Measuring Tips

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perhaps one from Europe, or maybe our grandmother's. There are of course a number of systems for measuring, some pretty out of date, some unique to the United States, and one that's pretty universal.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
By volume

When measuring flour by volume:
1) Fluff up the flour
2) Sprinkle it into your dry-cup measure (the one that measures exactly a cup at the top) and
3) Scrape off the excess with a straight edge (handle metal flour scoop with a straight edge will do scoop and sweep with one hand)
This will get you approximately 4 1/4 ounces.

When measuring other dry ingredients such as sugar by volume, overfill your dry-cup measure and scrape off the excess with a straight edge.

Measure light or dark brown sugar by packing it into your measuring cup.

To measure a solid fat (butter, vegetable shortening or lard) in a cup measure, use one that is significantly larger than the amount you want to measure. For example, to measure one cup of butter, fill a two-cup measure up to the one-cup mark with COLD water. Push butter into the water (making sure it's covered) until the water reaches the two-cup mark. That will give you 1 cup of butter. Drain the fat thoroughly. Alternatively, use a measuring cup specifically designed for measuring sticky substances.

If you need to measure a liquid sweetener, spray the inside of your measuring cup lightly with a pan release first. That will make it a lot easier to get the sweetener out of the cup. (If the recipe calls for a vegetable oil or other liquid fat, just measure that in the cup before you measure the sweetener, you'll get the same result.)

Translation of "old-fashioned" American volume measurements
  • Butter the size of a walnut = 2 tablespoons or a "lump"
  • Butter the size of an egg = 1/4 cup
  • Coffee cup = 1 cup
  • Dash = 1/8 teaspoon
  • Dessert spoon = 1 1/2 teaspoons
  • 60 Drops = 1 teaspoon of liquid
  • Gill = 1/2 cup
  • Pinch = 1/16 or 1/8 teaspoon
  • Salt spoon = 1/4 teaspoon
  • Teacup = 3/4 cup
  • Tin cup = 1 cup
  • Tumblerful = 2 cups
  • Wineglass = 1/2 gill or 1/4 cup
By weight

A number of scales are available for a variety of prices. (See Tools. p. tk) You'll want a scale with a "tare" function so you can add ingredients to your bowl, zero out what you've just weighed, and add and accurately weigh the next ingredient. Also, if you have a scale that converts from our U.S. system of measurement to metric measurements, you'll have access to the recipes in cookbooks from all over the world.

Get to know your scale. Make sure it will accommodate both the weight of your ingredients and the weight of the container. Lightweight mixing bowls are a good choice for weight measurement.

At King Arthur, we've made a commitment, for the foreseeable future, to include both traditional measurements and weight measurements. Eventually we'd like to include metric measurements because those are the door to the rest of the world and its history, as well as to our common future.

There are so many of us bakers around the world who would love to share the things we love to bake with each other. But because we're all speaking different measurement "languages" we can be somewhat stymied.

We shouldn't give up our old measurements entirely. There's too much history and sentiment tied up in them. "Butter the size of a walnut" stirs a chord that "28.35g butter" just can't. But where there are no walnuts, we need the other measurement as well.

Metric conversions

With the exception of the other English-speaking nations, cookbooks are written with metric measurement.

Should you run into a metric cookbook, here are some conversions of basic U.S. measurements: You can see that it's difficult to translate exactly. As mentioned above, small amounts will not make much difference so metric amounts are usually rounded. (You use milliliters, or "ml" when you're speaking of liquids and grams, or "g" when you speak of solids.)

Volume Metric
1/5 teaspoon 1 milliliter
1 teaspoon 5 ml
1 tablespoon 15 ml
1 fluid oz. 30 ml
1/4 cup 59 ml
1 cup 237 ml
2 cups (1 pint) 473 ml
4 cups (1 quart) .95 liter
4 quarts (1 gallon) 3.8 liters
Weight Metric
1 oz. 28 grams
1 pound 454 grams
2.2 pounds 1 kilogram (kg)
Temperature conversions

And should you be faced with an overseas oven here are some temperature conversions from Fahrenheit to centigrade with the "gas marks," used in some countries, as well.

