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From Issue #19 June 20, 2013

Weight for It

Digital scales may let home cooks have the precision of chefs — and less mess.

By Joe Ray Twitter icon 

In the kitchen at The Willows Inn, cook Johnny Ortiz blazes through the creation of a glowing-green watercress sauce. He sets a large mixing bowl on a digital scale and hits the tare button, which resets the displayed measurement to zero. He adds 240 grams of watercress, places a small plastic cup right on top of the leaves, and hits tare again. Then 30 grams of apple cider vinegar right into the cup, tare, 6 grams of Dijon mustard, tare, 220 grams of grapeseed oil. It’s like a one-button game of Whac-A-Mole.

There are no measuring cups, no teaspoons, and a fraction of the dirty dishes I would have used making the same thing. It’s crazy efficient, fast, and easy to reproduce. I make a mental note to buy a digital scale for my home kitchen.

But when I dug around for recipes to channel my newfound enthusiasm, I had trouble finding any. Recipes in American cookbooks — from Julia Child’s to Guy Fieri’s — shun weight measurements, favoring those of liquid displacement and volume: cups and teaspoons — and ambiguity. It felt a bit like being let in on a breakthrough that a huge part of the scientific community has chosen to ignore.

What is the measure of a mess?

While sages from Brillat-Savarin in The Physiology of Taste to David A. Embury in his cocktail bible The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks extol the virtues of precision, American cookbooks have mostly missed the boat on weight measurements. They rely on a “horseshoes and hand grenades” approach that is usually good enough to get dinner on the table for a home cook but makes consistency inconsistent, wastes time, and creates a kitchen mess mostly made of measuring implements.

Jonathan Milder has an answer for this absence. He’s a research librarian at the Food Network, where he presides over a food library that has few equals. He’s the go-to guy if you’re looking for a sense of what’s going on in food publishing — such as the lack of weight-based recipes in cookbooks.

“The presence of a scale marks the dividing line between the home cook and the professional,” he says. Measuring by weight is “indisputably more precise. Like way more precise. In restaurants, you have to scale recipes up — way up — and discrepancies can be magnified.”

The classic reference here is flour. Eyeball a cup scooped straight from the jar on a humid day and it could be close to twice as heavy as flour that’s sifted, gently scooped into a cup, and leveled. Similar discrepancies can be achieved with anything from garlic to grated cheese, brown sugar to breadcrumbs.

“The person who can tell you how much ‘a cup of flour’ weighs doesn’t exist. Using weights is much more generous to the inexperienced cook who has no idea how big a ‘medium onion’ is,” Milder says. “What does ‘three onions, chopped’ mean? How many teaspoons are there in ‘Bam!’?” Weigh your ingredients and you can make larger or smaller batches of food with precision. Multiply three too-heavy cups of flour and you’ve got some gluey pancakes on the way.

A shift to weight measure is, in a sense, a plea for accuracy and consistency. If a recipe is tested and well written, the fault is most likely with the cook. While a home cook is less fettered by concerns over precision, an inconsistent restaurant will lose customers in a hurry.

Milder pauses, looking over at a stack of cookbooks from Europe including the likes of Yvette van Boven and Nigel Slater, each complete with weight measurements, then he winces. “It’s mind-boggling that at a certain level, you kind of have to concede that British cookbooks are better.”

They could fill a volume

Move from the United Kingdom across the Channel to France, where food is truly king, and the Gallic affinity for weight measure makes no room for cups and teaspoons. In Paris, molecular gastronomist Hervé This traces the French use of weight measure back to a way to keep merchants from swindling customers. He explains his take on the American exception in two words: “C’est bizarre.”

As a man of science favoring precision in the lab and the kitchen, This — who works closely with Pierre Gagnaire, one of the most intellectual and avant-garde chefs in France — cannot comprehend the vagaries of the American system. “There are plenty of authors who say ‘heat moderately,’ but what’s that mean?” he asks. “I remember not knowing what ‘gently beat’ meant in a soufflé recipe and not knowing what to do — these things are practical!”

This gets an idea and asks me to hold for a second as he puts the phone down to walk over to his library. The click of his shoes echoes through the phone line as he crosses the lab floor and returns with Marie Antonin Carême’s L’Art de la Cuisine Française au Dix-Neuvième Siècle and opens it to a page at random.

