Tipping the Balance
When Nathan began seriously thinking about Modernist Cuisine, he was adamant about one aspect of the recipes: they would all be measured by weight. At The Cooking Lab, we believe that precise measuring by weight is the only way to ensure a dish turns out accurately every time.
The other day, Farhad Manjoo published an article–almost a plea, really–in The New York Times advocating for more cooks and cookbooks to toss their cups and spoons and use kitchen scales instead.
While he doesn’t mention hydrocolloids, or other Modernist ingredients that can change a recipe if off by just 0.1 gram, he does give this anecdote in defense of scales:
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, the managing editor of the blog Serious Eats, once asked 10 people to measure a cup of all-purpose flour into a bowl. When the cooks were done, Mr. Lopez-Alt weighed each bowl. “Depending on how strong you are or your scooping method, I found that a ‘cup of flour’ could be anywhere from 4 to 6 ounces,” he said. That’s a significant difference: one cook might be making a cake with one-and-a-half times as much flour as another.
We ran into the same problem during the production of MC when we wanted to give a table of average volume measurements for people who did not own a scale. Yet despite all of our efforts, it is impossible when working with solid ingredients to consistently obtain a given number of grams simply by measuring the volume. The ingredient dimensions, the force with which you fill the measure, and the natural shifts in water and solid content all contribute to inconsistent measurements; there just isn’t any practical way to replicate these factors every time.
Manjoo explains why we don’t see many recipes giving quantities in grams or ounces, despite all of the evidence that everything from carrots to hydrocolloids needs to be measured by weight:
Yet the scale has failed to become a must-have tool in American kitchens. Cook’s Illustrated magazine said scales were in the kitchens of only a third of its readers, and they’re a fairly committed group of cooks.
There’s a simple reason for this: The scale doesn’t show up in most published recipes. American cookbooks, other than baking books, and magazines and newspapers generally specify only cup and spoon measurements for ingredients. A few, like Cook’s Illustrated, offer weights for baking recipes, but not for savory cooking. (The Times Dining section recently began using weight measurements with baking recipes.)
This creates a chicken-and-egg problem for the kitchen scale. Cooks don’t own scales because recipes don’t call for one, and recipes don’t call for one because cooks don’t own one.
Many people argue that they prefer to cook by feel: they don’t measure because they don’t need to. But they are making recipes that they know, and they have acquired a sense of taste and confidence in the kitchen through a significant period of trial and error. The truth is professional chefs, bakers, and pastry artists often do things by feel, too, but only because they have gained such a breadth of experience beforehand.
Because we wrote our book to teach people and to empower them with accurate information, we saw it as fundamentally important to give them the precision of a weight for every ingredient (the sole exception we made is for final fine adjustments to seasonings that are highly dependent on the individual taste of the cook). People who are learning how to cook and follow a recipe according to volume often end up disappointed by failure and can end up losing interest in cooking; that is a terrible shame when it happens.
We are hopeful that more cookbook authors will embrace this philosophy. Good scales are cheaper and easier to find than ever, and we hope they find their way into all modern kitchens. You can read all about them on pages 1·94–95 and 4·41 of Modernist Cuisine, and find our recommendations in our Modernist gear guide.