Essential Tools

Scales Make Baking Easier, So Why Are They Not Embraced in the US?

May  5, 2017

Ever since my first book, The Baker’s Appendix, was published in late March, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the path I have taken as a home baker—particularly, a self-taught one. I did not grow up at the hem of an apron, nor did I attend culinary school.

When I first started worshipping at the altar of the oven in earnest over a decade ago, it was with an armload of cookbooks and bare-bones tools purchased at the dollar store. Those tools served me well in the early days of tinkering and learning, failing and succeeding. Though I’ve added and replaced significantly to that collection over the years, no other tool or gadget has made such a staggeringly large impact on how I bake and ultimately, I believe, the outcome of my baked goods, than the digital scale I was gifted by my older sister for Christmas a few years after the baking flame was ignited.

Within the entry for “Measurement” in The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, Dara Goldstein calls the “drive for precision” a “soft tyranny.” (Uncomfortable cough.) I don’t like to think that I am tyrannical, however softly so, but won’t deny that I am now that person who preaches about metric baking, brings her own scale on trips where baking might happen, and scowls when she hears the clink-clink of metal measuring cups being pulled from a drawer (sorry, Mom).

For centuries, each country—and even some individual cities—had their own unique systems of measurement. Philosophers and mathematicians attempted to define a metric system back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it wasn’t until the dawn of the French Revolution in 1789 that the system we know today started to take shape.

I am now that person who brings her own scale on trips where baking might happen.

That same year, Thomas Jefferson (representing the United States) and John Riggs Miller (representing the United Kingdom), convened in France with Maurice de Talleyrand to work on getting the metric system established in their respective countries, but acceptance by the people was slow going.

France was quickest to acclimate, adopting the system officially in 1839. Discussion and tweaking ensued until 1875, when the Treaty of the Meter (Convention of the Metre) was signed in Paris, establishing the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) whose purpose was to aid in the standardization and advancement of the metric system worldwide. By 1900, thirty-five countries (including the US) had signed the treaty, thereby joining the BIPM. But joining was not the same as implementing metric as law. Rather, the US had acknowledged (and agreed to) what it was.

And we liked it enough to use it—somewhat. Since signing, we have always employed metric for science and medicine, yet the US is one of only three countries in the world (Myanmar and Libya being the other two) that does not recognize the metric system as the official standard of measurement across the board. There have been repeated attempts by the government since the BIPM was established to pull metric back into the spotlight, including the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, which made the system favored, albeit voluntary, for trade and commerce. But the American people continue to steadfastly resist the implementation of it as our national standard.

So what happened and why? This is a complicated question, the answers to which include such weighty (ha!) subjects as globalization, democracy, and capitalism. But as far as its use in the kitchen and recipe writing are concerned, I believe it’s a matter of both tradition and freedom of choice.

When the treaty was signed, little more than a century had passed since the War for Independence, and the American people—especially those in business—maintained their desire for national systems separate from those of the UK or Europe. Being a country of creators and innovators, we took the agreed-upon system and made one of our own: US customary units. Similar to, but not the same as, the British imperial system (developed in 1824 and used until 1965, when metric became law there), it’s what we still use for mass and length in everyday life, including cooking. Fannie Farmer, a.k.a. “The Mother of Level Measurements,” can be credited with setting these units as standard for the kitchen with her 1896 edition of The Boston Cooking School Cook Book.

So, since the late nineteenth century, we have done all of our cooking and baking using cups and ounces and pounds. And even those of us who do employ the metric system for baking rarely use it beyond the kitchen (among those I know, at least). I can tell you the exact weight in grams of one cup all-purpose flour, a half-cup of sugar, one cup milk, but ask me to convert Celcius to Farenheit and you’ll need to wait for me to Google it. The US system is comfortable and understood, it is what we are taught in school, and it is tradition. We love tradition.

Because of the above-mentioned reasons, use of only the metric system in a recipe can elicit anger—even outright hostility—from some. In our Internet-connected age, commenters to recipes posted online can be downright brutal, even going so far as to be personally offended, when a writer says “125 grams all-purpose flour” instead of "1 cup.”

But the opposite is true for the rest of the metric world around us. A favorite example of measurement disapproval comes from one of the gods of the kitchen, J. Kenzi López-Alt, who wrote the article, "Ounces and Grams: Why Mass is Not the Best Way to List Ingredients," in answer to all of the outrage he received from international audiences because the recipes in his book, The Food Lab, were only written in American units. But even in that piece, he states that metric is best for baking.

And for baking and charcuterie, I, for one, wish that we could all switch to the metric mass system 100% of the time.
J. Kenji López-Alt

Many American cookbooks—particularly baking-focused—are now being published with both metric and US units. This is a very good development, considering that the metric system and baking are best friends. Their relationship encourages precision, leaves fewer dishes in the sink, reduces the margin of error, opens you up to the global food world, and can make you feel like a scientist or a witch or an alchemist, all of which can liven up a dreary day.

