Measuring

Butter the size of an egg? A cup of flour? 100 grams of sugar? Measuring is one of those things we don’t think about until we’re slightly stymied, or until we open a British cookbook, or perhaps one from Europe, or maybe our grandmother’s. There are of course a number of systems for measuring, some pretty out of date, some unique to the United States, and one that’s pretty universal. Measuring has always been somewhat of an interpretive business.

But measuring goes beyond the devices you use to determine how much of what goes into a recipe. Thermometers, both in your drawer and in your oven, are measuring devices. So is your timer, and the thermostat in your kitchen. So is a barometer, hygrometer and altimeter. When you’re aware that bread rises quicker when the barometer is falling (it’s good to bake on a rainy day), that flour “shrinks” in the winter because it’s dry so you may need less of it (flour absorbs or sheds moisture depending on humidity), or that you’ll need less yeast and baking powder if you live at 8,000 feet*, you’ll begin to understand all the variables you need to consider when you bake. You may find that you can make something successfully at home, time after time; but take the same recipe and try it in another kitchen with other equipment and you may have a very different result. Measuring cups and spoons, scales, humidity, altitude, and temperature all have an impact on the results of your efforts.

American system of measuring

Our American system of weights and measures were based originally on the British system although they have developed differently from each other in the last two centuries. Although in 1959 English-speaking scientists agreed to use the metric system for scientific and technological purposes, that’s been of little use to bakers.

In the early 1800s Americans began to substitute volume measurements for weight, probably because a “teacup” or an “egg” as bases for measurement, were easier to come by than an accurate scale, especially on the trail west. A “knob” of butter, “butter the size of an egg,” even “alum the size of a cherry,” are measurements that are sprinkled through old cookbooks. In earlier times, “receipts” for baked goods were based on these fairly rough ingredient and measurement guidelines that lead to very individualized results. Baking was an art and success was dependent on an accumulation of experience.

Today we try to recreate recipes accurately, without eliminating an individual’s touch. Just as your speech has a personality of its own, so should your baking. But as we try to become more accurate, our tradition of volume measuring can leave us short because volume measurements are prone to wide interpretation (i.e., a “cup” of flour can weigh anywhere between 4 and 5 1/2 ounces. And the cups themselves can legally vary up to 12%). Measuring by weight is much more consistent and accurate.

Measuring flour

At King Arthur Flour, we’ve held a long debate about what a “cup” of flour weighs. In the past, for simplicity’s sake, we called it 4 ounces. You can, in fact, create a 4-ounce cup of flour by sifting the flour first. The sifting process incorporates a lot of air into the flour, which is the first source of leavening. Scooping flour, which can produce a much heavier cup (up to 5 1/2 ounces plus), will obviously contain less air and more flour. So our old volume measurement for flour, when it meant 4 ounces, had its positive benefits, at least as far as leavening was concerned. You can also fluff flour up in your flour bag, sprinkle it gently into your measuring cup, scrape the top off with a straight edge, and get close to 4 ounces, but you probably will get a little bit more.

Our preferred weight for a cup of flour is 4 1/4 ounces, and that’s what we’ve used throughout the book. This is closer to what bakers actually measure volume-wise. It does make calculating total ounces a little more difficult, but in all of the recipes, we’ve done the calculating for you. This discussion would be much easier if we’d stop relying on measuring cups and start using the scale. But since the old volume system of measurement is still pretty standard, we’re using it along with weight measurements, which you can use in this and most other American cookbooks.

Measuring hints

Make sure, before you measure, that you know what you’re supposed to be measuring, e.g. 1 pound of apples, chopped, or 1 pound of chopped apple. The former is apples weighed before they’ve been chopped—i.e., with skins and cores; the latter is skinned, cored, chopped apple.

No matter how you measure cups and pound, you’ll need a good set of measuring spoons for smaller measurements.

Measuring by volume
Measuring by weight
Metric conversions
Temperature conversions

measuring devices

Baking, while considered an art, is equal parts science. Accurate measuring is always important, and sometimes essential, to baking success. Thus it’s important that you invest in some good quality (read: accurate) measuring tools.

  1. Our first plea is that you buy and use a scale.
  2. For volume or weight measuring, have on hand a couple of sets of measuring spoons. It’s easier to measure small amounts—a teaspoon, a tablespoon--with spoons even if you have a scale. There are some sets available that measure from 1/8 teaspoon through 1/2 to 1 tablespoon. There are also sets containing odd sizes. It’s useful to have more than one set.
  3. Have two kinds of measuring cups, one that measures flush at the top edge for dry ingredients and one that has a lip above the 1 (or more) cup mark for liquids. There are some liquid measures available that also have metric measurements on one side. These can be useful when using cookbooks from other parts of the world.
  4. Other important measuring devices are timers and thermometers. There are numerous options. Because ovens also have their own personalities, a thermometer that helps you know what’s going on inside is important. Oven temperatures can vary considerably as can oven thermostats, which drives how long your oven “cools” before the heating element kicks in again. Thermometers can also measure the temperature of a dough, batters, syrups and finished goods.
  5. Even with the most “accurate” of measurements, such variables as humidity, altitude, the fat content of the milk you use, the mineral content of your water, all are going to effect your baking. Ultimately your eyes and hands and brain, when they have had enough experience, will make many of your measuring decisions.

Measuring spoons
Measuring cups
Thermometers
Scale
Timers