Professional bakers and pastry chefs will tell you that a scale takes considerable ambiguity out of baking because it eliminates the differences in measurement that occur a) because all measuring cups are not equal and b) because people often use measuring cups differently from the person who created the recipe. Simply stated: If you measure flour by dipping the cups into the flour sack and leveling it against the side of the bag and your recipe was developed by someone who spoons flour from a canister loosely into a cup and sweeps it level with a knife, your cake will be heavy and tough; your cookies will be paper weights. Period.
Now that we're baking more with different kinds of flours (not just wheat flour), we have even more reasons to use a scale: The non-wheat flours -- so-called alternative flours -- differ in fineness from one brand to the next because there don’t seem to be milling standards for them. Take white rice flour: The weight per cup can vary from 160 grams (5.6 ounces) to 115 grams (4 ounces) depending on whether the flour is from Bob’s Red Mill, Authentic Foods, or a popular (and very finely milled) brand from Thailand -- not even taking into consideration the different ways people put flour in the cup! Such a huge variation can make or break a cake.
Nut flour is another good example: Homemade nut flour is usually the best and freshest, but the difference in weight per cup will vary depending on whether you use a food processor with a steel blade or grating disk, or a blender, or a rotary drum grater! (The latter makes beautifully fluffy flour, but its weight per cup is only about 60% of that made with the steel blade in a food processor). Meanwhile, homemade flours usually weigh out differently than purchased nut flours, which already vary from one brand to another. Yikes, right? Okay, okay, some variation in nut flours is not a big deal, but large variations will make a difference in whether a nut cake (for one example) sinks because it has too little flour in it or comes out too dense because it has too much flour.
What can you do to manage this chaos?
It’s simple. Use a scale for measuring. Most good recipes will work with flours that vary in fineness so long as you use weight rather than volume to compensate for any variations. There’s one catch: You have to choose books and recipes by trusted authors who call for ingredients by weight and who also test their recipes by weight. Fortunately, the best people in the business already do this!
P.S. Grams are more elegant than ounces, but I’m not one to quibble...
Get excited about Alice's forthcoming book Flavor Flours: nearly 125 recipes -- from Double Oatmeal Cookies to Buckwheat Gingerbread -- made with wheat flour alternatives like rice flour, oat flour, corn flour, sorghum flour, and teff (not only because they're gluten-free, but for an extra dimension of flavor, too).
Photos by Mark Weinberg
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).
My career was sparked by a single bite of a chocolate truffle, made by my Paris landlady in 1972. I returned home to open this country’s first chocolate bakery and dessert shop, Cocolat, and I am often “blamed” for introducing chocolate truffles to America. Today I am the James Beard Foundation and IACP award-winning author of ten cookbooks, teach a chocolate dessert class on Craftsy.com, and work with some of the world’s best chocolate companies. In 2018, I won the IACP Award for Best Food-Focused Column (this one!).