Want to Make Bread? Get a Scale

Liquid measuring cup on left, dry on right. Get a scale for baking.

The current issue of Cooks Illustrated Magazine has an interesting test of the accuracy of liquid versus dry measuring cups. When measuring flour, the dry measuring cup was up to 13% off when compared to a scale. The liquid measuring cup was even worse–26% off.  When baking bread, even 13% could be the difference between a decent loaf and a hockey puck.

Surprisingly, measuring water wasn’t much better, even with the liquid cup, which was 10% off. The dry measuring cup was 23% off when measuring water. I’ve always felt a bit silly scaling water, but now I can see its importance.

For bread baking, I’ve been using an electronic scale for many years now and have had reasonably consistent results. Scaling helps me be consistent. Now if only our kitchen didn’t swing between broiling hot and drafty…
 

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16 Comments

  1. Electric? Battery or plug in the wall?

    Also, weight of any liquid is variable, depending on temperature and altitude. How do you adjust for those two factors. It seems there is a third factor that does not come to mind this early.

    Would weight of flour not be dependent on how much moisture is in the flour?

    When people had less control over all the variables, it seems they made bread that was more than acceptable. Or, were they less picky and hungrier than we are?

    I am glad someone has told me how far off my measuring skills are when using conventional measuring methods. All fails will now be attributed to the measuring cup…lol. Seriously, it is good to know. I get so frustrated when I read British blogs using weights in recipes. Metric is easy, but I have no scales.

    Okay, I have been looking for a food scale and cannot find even one scale. You seem familiar with scales. I want one that will measure small amounts, like an ounce and that will measure produce up to maybe 20 lbs, 10, at least. What do you use? What would you suggest? Bramds? Do I need two scales so I can measure small cooking amounts and larger produce amounts?

    I also need bathroom scales, and I cannot find any in this small town. I guess those would work for produce. How would postal scles work for both?

    • Those variables do make a difference but at least using a scale gives you a leg up.

      In the old days people didn’t have gadgets, but they had access to strong traditions. They knew what good dough felt like. I know a few bakers now who produced consistently good bread by feel. But most of us benefit from discipline.

      Also, keep in mind that baking was a profession, since most regular people didn’t have reliable ovens in their home til quite late in the game. People bought their loaves from local bakers and bakers apprenticed with masters. (And I wouldn’t be surprised if they had access to scales.)

      Our scale is a little battery operated number–the Taylor Lithium (Lithium???). The Cook’s article says the best scale is the Oxo Food Scale, and the best buy is the Soehnie 65055 digital scale.

      We used to use a cheap-o analog scale and it really wasn’t very accurate at all.

    • The weight of a liquid is not a variable. A pound of feathers and a pound of water weighs the same. Since liquids expand and contract based on altitude and tempature. That is why aviation fuel is measured in pounds of kg and not gallons.

  2. Before gluten intolerance, had a favorite no-knead recipe that meant rough measurement of flour, haphazard measurement of yeast, all into a bowl of room temp water. Then it sat all night. Rarely did I make the mix too dry, mostly a little wet. So added a bit of flour in the morning while getting it into bread pans (wet flour makes a big flat loaf, don’t ya know) and into the oven it went. OR spread it out for making pizza crust, or a little bit of both. Raves all around every time! never had a failure. Boring, but good. Recipe came courtesy of Mother Earth News

    • I came across a recipe once where I really wanted to do that. The problem is, different types of foods have different densities, including the problem with moisture content in flour, as described above. For my recipe, I wound up finding miscellaneous resources to roughly convert each ingredient individually (i.e. sugar, flour, butter, eggs – just kidding on the eggs!). I have no idea if my end product replicated the recipe, but I also didn’t really care because my end product was delicious. :-)

      In a lot of ways, you are best off measuring and weighing your ingredients, baking whatever it is you’re trying to bake, then seeing how it turns out and whether you want to keep it the same or adjust the ingredients by weight after that. I know a lot of people are scared to deviate from formulas when it comes to baking, but it’s good to reach a point where you can experiment.

      One other great benefit of weighing out ingredients – generally, you will use fewer bowls/utensils if you weigh everything.

