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FOOD SCIENCE

Weighing Ingredients

By Brian Geiger, contributor

January 17th, 2011

Cindy asks via Twitter,

Brian, I love to cook, and love the science behind baking. Why is there so much discrepancy regarding measuring flour? People whom I consider to be experts measure/weigh flour differently. I prefer wt., but experts don't even agree about that.

@Cindy416
Cindy Wallace

Hi Cindy,

Unquestionably, the best method to measure flour is weight, not volume. It gives you more predictable results each time, and it actually measures what you want, which is: how much flour am I using? If you measure using volume, you are only determining how much space the flour you are using was taking up while it was in the measuring cups. That is similar to how much flour you are using, but the differences could certainly cause you trouble.

Even I, who believe that weight is unquestionably better than volume, have given recipes with volume for the flour measurement. Essentially, when I do that, it's because I am being lazy. It takes a little more effort to measure out flour by weight than by volume, because with a measuring cup you could conceivably manage it in two strokes: one to scoop the flour, the other to sweep off the excess. Whereas with weight, you have to keep pouring in flour until it hits the proper amount, and if your scale isn't quick enough, you might overshoot your mark. These aren't terribly difficult trials to get through, but they take a tiny bit more effort. So I'll admit: sometimes I am lazy.

Lazy Cooks Take Heart
Now, if you know what you're doing, and you're familiar at least with the type of food that you're making, then you can get by with some laziness. People talk about baking being much more scientific than other types of cooking, requiring precise measurements and so on, but that's not strictly true. There are variations and tolerances in all of the ingredients, and a whole list of things that are completely not in your control. Humidity, barometric pressure, the precise ratio of glutenin to gliadin in your flour, and so on. If these thing all had to be perfectly controlled, we'd never bake. What we need to do is to get close enough and to know how and when to correct it if it goes wrong.

Why Weight Matters
The difficulty with volume measurements for flour is that they can vary so much more than weight measurements. For any given cup of flour, you could have roughly 30% more or less flour than you expect. It's a huge amount, and if you're making something new, you wouldn't know if you have too much or too little or what. That will make everything else about the recipe much more difficult to control.

Factors that cause variations in volume measurements include how you collect the flour and how the flour was before it was collected. If you keep your flour in a clear plastic container like I do, you can look at how much flour is in there to start with, then shake it up and check again. Chances are, it's going to look like you have quite a bit more flour than you did before. For scooping, there are two major schools of thought: the scoop and sweep, or the spoon. If the recipe that you're following was done by a spooner, and you are a scoop and sweeper, you're not going to end up with the right amount of flour.

Some people describe their measurement method along with their recipe, so you can do a better job with the volume measurements. And if this is a family recipe, and you were taught how to do it by a family member, you probably know the proper method for that recipe.

The great thing about weight measurements is that you ditch all of the ambiguity we discussed in the past three paragraphs. The weight is the weight, plus or minus the resolution of your scale. It's really not that difficult to do, and it'll make your life easier.

Know the Formula

You know how people say that you can't really double recipes for baked goods? That's not entirely true. You can double them, if you weigh your ingredients. Usually you run into troubles doubling a recipe with the volume measurement because all of the error from the main recipe, which was small enough to not bother the recipe all that much, is suddenly doubled as well, and now that causes you trouble.

Of course, if you have a recipe that calls for volume measurements and doesn't have weights, what do you do? Ideally, there would be a conversion factor, but as we've discussed, that would depend a lot on how the person who made the recipe measures. But all is not lost.

Most recipes are based on archetypes. There is an ideal muffin formula and method that all muffins are based upon. Same with cakes, yeast breads, souffles, and so on. If you are concerned about the weight of the ingredients, you can go to the archetype and extrapolate from there. Now, some recipes are deliberately varying from the archetype so that they can be moister or fluffier or something, in which case you're probably going to have to do some experimenting. Since that recipe clearly wasn't as good as it should have been (what with the volume measurements and all), you'd probably have to experiment in any case.

For a good first look at master formulas for a variety of goods, I recommend Michael Ruhlman's excellent book/app Ratio. For similar, but more in-depth sorts of looks into food, you might try a book on professional pastry recipes, which tend to be in baker's percentages and done by weight. For artisan bread recipes with weights, the always-thorough Peter Reinhart has a number of books to work from.

