In the beginning. How long ago? Dunno’, it’s been a while. Thousands of years, at least. Anywho – in the beginning, measuring was done strictly by guess. Eventually people noticed that if you use a handful of this, two handfuls of that, half a handful of the other, and mixed it all together with about this much water, and heated it until it was about that color, you could achieve mostly consistent results. Quite an intellectual breakthrough. Who knows how long it took.
For ages, each cook had his own measuring standards and the recipe came to be one scoop of this, two scoops of that, half a scoop of the other, 1 ½ scoops of water, and heated it until it was about that color, the results were even more predictable. Eventually the scoops became standardized, and people realized that you could make the same dish no matter which town you were in. Good progress.
The baker, in particular, had a whopping set of problems. A cup of flour from the top of the barrel was less flour than a cup of flour from the bottom of the barrel. Why? Well, flour compacts. Volume is not a good way to get consistent measure. That’s why your grandmother sifted flour, scooped gently and swept the top of the cup three times with a knife every time she got ready to measure for a cake or whatever. Still not 100% consistent, but much, much better (and a major pain).
The professional bakers of the Middle Ages were a pretty savvy group. In fact, Medieval technology has gotten a bad rap since the Renaissance snobs got impressed with themselves. The Medieval techs were no fools. The bakers figured out that if they measured by weight instead of volume they got consistent results. Now a home baker can stand some variation in the finished goods, but not the pro. If a baker’s goods were uneven in quality, he didn’t last long. On the other hand, you aren’t going to fire your mama if the latest batch of cookies are not quite up to standard. So, weighing became the absolute standard for baked goods. The large quantities that were weighed lent themselves very nicely to the use of the balance scale.
The home baker was not able to join in the fun and precision. First, most home bakers were not privy to the secrets of the professional guilds. Second, a balance scale and weights small and precise enough for the small-scale production of the home was not an affordable home item even if the individual knew how to use them.
Modern technology has changed all that. We no longer need to struggle with dipping out 5 cups of sifted flour and don’t have to fool with all the bothersome fractions if we decide to scale the recipe up or down a bit.
What you want to do is invest $50 or so in a really good digital scale. I know, $50 gives me heart palpitations, too. But hey, it really is worth it. First off, don’t bother with one of the cheap scales. What you want is something that takes at least 11 pounds. 22 pounds if you bake large. I don’t generally do more than 2 1.5 pound loaves at a time, so the 11 pounder does me just fine. What? 2 x 1.5 is 3 therefore one of the cheap 6-pound scales ought to do. Bad logic! Danger, Will Robinson! First off, we need a tare function, which lets us plop the bowl on the scale, zero it out, add the flour – by weight – zero it out, add the water – by weight, and so on until all the ingredients are in. We are going to quickly get beyond the capacity of a 6-pound scale. Hey, my normal glass mixing bowl weighs 3.25 pounds all by its little self. We would have to measure each ingredient separately and then pour it off into a mixing bowl. Too much trouble.
The other thing that you want in your scale is the ability to flip back and forth between Metric and Imperial (that’s us, dammit!). That way you don’t care which measuring system the recipe is in, you can deal with it with no converting back and forth. If you do Metric, you can take a full baker’s recipe for, say 25 or 30 loaves and scale it down to two loaves without getting into some rather nasty fractions. Say your recipe calls for 5kg (kilograms) of flour for 25 loaves. If we want 2 loaves, a little simple calculator exercise tells us that we need 400g for 2 loaves. Now, in Imperial measure, we would start with 5 lbs, do the math, and wind up at 8 ozs or so. Like this in metric:
5kg/25 = 0.2kg per loaf
0.2 x 2 loaves = 0.4kg, or 400 grams
Easy. Try that with the Imperial measure. Nasty. As they used to say, the exercise is left for the student.
What I’m using at the moment is the Escali Digital Measuring Scale. Rather nice. I haven’t had it for long enough to know how many years it will last, but it seems reasonably well-made. It does metric, ounces, or pounds and ounces for weights. It also will measure liquid, giving the volume equivalents and can be scaled for different liquid densities. Did you know that the specific gravity for olive oil is 0.92? Neither did I. But if you tell that scale to use 0.92 density and liquid measure, then it will tell you when you get ¼ cup. Handy. Of course, we do all know that water has a specific gravity of 1.0. This scale also has a timer. I never seem to have enough timers when I’m cooking several complex dished at once. Takes a bit of talent in my Munchkin kitchen.
It’s not that I don’t still use a measuring cup every now and then, but not nearly as often. Oh yeah, another benefit is that I don’t have to squint sidewise with my bad eyes trying to see if I got the liquid up to the line; I just read the display.
Hey – here’s a fun exercise. Add a cup of brown sugar to a recipe. I don’t know of anyone who knows what a packed cup of brown sugar really means. How hard do you pack it down? Or add a quarter cup of honey. How much of the honey is going to wind up in the bowl and how much is going to stick to the cup and get washed down the sink? Whereas, if I tell you to add 25g all you do is zero your scale from the previous ingredient and then squeeze honey in until the scale reads 25g. A no-brainer. I like simple and easy. Of course, you don’t get to lick the honey spoon. That’s a bummer.
My bread baking has always been fairly decent, but results were not always consistent from batch to batch. Now I can be pretty sure that each batch will be samey-samey, even if it was 6 months since I last made that particular recipe. That’s a goodness. I will admit that I don’t use a scale for much besides baking. Most other stuff I just eyeball and feel and taste. Baking takes a bit more precision than that.