The Hungry Engineer

Why You Need a Kitchen Scale

13 Oct 2008

There are tons of measuring devices available for the kitchen, but most are volumetric - dry measuring cups, liquid measuring cups, measuring spoons. A great deal of the time, this method of ingredient measurement works just fine, but there are occasions where measuring by weight is more appropriate, and for that you need a kitchen scale.

The oft heralded example is measuring flour or other compressible ingredients for baking. There are usually elaborate instructions that call for gently spooning flour into a measuring cup and leveling it off with a knife, taking care not to compact it, before dumping it into the bowl and repeating till the appropriate amount of flour is portioned out. But even this method can yield inconsistent results. For that reason, I have a particular fondness for recipes that give me quantities of baking ingredients by weight. 10 oz (by weight) of flour is easy to measure out if you have a kitchen scale. Plus, your 10 oz of flour will be the same as my 10 oz of flour.

Choosing a kitchen scale is not necessarily the straightforward affair one might hope for. There are several varieties out there. First, there are the spring kind, where the weight on the platform mechanically actuates the measurement dial. The problem with these scales is that they aren’t necessarily terribly precise (unless you’re able to spend a lot of cash on them), particularly for lower-weight measurements. Balance type scales are actually considered the most accurate, though they are sort of impractical (or at least terribly cumbersome) for use in the kitchen. The balance scale employs a set of known-weight (well, known-mass actually) counterweights and a sliding center weight that moves along the balance arm. You place the food you want to measure on one side of the scale and set your nearest-value counterweight on the other side, then maneuver the center weight till balance is achieved. You see what I mean by cumbersome? I like digital scales. They’re very precise and simple to operate. Plus, generally speaking, they’re smaller than the others and consequently take up less storage space (and counter space for that matter).

The one I use is a Salter 3009 Aquatronic Kitchen Scale. I wish that I could tell you that I did gobs of research and chose what I believed to be the very best possible digital kitchen scale. What I can ~actually~ tell you is that I did enough research to know I wanted a digital scale and then bought my favorite of the choices available at the first store I visited. It had the features I was looking for. It measures in ¼ oz increments (which is sufficiently granular for most of what I do in the kitchen). The buttons are seamless so it’s easy to keep clean. It switches easily between standard and metric units, and it can weigh up to 11 lbs. It has a very easy to use tare function. The tare function is what allows you to zero the scale after each ingredient addition, which makes measuring the next ingredient very easy. Stick the bowl on the scale, then turn it on, and it zeros out even with the weight of the bowl. Add your flour till the scale reads 6 ¾ oz. Zero it out, and then pour in your flour till the scale shows 4 ½ oz. Easy peasy and no silly math errors to deal with.

There are probably some features that would’ve been nice to have had I forced myself to shop around a little bit more. Most of my bowls are round (go figure). A round platform on which to place a bowl and measure ingredients might have been wise. Sometimes, if the bowl is particularly large, it can be a bit difficult to read the scale as I’m dumping food into the bowl. The auto-shutoff feature on my scale can be a bit annoying. Usually, I’m working quickly enough that it doesn’t shut off, but if the weight doesn’t change for a couple or three minutes, it just shuts off. Like I said, usually, it can be worked around, but every once in a while, it really jacks up my plans and then I have to take a moment to hate it profusely before remembering how incredibly useful it normally is.

Having a scale has actually changed the way we eat. I’m more aware now of the quantities we probably should be eating. It turns out that a 2-oz (dry) serving of pasta for each of us is plenty. Sure enough, my idea of 3-4 oz of meat was a somewhat bulked up version of reality. Pre-scale, I’m not sure I ever used the right amount of cheese for my dishes – particularly since I use the microplane grater to shred hard cheeses. It produces such a light and fluffy pile of shredded cheese that my ½ cup of shredded parmesan actually weighs a lot less than ½ cup of shredded parmesan produced by a box grater, even using its finest grating surface (I love it that more recipes are now providing weights for shredded cheeses – maybe leafy greens will be next). The scale has been especially useful since we’ve been buying more items in bulk from our friendly neighborhood Costco. The scale allows me to buy that 5 lbs of very nice quality and well-priced ground beef and portion it carefully into ½ lb increments for freezing. When I’m baking things like pitas where one big wad of dough must be portioned out into 8 or 16 chunks, by using the scale, I’m actually able to more accurately portion out those pieces for consistent size and even baking.

If you are considering a scale and are on the fence about it, I urge you to make the purchase. I didn’t realize how much I’d use it till I had it. Now I can’t figure out how I functioned without it.

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