 

posted in: Blogs, food geek, baking, flour, weight, volume, measure
Comments (14)

suz50 writes: Posted: 10:46 pm on February 4th

babb writes: KEVIN POPE - I read your comment "I have two scales. One for larger measurements, and one that weighs in 1/100 of a gram." Would you be willing to share the brand names of those two scales? My current scale is dying and would like to replace it with two others, one for larger volumes and one for minute volumes. Would appreciate your advice. babb Posted: 12:23 pm on January 28th

Birgit_Spelt_Baker writes: I am always happy to see weight measurement promoted because it really is most accurate. After 20 years as a baker using organic wheat and spelt all the variations are true, so weight reduces the anomolies. One difference to note as well is that stone ground and organic flour is generally not pre-sifted and therefore will still compress if you squeeze it with your hand. That means that the flour at the bottom of your bag is heavier, more compressed than that at the top.
So, Food Geek, I wonder if you knew that the reason that whole grain recipes seem heavier than the same white recipes is only in part because of what is said about the germ and the bran weighing things down and that they displace the gluten forming endosperm BUT is also because the germ and the bran SUCK UP A LOT MORE water/liquid and therefore deprive the endosperm of enough water to make a looser crumb.
I always add about 15% more water to whole grain recipes.
Cheers, I love baking.
Posted: 10:49 pm on January 25th

Kevin_Pope writes: I started measuring flour, along with most everything else in almost all my recipes. The all time favorite is brown sugar. I never understood the idea of packing a measuring cup tight, and then trying to fluff the sugar back up to combine with other ingredients. It is ludicrous, when weighing it is so simple. I convert the ones that fail to give me weight measurements.
At a meeting of Bake Napa Valley, I ask a cookbook author why she didn't include weights in her recipes. The simple reason, space. The book publishers allowed only so much room. I suggested she think of cleaver ways of adding it, as I and most other people who bake want weights. She was very interested and that lead to more discussions around the table.
I make wedding cakes and my recipes weigh everything down to the water. I have two scales. One for larger measurements, and one that weighs in 1/100 of a gram. I can't afford to make a mistake on a wedding cake. It has to be perfect and weighing everything is the only way to insure that.
Do I use those measuring cups hanging on my wall? Yes, but not for baking. I'll use them for making a sauce, where I can watch and adjust as I cook.
Posted: 8:07 pm on January 25th

cinmyrs writes: Weighing ingredients is not only more accurate, it is so much easier. Why does it seem that this applies only to flour? It would be nice if recipes gave both weight and volume measurements for sugars, cheeses, nuts, etc. Think of all the measuring cups we wouldn't have to wash! Posted: 2:17 pm on January 24th

Pielove writes: Ha, despite my protestations, I do indeed weigh my flour, especially for bread and pie, so (in essence) I agree with you. It might be interesting to test the variance-- maybe I will have a measuring party! BasementBaker, good point about our dependence on technology-- I agree, good discussion Brian! (as usual!) In the end, I think there are so many variables that paying attention and understanding how the dough is supposed to look are more important than any gadget. Posted: 10:36 am on January 21st

BasementBaker writes: I agree with Sarah, I weigh because it is a lot less messy. Also, with sifted flour, you can weigh and then sift, which is much easier. Scaling recipes is also a lot easier when you weigh ingredients, but this can get complicated with ingredients like eggs.

As for pielove's comment about a scales batteries failing, there are compact mechanical scales available. But nowadays we have to depend on so many things working correctly like recipe sites not crashing, searches for recipes turning up the correct results (when you swear that you used the exact search terms the last time and had no problem).

This was a great discussion - thanks Brian. Posted: 10:49 am on January 20th

TheFoodGeek writes: Pielove, the 30% was something of a theoretical estimate, ranging from well-sifted flour through to highly compacted flour, but was not particularly scientific. It may have been overstating. That being said, 18 different measurements is not really a statistically great sample, either, though it's better than I did.

Another thing I didn't mention in the article is that different measuring cups are actually different sizes. Aside from the difference in wet and dry measuring cups (a dry measuring cup has a greater volume than a wet measuring cup in order to handle the fact that dry things don't stack as neatly as liquids do), across different brands and makes of dry measuring cups, I've heard reports that they hold different amounts of material.

All that being said, I do still support the measurement of flour by volume, if you are familiar with the baked good in question and know how it's going to turn out. But I still say you will get more consistent results with weighing.