I expect a weight, but instead, he finds a recipe that includes “a liter of green beans.” Whole, they would fill a certain volume; chopped, they’d occupy much less. “That was at the time of the revolution!” This says, switching books to Le Livre de Cuisine de Madame Saint-Ange: Recettes et Méthodes de la Bonne Cuisine Française, a 1920s classic that relies on weight measure.1

“It’s still being published! You can still do anything in here!” exclaimed This, with a bit of French pride. It makes you wonder what’s taking America so long to catch up.

Wear and tare

Back in the United States, I bought an OXO brand Good Grips 11-pound scale, complete with a tare function (labeled “zero”), weight measurements in ounces and grams, and a snazzy blue backlight behind the digital display.

In my kitchen, I re-create the watercress sauce I had watched Johnny Ortiz make at The Willows Inn. I put my blender jar right on the scale, hit the zero button, and add the watercress, the mustard, the vinegar, and the grapeseed oil, tapping zero between each ingredient. With all the ingredients added, I move the jar over to the blender base and set it abuzz.

I have almost no dirty dishes. I taste the sauce and adjust exactly nothing. Then I spoon it over some brown rice, give it a stir, and serve it next to some halibut. Dinner is fantastic.

Inspired, I started looking harder for recipes to use with my scale, flipping through the cookbooks in my local Barnes & Noble. I find that the serious, high-end books by world-class chefs — those that Milder referred to as “a conversation between chefs” — were the ones where weight measurements could often be found.

Michael Ruhlman’s name comes up again and again. Ruhlman is the James Beard–award winning writer behind many cookbooks with top-flight chefs, like Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert and The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller, along with several books of his own — each one heavy on the weight measures.

I sent an email to Ruhlman to set up an interview, and his response was encouraging: “I am working with company to develop a great scale. As you can imagine I have much to say on subject.”

Bingo.

Zero-sum game

Something of a kinetic force, Ruhlman writes books, co-runs a company that makes and promotes cooking tools, and creates apps. He preaches the gospel of scale use not because he’s a tech geek, but because, as he puts it, it makes kitchen life so much easier. “It really became apparent to me when I went to make bread. If you have a mixer and a scale, you can have bread rising in minutes,” he said.

Ruhlman sees a future where apps will be linked to scales, allowing a user to, say, plug in the number of loaves of bread they’d like to bake and pour flour directly from a bag into a bowl on the scale until the screen says “stop.”

Until his own scale goes into production, Ruhlman is partial to the My Weigh UltraShipU2 for everyday kitchen use. (My Weigh extols its scale as “The pinnacle of office-postal and shipping scales.”) He has another one for smaller amounts, which his assistant refers to as his “drug dealer scale.”

Ruhlman doesn’t, however, insist that everything be weighed, and he understands the utility of using teaspoon measures for small amounts of some ingredients. For the most part, he’s just concerned with getting people on the bandwagon. When I express regret for not buying an UltraShip U2, he simply says, “Most scales are pretty good.”

He’s also optimistic about the future of getting weights into cookbooks. With a bit of nudging, publishers are also beginning to see the light. “Artisan changed their format. In Ruhlman’s Twenty,” he says, referring to his book on essential cooking techniques, “I persuaded Chronicle to change their format.

“We won’t have weight-only cookbooks for a generation or generation and a half, but publishers are starting to change to accommodate.” Ruhlman says once they’ve started listing ingredients in ounces or grams, “they’re always going to include weights.”

Right around this time, I leafed through a copy of The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, white-hot blogger Deb Perelman’s recent tome aimed squarely at the home cook, and there they were, right next to the teaspoons, tablespoons, and cups: weight measures.

“Combine all ingredients but the egg white and dried fruit in a large bowl,” the granola recipe began. I got out my scale, set the bowl on top and hit “zero.”

This was going to be a snap.

Photos and the cover of this issue by Joe Ray.


  1. The book originally appeared under this title in 1927 and was later reissued with minor revisions (and is still available) as La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange

Award-winning food and travel writer and photographer Joe Ray's work has been featured in the New York Times, Agence France Presse, the Guardian and elsewhere. He's just moved to Lummi Island, Washington, to write a cookbook with James Beard-nominated chef Blaine Wetzel.

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