°F°CGas Mark
2251001/4
2501301/2
2751401
3001502
3251703
3501804
3751905
4002006
4252207
4502308
4752409

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.

Our first plea is that you buy and use a scale.

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.

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.

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.

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

It used to be measuring spoons came in a simple set of four round spoons:

1/4 and 1/2 teaspoon, 1 teaspoon, and 1 tablespoon. Now, that basic set has expanded to include 1/8, 3/4, and 1 1/2 teaspoon measures; and the spoons themselves may be oblong-shaped, to fit easily into spice cans, or given a flat bottom, so they rest easily on the counter when filled with salt or vanilla.

While it's difficult to ascertain the accuracy of measuring spoons, one check you can make is that the parts add up to the whole:

3 teaspoons should equal a tablespoon, two 1/2-teaspoons a teaspoon, etc. If these measurements don't add up, the overall accuracy of the spoons should be questioned.

Our favorite measuring spoons are stainless steel, with the size of each imprinted on its handle. They hold their shape through the heat of the dishwasher, unlike some plastic spoons. If you're willing to wash plastic spoons by hand, however, they're a good low-cost alternative. And, if they're color-coded (red = 1 teaspoon, etc.), they're ideal for those dealing with vision problems.

Measuring cups

There are two basic types of measuring cup: liquid, and dry. A liquid measure should have a pouring spout; and be made of clear glass or plastic, with clear markings on the side; markings should include as many "in-between" volumes as possible (e.g., 2/3, 3/4, etc.). While some liquid measuring cups include all kinds of markings besides straight American volume (metric, fluid ounces, etc.), we find these markings extraneous. Most American recipes are written using American volume measurements; these are the markings you need.

Some newer measuring cups allow you to look straight down into the cup at its markings; this is handy, as leaving the cup on the counter steadies the liquid, making it easy to measure.

Our favorite liquid measure size is 2 cups; we also appreciate a measure that's microwave-safe, for warming milk and melting butter.

To accurately read a traditional measuring cup, set it on a flat surface and crouch down to where you can see the top of the liquid at eye level. You'll see two very thin lines atop the surface of the liquid. This is the meniscus-you learned this in high school physics, right? Read the level at the base (bottom) of the meniscus.

Dry measures come in sets; a complete set will include 1/8-, 1/4-, 1/3-, 1/2-, 2/3-, 3/4-, and 1-cup measures. Add 1 1/2-, 2-, and 3-cup measures, if you like. These measures shouldn't have spouts; a dry measure needs to be filled right up to the top to be accurate, and shouldn't be used for measuring liquids. While usually made of stainless steel, they also come in plastic. Each cup's size should be imprinted on its handle; some measuring cups also print the size on the outside base of the cup, so you can read it when the cup is hanging on a pegboard, a handy feature. It's also useful if the cups nest nicely, so you can stow them in a drawer if you don't want to hang them.

Another kind of measuring cup, consisting of a clear, round sleeve with a sliding solid base set within, is wonderful for measuring shortening, peanut butter, molasses, and other sticky ingredients.

If you have what you believe to be an accurate scale, you can check the accuracy of your measuring cups by measuring out 1 cup of water, and weighing it; it should weigh 8 ounces (if you live close to sea level). Check smaller and larger amounts, as well.

Scale

You'll notice that all of the recipes in our web site include a toggle switch for ingedients so you can view both weight and volume measurements; this is because weight measurements are more accurate, and it's usually easier to scale a recipe up or down (i.e., increase or decrease the yield) dealing with weight, not volume.