      All that said and done, when I make bread, I eyeball everything and have developed a good feel for bread with the correct moisture content. This is for loaves that are half-wheat, half-white flour. Beyond that, proofing times and temperatures start to matter, too.

    • Ditto what rebeccmeister says above. But also you can google for weight/measurement translations. Overall we prefer to look for weight-based recipes. When we find a recipe book based on weight, we’re pretty psyched.

  3. I have never used a kitchen scale to make bread but it I turn out loaves that are consistent and good. How? By feel. That is the best measure if your dough is too wet or dry. Get in there and get your hands dirty. I did grow up in a household that baked bread but I didn’t develop a good feel for it until I practiced as an adult. It’s easier than you think. It should stick a little but not enough to make you crazy. That way your not a slave to a recipe (or guideline, as I call them) and can experiment. And don’t have to sweat the small stuff.

  4. According to the trustworthy folks at America’s Test Kitchen and “Cook’s Illustrated” magazine, the following conversions work for flour and sugar:
    1 c. all-purpose flour: 5 ounces
    1 c. cake flour: 4 ounces
    1 c. whole wheat flour: 5.5 ounces
    1 c. white sugar: 7 ounces
    1 c. brown sugar: 7 ounces
    1 c. confectioner’s sugar: 4 ounces

    Recipes published in Cook’s Illustrated magazine and in their cookbooks all include both weight and volume measurements.

  5. I use a mixture of scales and cups, mostly because so many of the online recipes are in cups I gave up converting every recipe and bought a set of measuring cups.
    I weigh things in either metric or imperial, depending on the age of the cookbook I am using. (Modern British cookbooks are metric. Ones older than about 15-20 years will be in both and 30-40+ year old books will be in just imperial. Back much further and you need to know how much a peck is!)
    I have to confess I am enjoying the irony of the current flurry of interest in weighing ingredients in the States. Mr and Mrs H., I know you’ve been using scales for donkey’s years, but I’ve read a few other posts in the last week or so saying how great scales are, and when I think of the disparaging comments I’ve had aimed at me over the years for being English and weighing food when using cups is ‘so simple’ I’ve had to chuckle!
    PP- interestingly your drawbacks for weighing ingredients are similar to those Elizabeth David in the ’50′s (and others since) have aimed at cup measuring. How packed is packed sugar? Should I tap the cup to get more flour in or just do a quick scoop? What if my flour is regularly ground and the recipe suggests Italian ‘OO’ or vice versa? I guess it’s what you’re used to.

    For what it’s worth, I use- and love- my balance scales, similar to these. They’re not antique (though could probably be classed as vintage now as they were a wedding present), but they’re accurate and I have metric and imperial weights for them. I had a quick look on US Amazon and ebay and they don’t seem to exist . I found a couple of vintage sets on ebay, proudly labelled Made In England, so they’ve obviously never been fashionable in America!
    They are excellent for cooking with children- they can really see the whole principle of weighing, though I wasn’t thinking of that when I first got them!

  6. Practice makes perfect. It helps to weigh ingredients instead of measuring, but ultimately you need to know how the dough is supposed to feel. A recipe written by a baker in Arizona is not going to work as written for a baker in the deep south. The difference in humidity is crucial!!

  7. I am a proud graduate of Mr. Homegrown’s bread class yesterday and the weighing point was a revelation. I baked the bread this morning and it is delicious and beautiful. I have a question, sorry it’s not related to the measuring thread: what is the best way to store the baked bread until the next day?

    • Congrats, Rosina!

      Storage: you never want to put bread with a nice crust in a plastic bag or in the fridge. We usually leave ours out, balancing cut-side down on the board. A paper bag would be fine, too. Or an old fashioned bread box!

      The nice thing about these sourdough loaves, we find, is that they last for a long time. They go from Fastastic-Springy-Fresh to Still Quite Fine to Better Toasted before finally hitting Brick-Like after about a week (in this climate).

      These loaves never get crumbly like store bread. If it doesn’t look like we’re going to finish a loaf, I usually shred it up during the “toasting stage” for bread crumbs. Once it hits Brick-Like there’s no hope.

    • Was great to meet you Rosina! And good to hear that the bread turned out. Truth is we just leave ours out on the counter. But a paper bag would work to. Just don’t ever use plastic or it will ruin the crust.

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