And, frankly, I find it plain easier—especially for novice bakers or those who long to bake but are wary of it. When you are just starting out, baking can seem daunting and overwhelming. There is an assurance that comes with the certainty of numbers on a scale, and a comforting consistency that’s lacking when, say, scooping and leveling 1 cup of flour. Each person has their own way, and even something like mood can affect the weight of the scoop. (Seriously, I tested this when working on the book! I average an angry scoop and level weight of 160 grams per cup of all-purpose flour, and a happy scoop and level weight around 130 grams. For the record, it’s 125 grams in the book.)

The most common questions I get from friends—and strangers, now that the book has come out—involve either getting over baking fears or correcting common baking failures, like cakes that sink in the middle or cookies that are dry. And my answer is always the same: Read the recipe twice; follow as written; and get yourself an oven thermometer and a digital scale that can tare (go back to zero over and over allowing you to use one container to measure many ingredients) and that toggles between grams and ounces. Seems like a lot more written out rather than spoken, but those four things can make the biggest difference in the end result of your baked goods and bring an end to common grievances.

I’m not advocating for a metric-only America by any means, nor do I promise that baking metrically will make you the next Dorie Greenspan or Jim Lahey, but I do wholeheartedly encourage you to give a scale a try—especially if you are new to baking. Good scales can be had for under $30, they hold up well with kind treatment, and can always be used to weigh mail and figure out postage. So there’s that.

And while you’re at it, pick up a copy of The Baker’s Appendix! It’s chock-full of all sorts of baking info, recipes, tips, and tricks, but the section that I am most proud of is the Common Ingredients chapter, which gives the things us bakers use most often in both US customary units and metric, making it easy to convert any recipe and streamline the process.

Baking needn't be overwhelming or complicated. As with anything in life, just having the right tools gets you halfway.

Metric measurements or cups and tablespoons? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

23 Comments

Betty August 7, 2017
I have been using my metric scale for years, and wouldn't like to have to do without it! I don't bake much anymore, so am not worried about extreme accuracy, but it find it handy for ingredients with awkward cup amounts, e.g. butternut squash, just to give me a ballpark figure about what I need.<br /><br />I first started with my metric scale (then non-digital) when I was doing Weight Watchers on line. It worked for me - the digital scales are even easier.
 
Rose L. July 10, 2017
i have been fighting for weighing over measuring for over 30 years. i wrote an article for the LA times "weigh to bake" and in the cake bible was fortunate enough to have an editor who let me put ounces and grams. and to my great joy, my upcoming book will have only grams and volume--out with the ounces!!! (except for butter and chocolate where it's easier to purchase knowing ounces and lbs).
 
Claudia M. July 8, 2017
What a surprise! I started to bake at 9 with my grandmaman Alicia who was a fabulous baker and cook. She taught me how to use the scale, and it was very simple. And since baking is an exact art, it is so much easier! for 30 buck you can gate a very good one, that resets to add more ingredients. <br />Also, using the metric system is about convention, not about freedom. Imagine if the US decides to part ways with the conventional letters... same thing. And, the metric system is based on the meassurements of the earth. <br />Please don't stress!
 
plevee July 7, 2017
A major complaint is that cookery books published in the UK with accurate weights are converted to cups and sticks in the US making many baking books worthless.
 
plevee July 7, 2017
The US still has not adopted SI units in Medicine, making US research articles difficult for other nations and vice versa.
 
Tj T. July 7, 2017
even using lbs and ozs I like to use a scale ... partly from using old UK cookbooks as well as American, but also for making jam ... measuring fruit in cups is very arbitrary, by weight is much more accurate ....
 
judy July 7, 2017
While I rarely bake, I do weigh almost all of my food on a digital scale for accuracy and have been doing this for the past 7 years. I've tested it against all kinds of cup measurements and have found that those are not consistent like a measurement in grams from a scale. if you are following a "diet" program I think it is necessary not to second guess your portions. BTW, my Russian grandmother never used any fancy tools except her juice cup, a larger glass, her hands and her eyes to tell her how much to use. Her baking was sublime but it was very difficult to imitate because of this.
 
Christopher B. July 7, 2017
Obviously the metric system is vastly superior to our volume and weight ounces. But in my forty years of baking I've never had a problem with a recipe using the American system. And what do we do with our back issues of Gourmet magazine and cookbooks written in the past. So I'm using 40 years of recipes measured in the American system. Of course digital scales can convert between grams and weight ounces. I have so many cookbooks and back issues of magazines using volume measurements that that's just the way it is.<br />Both systems work. For bread baking and pie crusts you have to play it by ear anyway.
 
Helene July 7, 2017
I use both systems - having grown up in the UK (scales) and Australia (Cup measures) but, its honestly not that difficult. I work both in grams and good old lb's and oz's depending on whichever recipe I'm baking. ALWAYS scales for ingredients for French macaron, they're too temperamental and require too much precision to use cup measures.<br />ALWAYS scales for bread making.<br />There are recipes from my childhood that I know off by heart and use cup measures for and my own children also use both metric/imperial scales and cup measures in their baking.<br />
 
Sam July 7, 2017
I do use the metric system in all my cooking, not just baking. However, I have found one drawback: the conversions given can be all over the place! I've seen a cup of sugar given as 201g to 240g. A stick of butter from 114 to 124., which I find baffling since every butter package says a T is 14g, which is 112g. Flour from 120g to 135g. I could go on, but I've made my point.
 