And yes, I have lost power to both my scales before (because I neglected to replace the battery of the first before the second ran out), but not my measuring cups. :) Posted: 11:04 pm on January 19th

Pielove writes: I think the variance in measuring flour by volume is highly overstated. Cook's Illustrated just had a discussion on this where they had 18 cooks measure flour and the highest discrepancy was 13%. Whilst they used that number to emphasize the variability, it really means that all the other errors were less than 13%. Where did your 30% number come from? Is the variation in flour weight/volume really significant compared to other variations in measurement (liquid measurement, egg size, etc)? Finally, have your measuring cups ever run out of batteries on pie-making day, hmm? Posted: 9:31 pm on January 19th

CindyWal writes: I love getting others' input about this. I, too, believe that measuring by weight is by far the most accurate and easiest way to measure. I think it's much easier to put my KA bowl (or whatever I'm using) on my fantastic digital scales, choose metric or U.S. standard measurements, and keep zeroing out the scales. (I use metric measurements most of the time, as they are extremely easy to calculate.)

Your reasoning about Julia and the old-time chefs makes a lot of sense, Brian.

Thanks, again, to all of you. Posted: 7:25 pm on January 19th

sbreckenridge writes: I have to say, ever since I got into the habit of weighing my flour, I find it SO much easier...you just scoop your flour right into your mixing bowl. I always make a mess when I have to dip and level a measuring cup!

And FYI in case anyone is curious, FC recipe testers use weight to measure flour, and our standard is 4-1/2 oz. per cup--most of our recipes list weight AND volume. Posted: 11:01 am on January 19th

TheFoodGeek writes: I forgot to mention in the article that, in the case of Julia Child and the old-school celebrity chefs, equipment is the reason. Scales are a lot better, faster, and cheaper now than they used to be. The tare function, which will reset your scale to 0 after you put something like a bowl (or a bowl filled with the stuff you've already measured), makes the act of measuring so much easier than it would be with an analog scale. So if you don't have a good scale, then using a bad scale would be a pain.

Once you've gotten good at measuring by volume, and used to the inconsistencies, then it would take a big effort to switch to a weight measure. In the case of organizations like King Arthur Flour, they have a large staple of recipes that need to be converted from weight to flour, but as they have likely instituted methods of measuring flour that they suggest all of their recipe writers and test kitchen people use, then they can more or less safely give a conversion factor.

There is no one weight conversion, but I think the method you're going about it will work well. Conveying a recipe is an inaccurate business, despite all of the numbers. It just depends, from person to person, how inaccurate it's going to be. Posted: 7:47 am on January 19th

CindyWal writes: Thanks, Brian. I am very interested in the book/App "Ratios," and will be buying one or the other. I appreciate the time that you took to look into my question.

Jgdanby, I nearly always weigh everything, and put recipes into Word, Living Cookbook software, and my Weight Watchers recipe collection at the
WW site. My real area of interest with the issue of weighing ingredients lies in the fact that, as I said, many experts measure using different techniques, but even more importantly, several actually consider a cup of flour, for instance, to weigh different amounts. America's Test Kitchen, for example, says that a cup of flour weighs 5 oz., while King Arthur Flour says that a cup of flour weighs 4.25 oz. Since I know how these companies' cooks measure their flour, at least it's easy to use their recipes. Others, like Ina Garten, Giada De Laurentiis, and the late, great Julia Child, use the "dip and sweep" method, which probably yields flour weighing closer to the 5 oz. mark per cup. Few cookbooks actually tell how the writers weighed their flour, so I go with the n.i. label on the flour bag (1/4 c. weighs between 28 and 31 gm.), and then go from there, taking notes in my cookbooks or on my printed recipes.

I don't know if I made myself clear enough for you all to see where I find a discrepancy. Don't get me wrong, as I am an accomplished cook and baker, and have learned to work around the issue that I have. It's just that I've been curious about why trained chefs and cooks are at odds regarding the weight of a cup of flour. (I know. It seems as if I might need more to occupy my time, but I'm really quite busy, but my curiosity still remains.) Posted: 11:14 pm on January 18th

JDinNapa writes: The short answer is use weight if you want reproducability. If I'm trying a new recipe with volume measures, I'll weigh the volumetric items, and if the results are good, I'll convert the recipe to weights. Yes I'm one of those who puts every recipe I use into Word so I can have a consistent format, and I can tinker with things at will. But get a good scale and use weight instead of volume for increased consistency. Posted: 8:29 pm on January 17th

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