  For this reason (along with many others), I now rely on my kitchen scale to dictate how much of a dry ingredient I should use.

I originally was going to put up a simple post regarding this topic, but after doing some research, I quickly realized that it wouldn't be as straight-to-the-point as I imagined.  Last week I spent a considerable amount of time flipping through recipes from trusted sources to see what their weights were for common dry baking ingredients.  I calculated the weights for about 20 recipes per source and came up with the following values.

Initially I was surprised to see the variance between the different sources, but that was quickly overshadowed by the fact that there was variance between values within the same sources!  How one recipe can state that a cup of sugar is 7 ounces  and 9 ounces in another is still a mystery to me.  After I got enough values from my trusted cookbooks, I measured each ingredient using the techniques that I always use.  Since I just take one large scoop and level, I understood why my flour values were generally on the upper range.

So now what do I do moving forward?  For recipes that already call out a weight, I'd obviously use those.  But what about recipes that only include a volumetric measurement?  After much thought, I decided to do something very non-scientific.  I ended up with a list of values that are basically a biased weighted average, excluding outliers (I know, I know...my engineering friends are probably cringing right now).  Going forward, I will be using the following values (and equations).

All-Purpose Flour:  [ounces] = 4.75 * [cups]
Bread Flour:  [ounces] = 5 * [cups]
Whole Wheat Flour:  [ounces] = 5 * [cups]
Granulated Sugar:  [ounces] = 7 * [cups]
Brown Sugar:  [ounces] = 7 * [cups]
Powdered Sugar:  [ounces] = 4 * [cups]

Since there's no one right value, I realized what's important is that I needed to choose set values that I will stick with for the long run.  If a recipe calls for 2 cups of bread flour, I'll use 10 ounces and see what the end product is like.  If it's not to my liking, I'll adjust the weight and increase or decrease the volumetric equivalent accordingly.  So the next couple of days, I intend to go through each of my baking posts and lead with a weight followed by an estimated volume to use.  Through trial and error, I'll get all of the kinks worked out.

With that, I hope that this post has brought an awareness regarding the variance in baking measurements.  If you've ever followed a recipe to a tee, but got less than satisfactory results, there's a good chance that your definition of a cup of flour (or other ingredient) isn't matching that of the author.  By using weights, any confusion and guess work is eliminated.  Although weighing ingredients is most important in yeast breads (bagels, pretzels, baguettes, white breads, etc.) due to the large amount of flour, it is a good habit to pick up for any type of baking.  If you haven't already, consider adding a kitchen scale (an 11 pound version will do just fine) to your collection of gadgets and start experiencing the accuracy of weighing your ingredients.  Gone will be the days of varying cup amounts, since weighing results in amounts that are exactly the same each time!

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