Essential Tools

The Truth About Your Measuring Cup (Dun, Dun, DUN!)

April  7, 2016

Whenever we post a recipe (particularly a baking recipe) exclusively with weight measurements, commenters request volume measurements.

And that makes sense: Not everyone has a kitchen scale, and so it's most inclusive to list measurements in volume and ounces (and grams, too). Yet many making baking experts (Alice Medrich, for one) would insist you invest in one.

"Too much flour is one of the top reasons for tough, hard, dry cookies and cakes that resemble doorstops," says Alice, pointing to the most notorious baking culprit in the weight-versus-volume debate: Every time you measure flour using a volume measure—even if you always use the scoop-and-sweep method or you always use the lightly-spoon-it-in method—you're likely to get a different amount. It depends whether you aerate the flour; whether you tap on the cup as you go; whether you tend toward a heavy hand; and whether Mercury is in retrograde.

And that's just the variance in your own measurements: If you spend enough time thinking about how cookbook writers and recipe testers measure flour (maybe they specify in the notes, maybe they don't), and if it's the same way you do, and you just might go crazy.

But wait! There's more. Yet another reason to bake using a scale? Every measuring cup holds a slightly different amount. (When you think about how difficult—and how important, and how expensive—it is to manufacture accurate and precise equipment for science labs, this makes sense.)

To prove it, I collected one-cup measures from the homes of the Food52 team. (That pink My Little Pony-esque one belongs to Clare Slaughter, and you'll have to ask her where she got it.)

I weighed each cup on its own, tared the scale, then scooped it into a bucket of granular sugar and bulldozed the top with the flat side of a butter knife (I figured that there's less divergence in sugar-measurement technique, and it's composed of fine granules that settle fairly evenly).

The results ranged from 6.81 ounces (193 grams) to 8.08 ounces (230 grams).

While this might not have a significant impact when you're measuring sugar (sugar's somewhat flexible, we've learned), imagine how it could change the results if you're measuring cups and cups of flour—and this is assuming that you're measuring it the same way—and in the way the recipe writer intended!—every time.

Doesn't weighing seem easier and more accurate?

Three metal measuring cups, 7.44, 7.23, and 8.08 ounces, from left to right.
6.88, 7.65 (but 10.55 when filled completely!), and 7.97 ounces, from left to right.
6.81 (but 8.36 when filled completely), 7.48, 7.27 ounces, from left to right.
7.30 and 7.51 ounces, left and right.

Okay, so measuring cups aren't standardized, but are there some that are closer than others to the amount of sugar generally accepted to equal "1 cup"?

According to King Arthur Flour the weight of one cup of sugar is 198 grams, or 6.98 ounces, (and The Kitchn lists 7 ounces to be commonly accepted).

It's interesting that the cup measure that yielded a weight closest to 7 ounces—the metal measure in the center of the top row—is practically identical to the one that yielded the weight farthest from 7 ounces. If you think your measuring cup is accurate because it's humble and metal, think again.

The measuring cups that are hardest to use are, understandably, those that have an inner line indicating where the sugar should reach (for these, you can't even use a knife to even off the top—it's guesswork). Other than that, results were a toss up.

Should you despair, then, when you come across a recipe that lists only volume? Maybe? But not necessarily. Do enough baking and you'll get to know your measuring cup over time (and to be able to recognize when a dough or batter needs more or less flour). Seek out information on how the recipe's author typically measures ingredients (in the preface to David Lebovitz's Ready for Dessert, for example, he admits to says he uses the scoop-and-sweep flour method) . Or pick a standard conversion chart—you might stick with King Arthur Flour's list—and calculate your own conversions (calculator permitted). See what works (and doesn't) and tweak accordingly.

And assume, I'd think, that for old, simpler recipes that don't list weight, volume (and its quirks and variations) is okay—and that for complicated, high-maintenance beauties (like macarons and sponge cakes), weight will be listed (and abided by!).

Have we convinced to invest in a kitchen scale yet? And then once you've got it, you'll want to check it for accuracy (but that's a whole other story...):

Do you have a favorite site of measuring cups? Or a hunch they're not accurate? Tell us in the comments!

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8 Comments

Maria April 9, 2016
The same thing goes with measuring spoons. I have several metal sets (a cupcake baker;) and just for the heck of it...one day I compared the tablespoon amounts. Eek! Who'd a thought a spoon can't be trusted?!
 
Jovan April 9, 2016
I'm 100% committed to my kitchen scale and would feel no loss tossing out my measuring cups. After starting to bake with a scale, the end product is always consistent, time and time again. The point is 100g is 100g is 100g. And I think measuring is the stressful part of baking. Everything else seems to fall in line when you have the right measurements. Scales for the win!
 
Catherine April 7, 2016
I hate when baking recipes don't offer measurements in weights, but I almost hate it as much when recipes include weights that have been converted from cups and not tested. I'm pretty sure several of my favorite food bloggers do this, and I have had to stop using their baking recipes or take copious notes so I can make sure to alter the recipe as needed in the future.
 
Tania April 9, 2016
That is absolutely true! You definitely have to get to know your dough/batter consistency to work out those issues and then you end up being your own test kitchen, so what's the point of the recipe anyway? I guess it's a start, Lol!
 
Lizzie G. April 7, 2016
Since I've bought a scale and started using it to make bread I've become annoyed with recipes that don't offer exact measurements. A few grams here or there can really make a difference!
 
laurenlocally April 7, 2016
Fascinating and pushes me to finally buy a scale.
 
Allyn April 7, 2016
We got a kitchen scale for my husband's coffee setup, and I use it almost as much as he does. I wish every baking recipe came with weight measurements. So much easier and such better, extremely consistent results
 
ying April 7, 2016
Gripping stuff; thanks! Could you please do a follow-up post testing scales? Would love to know which are the most accurate.