ErinM724 July 2, 2017
I baked for the first time last night using my scale. I am a convert...SO much easier and faster, too!
 
soupcon May 16, 2017
I won't buy cookbooks now unless they have metric measurements, which eliminates most but not all US and Canadian cookbooks. Having a digital scale and cooking in metric has made my cooking far more interesting as the recipes from the rest of the world are now available to me to use.
 
Heidi L. May 7, 2017
I can't make bread without using a scale. It's much easier to weigh the ingredients and it's the only way to accurately know the amount of flour needed. Finally, it dirties fewer dishes. I just put the bowl on the scale, tare to zero, and add the ingredients one at a time, taring between each. All I dirty are a bowl and a spoon to mix it up.
 
Paul N. May 7, 2017
America still has pennies. Nickels. Jim Crow!<br />We here in Australia are also not perfect but we have embraced the metric system for decades. We also have cleaner plastic bills and 1 & 2 dollar coins that make life simpler and easier. A digital scale is simpler and easier. When will Americans loosen up and embrace better lives?<br />American ex-pat living on the Gold Coast of Australia.
 
PieceOfLayerCake May 6, 2017
Do you HAVE to weigh ingredients to bake well? No. Does it make it a hell of a lot easier? Absolutely. My grandmother never weighed ingredients, but she had been baking for 60 years. It took me a couple years to really learn how to bake with skill and I attribute that to using the metric system and learning baker's ratios/percentages. When you try many different methods, you find that some recipes are just suited for metric weight measurement. MOST recipes are suited to be weighed metrically. If you want the best chance to have a successful bake, and the metric weights are available, use them. However, since I bake ALL the time (literally every day)...I find it refreshing to make a recipe that's a bit more relaxed. A recipe that you don't have to be highly precise with. For me, the most soul-satisfying recipes to make are things like pie crust, bread, scone, biscuits, etc. Things I can use a coffee cup, a teaspoon and my hands to pull together. That's how my grandmother preferred to bake because it was less fussy. She was only able to bake well that way, though, because she knew what she was doing.<br /><br />In general, I think all baking recipes should have metric measurements, because it's the way we should all LEARN how to bake. We should fall in love with baking and we'll only fall in love with baking when it works. After we learn how to bake and after we fall in love with it, only then we can then push the boundaries and break the rules a bit. Only after you learn how things should look, how things should taste, how things should feel, at every stage, can you be casual with it. It's a good place to be. <br /><br />Still, when people tell me they're struggling with particular recipes or they're confused by weight measured recipes, I say "get thee a scale and learn how to use it". It seems very restricting, but it will free you, I promise.
 
Julian W. May 5, 2017
The article is slightly confusing because it conflates two different things. In the UK, recipes were largely by weight, but they used the same weights as are commonly used in the USA - pounds and ounces. These have certain advantages over the metric system in that pounds can be easily subdivided into whole numbers of ounces. Modern British recipes have largely switched to the metric system, but often include the older system for weight.<br /><br />The use of volume to measure ingredients is AFAIAA confined to North America. It's easy enough when measuring flour or sugar, but trying to figure out a cup of butter isn't easy.<br /><br />Of course liquids are generally measured by volume, and if the dry ingredients are in grams, the liquids will typically be measured in millilitres.<br />
 
MelissaH May 5, 2017
I agree with Baketress: practice what you preach! Furthermore, I will no longer buy a baking cookbook that does not give mass measurements (either in grams or ounces) when appropriate. Bittman's book How to Bake Everything annoyed the heck out of me by paying lip service to weighing in the front matter of the cookbook, yet the recipes themselves don't give mass measurements!
 
fionula July 8, 2017
I have asked for this for several years. I have even gotten some snarky/condescending replies from my favourite site (52). If you have a test kitchen this should be easy. If not, it might be encouraged. I don't know who is going to be offended if weights are included, and I know many of us are so used to weights that we will skip recipes that don't have them.
 
Baketress May 5, 2017
So how about Food52 starts using weight measurements in recipes on their own website?
 
Christina May 5, 2017
seconded!
 
Smaug May 5, 2017
I don't quite get the connection between the title and the story- digital scales work just as well for standard measures as metric. While most people find a base ten system easier to deal with than powers of two, it's not intrinsically more accurate.
 
Regine May 5, 2017
I admit I am used to, and probably prefer, using cups measurements because most of us, at least in the US, do not have scales to measure in grams, etc. However, 5 years ago, after wanting to make some baked goods whose recipes (from France, Italy...) were written using the metric system, I decided to buy a state of the art scale. I love it. I bake breads all the time, and most recipes that I like use the metric system. I now use both systems.
 
freshparsley May 5, 2017
I love using a scale - some of the time. Precision is unrivaled and necessary in some recipes - especially a new recipe. However, when baking a familiar treat and eyeballing the ingredients, my stainless steel cups are a pleasure that reminds me of my early days in the kitchen at my mother's elbow.