The two main types of scale include digital, and mechanical. Digital scales are much more accurate and, unless expense is a real issue, we suggest spending the money for a battery-powered digital scale. Here are some things to consider when purchasing a digital scale. First, make sure the measuring platform fits your favorite bowls; we suggest buying a scale with a flat platform, rather than a detachable bowl. Second, ascertain that it measures in both American pounds and ounces, and metric grams, and that it's easy to switch from one to the other; the switch should be located on the front of the scale, not its bottom.

Third, assess the scale's capacity. In general, scales weigh up to about 4 pounds, in 1/8-ounce or 2g (sometimes 1g) increments; up to about 11 pounds, in 1/4-ounce or 5g (sometimes 2g) increments; or a combination (the smaller increments at the lower weights). Are you baking small to standard quantities, or do you have lightweight bowls? Choose the smaller-capacity scale. Are your bowls heavy, or do you like to double or triple recipes? Choose the larger capacity scale. Finally, check the scale's automatic shut-off; our favorite scales will remain on during at least 5 minutes of inactivity (something that happens frequently, when we're distracted by the phone ringing, the dog barking to be let out, or kids asking questions). A scale that shuts off after 1 minute is annoying; if you were partway through measuring flour into the bowl, you need to start over (unless you can remember how much was in the bowl before it shut off).

Thermometers

Instant-read thermometers (those that register a final temperature within 15 seconds or so) are an essential baking tool. Rather than guessing, it's nice to know the temperature of a fully cooked custard pie (165°F), a loaf of baked bread (190°F to 210°F), or yeast dough at its optimum rising temperature (76°F to 78°F). Why choose instant-read, rather than standard? Because standing with the oven door open waiting for a standard thermometer to work is unpleasant for you, and not helpful to your baked goods.

Thermometers are made of a sharpened, stainless steel probe attached to a measuring dial or window. The better thermometers will read temperature in the final 1/8-inch of the probe; lower-quality thermometers need to be inserted deeper in order to work, not helpful when you're trying to take the temperature of a shallow custard-based tart. The greater the temperature range of the thermometer, the more expensive it will be. It's helpful to have a thermometer that reads to at least 370°F, as that's the oil temperature required by many fried doughs. At the other end, yeast does well dissolved in water that's about 105°F, so choose a thermometer that goes that low.

A nice innovation is a thermometer whose probe is attached to the measuring dial via a long, thin metal cord. The probe can be inserted into your partially baked loaf of bread, the oven door closed, and when the bread's reached 190°F (or whatever temperature you program it for), the thermometer will beep to let you know.

Instant read thermometers come in both digital and mechanical versions. Digital thermometers are generally easier to read, and may be more accurate; however, they also require a battery. Mechanical thermometers are less expensive.

An oven thermometer is also useful. One that can both hang from the oven rack, or stand on its own is handy; move it around the oven to check for any hot spots. Oven thermometers are always mechanical, never digital; while mercury oven thermometers are a bit more accurate, we hesitate to use them due to the slight possibility they could break and spill their mercury in the oven.

Timers

Like scales and thermometers, timers come in both mechanical and battery-powered digital versions. We prefer digital timers; not just because they're more accurate, but because we've never found a mechanical timer with a ring longer than about 8 seconds, and that's not long enough for the busy baker who might have stepped out of the kitchen for 10 seconds.

A popular digital timer is a small, lightweight version that hangs around the neck; there's never a chance of burning your cookies because you're out in the garden or upstairs reading. Most digital timers are magnetized to attach to your refrigerator or oven; some also include a fold-out stand, and/or clip to attach to a belt or pocket. Important features to assess include loudness and length of ring (1 minute is a good standard); size of numerals (3/4-inch is helpful for older eyes); and range. Some timers count down by seconds, and their range is up to 9 hours, 99 minutes, 99 seconds. Some timers don't count by seconds, but their range is much higher. If you don't need second-by-second timing, choose the timer with the greater range; we prefer timers that measures by seconds, as often we're beating whipped cream or doing some other chore we like to measure in 30- or 90-second intervals.