Tuesday, June 26, 2007

What a difference an ounce makes

“What are you doing?” asked my husband, Jason, one day when he saw me dunking a measuring cup into a bag of flour and smearing it on the side of the bag. “Measuring flour for brioche,” I replied. He raised his eye-brows. “You call that measuring?” Jason disappeared to the pantry and came back with a scale. He’s been obsessed with making a perfect baguette in a home kitchen and has been approaching the process with the precision of a research scientist that he is. After the first 20 tries, the results were getting close to magnificent. “Oh,” I whined, “I scooped and leveled. How much more precise do you want me to get?”

He pointed to my cup of flour and said, “Dump all this on the scale.” I rolled my eyes, but obeyed. He is, after all, the bread god and I could use all the help I could get since I am bakingly challenged. The scale read 5 1/2 ounces. “You know what a standard cup is?” Jason asked. I shook my head. “4 1/2 ounces. So you are using way too much.”

Have I been using too much flour my entire life? Is that why my cakes were never moist enough and my breads were too dense? Since the scale was already out, I decided to give it a shot just to prove to Jason that one puny little ounce would not make a difference. He simply had that magic touch when it came to baking and I didn’t. I converted my cup measurement into ounces, measured them out, and proceeded with the recipe. 10 hours later (that’s how long Julia Child’s recipe took), we cut into the best bread I’ve ever made. It was almost good enough to rival brioche from a real French Bakery. Could this be that “magic touch” I always thought bakers possessed?

The problem with cups is that “scoop and level” is a very fuzzy concept. When I tried to recreate 4 ½ ounces with cups, I had to jump through many hoops. I found that storing the flour in its original bag makes it too compact for cup measurement and you end up with too much in your cup. Moving the flour to a canister and stirring it before scooping helped, but I still wasn’t at 4 ½ ounces. What finally got me the desired weight was spooning the flour into a cup instead of scooping it. Smearing the cup against the side of the bag or container to level the flour is also a no-no – this packs the flour into the cup. You have to use a straight edge to sweep away the excess. I finally gave up on cups entirely. It’s actually faster and tremendously more reliable to dump the flour into a bowl of a scale.

The only scale I’ve ever tried is the one Jason bought for his bread experiments years ago. It’s a cheap and simple analog scale made by Soehnle. Keeping the box makes storing this little scale very convenient. Since fruit and veggies can go directly on the scale, the only thing we use the bowl for is flour. We don’t even wash it out after use. Just turn it over the sink, give it a few taps to shake out remaining flour, and back in the box it goes. These days, most bakers go digital when it comes to scales (just like with cameras, music devices, and all the other gadgets). I wonder if one day we'll have digital pots and pans. If you want a digital scale recommendation, check out Matthew Amster-Burton's article on Culinate.

March 09, 2010 update: Even a troglodyte like me finally got out of the analog scale age. Digital scales are no more expensive and are so much easier to read. Here is what I have now.

I am sure there are other tricks good bakers have up their floury sleeves, but measuring flour correctly can go a long way.

Why did I decide to write a whole post on measuring flour? You'll find out very soon. I have a very tasty post in the works and measuring flour correctly is such a big part of it (and all of my other baking posts) that I finally decided to give this topic the attention it deserves.


Nina said...

Great post about a worthy subject. The issue of measuring flour still makes me a little anxious b/c I always wonder how the recipe-writer measured the flour (they may well have scooped and leveled) and there are a few different weights for a cup of flour out there. I happen to use 120g AP flour per cup b/c that what the label on my flour says, but I've seen it as high as 140g in recipes that give weights and volume equiv's.

Of course, if everyone would just commit to listing the weight, what a wonderful world it would be!

Katerina said...

I totally had this epiphany a little while ago - it really takes some of the chance out of baking. I had a similar epiphany with oven thermometers. It took a $5 oven thermometer for me to realize just how long my oven takes to preheat - and not the 5-10 minutes it thinks. So.. which bread recipe did you make?

Helen said...

Nina: I so hear you about weight instead of volume measurement. I don't think I'd even buy a baking book these days that doesn't list the weight measures at least for flour.

Katerina: you are making me wonder about my oven temperature -- I should probably check it sometimes. The bread is a focaccia :)

BipolarLawyerCook said...

You're right, of course, but I am too stubborn. My husband likes baking better than I do, so I stick to dessert recipes where weight v. volume doesn't matter-- usually flourless chocolate cakes or roasted fruit. Which hardly counts, I s'pose.

Helen said...

Hi BipolarLawyerCook (a.k.a. EMDB :)

By the way, what does EMDB stand for? I haven't posted on chowhound in a long time either. Y'know, there is absolutely nothing wrong with roasted fruit and flourless chocolate cakes. In fact, when I need a dessert that's the kind of stuff I usually make and there is no need to get technical or precise -- that's why I love it. It's more like cooking than baking. But in case you ever decide to venture into the dough territory, a scale comes in very handy. Though with a husband who bakes, venturing into the dough territory might not be necessary ;)


SteamyKitchen said...

oops...i am guilty of using side of bag.

BipolarLawyerCook said...

Helen, it's just my various married and unmarried initials, with the E for Erika. Your focaccia post is mighty tempting... and it would justify my husband's yen for a better kitchen scale-- it is a gadget, after all.


Helen said...

Yes, there is nothing like gadgets to get men into cooking :)