More than other kinds of cooking, baking relies on precise measurements, which is the reason why many baking recipes (particularly European recipes) call for ingredients to be weighed rather than measured out in cups or liters. This is especially true of flour, which can be an enormous variable depending on how you fill your cup or scoop. In his new book Ratio, Michael Ruhlman advances the argument that cooking with ratios can eliminate a lot of mismeasurement and free cooks up to cook more precisely–free from the tyranny of badly measured tablespoons. (Whether or not ratios will free you from “the tyranny of recipes,” to quote from Alton Brown’s book jacket blurb, is a separate issue and one that’s gotten plenty of press recently. Go read the NYT or The Washington Post, or Ruhlman’s own recent LAT story, or of course his blog). His ratio argument is a compelling one, and very liberating if said cook knows how to use a scale. And in my opinion, if reading Ruhlman’s book gets you to start using a scale, it’s worth every single one of his equations for mousseline and velouté.
But, just as not all measuring cups give you the same yield (there is a difference between a liquid and a dry measuring cup, for example; also one that is packed vs. one that is not packed with ingredients), not all scales give you as precise a reading. Take the lovely old English scale on the right, which is gorgeous, fun to play with, and fantastic for measuring things that are, well, heavy. If a recipe calls for 11.25 ounces of flour, however, like my favorite sourdough boule recipe does, or a quarter ounce of yeast, then you’ll do better with a digital scale like the one on the left. Digital scales are cheap, light, small and very accurate–and have buttons which tare (or zero the scale) and switch between ounces and grams. Forget about those scales at cooking supply stores with fluctuating needles, the ones that tend to bounce around between possible reads like old-fashioned bathroom scales; they’re pretty, but mostly useless if you want a precise measurement. You’d be better off measuring out your flour, bit by inaccurate bit, with one of T. S. Eliot’s lyric coffee spoons.
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