Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Measuring spoons: the good, the bad, and the ugly

I get a huge number of questions about cooking equipment in my classes and for a good reason. What pan you use to make a sauce, and what knife you use to slice your onions makes a difference. Students had asked about everything before: knives, boards, skillets, dutch ovens, food processors, meat thermometer, and zesters. One thing no one had ever asked me about was measuring spoons. To tell you the truth, I've never wondered about them either. How exactly can they be good or bad? All they have to do is measure, and surely they are standard. At least that's what I thought until a few weeks ago.

I needed another set of measuring spoons for the Rustic Italian Baking class to avoid having students waiting for equipment during the practice part of the class. I asked Jason to pick up a set at Target for me. This is the teaspoon from the set he got.

This is the teaspoon from the set I normally use.

When I tried to use the new 1 tsp measure on salt (Diamond Crystal Kosher) using the standard scoop-and-level-off-with-a-straight-edge method, the amount seemed too small to me, so out of curiosity, I pulled out a scale and weighed 1 tsp of Diamond Crystal Kosher salt that I got with my old spoon (round in shape) and the new spoon (flat in shape).

Round shape spoon: 1 tsp DCK salt weighed 2.81 g
Flat shape spoon: 1 tsp DCK salt weighed 1.57g

In other words, one spoon was giving me almost twice as much salt as the other. Shocked by this difference, I was guessing it was due to the coarse nature of my salt. So I decided to try some other substances using 1 tsp measure from 3 sets. Here are my findings.

Table Salt (measured by scooping and leveling with a straight edge)

Teaspoon #1: 5.93g
Teaspoon #2: 6.28g
Teaspoon #3: 3.34g
Official weight: 6g

Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt (measured by scooping and leveling with a straight edge)

Teaspoon #1: 2.81g
Teaspoon #2: 2.88g
Teaspoon #3: 1.57g
Official weight: 2.8g

Water (measured by scooping to fill the spoon to the brim)

Teaspoon #1: 5.68g
Teaspoon #2: 5.07g
Teaspoon #3: 4.39g
Official weight: 5g

For measuring liquid ingredients, the flat spoon was at least in the ballpark. But with the dry ingredients, it wasn't even close to the official weight for either the small grained or large grained salt.

So what's the big deal? Will a little more or less minced parsley hurt your dish? Of course, not. And if you are measuring parsley with measuring spoons, you need to relax and just start throwing it in. But what if your cake asks for 1 tsp of baking powder or your bread asks for 1 tsp salt and what you are putting in is half of what the recipe intended without even suspecting it? That's huge, my friends! Unless you are the kind of baker who is happy just because the house smells good, you'll be very disappointed with the results.

What can you do about it?

Get measuring spoons that are deep and round in shape, avoid anything flat or interesting looking. The next piece of advice is only applicable to serious bakers and/or geeky engineering types. Buy a scale that can measure small amounts. Mine is a cheapy little tea scale. So it only costs about $15 (that's not even double what any decent set of measuring spoons costs).

Very few recipes will give you the weight of salt, yeast, and other small ingredients, but you can look this info up in any good bread baking book (The Bread Bible by Rose Beranbaum is my favorite -- she even gives weight for small ingredients in each recipe). For a few years, I thought that all her recipes were under-salted. I knew she was using fine sea salt, and I was using Diamond Crystal Kosher salt. I accounted for it by doubling the amount of salt (that's what Cook's Illustrated tells you to do to go between table and DCK), but it turns out to be an even bigger difference than that. 1 tsp of DCK is 2.8 grams. 1 tsp of table salt is 6 grams, and 1 tsp of Rose's salt is 6.6 grams. So, for every teaspoon that the recipe called for, I was a gram short even after doubling the volume amount. Is that a noticeable difference? Oh yes! It's about 30% less salt and 30% less flavor than intended. I adjusted this amount eventually, but must have made at least 10 recipes where the first attempt came out awfully bland.

I made myself a little table of ingredients commonly measured in teaspoons using Rose's book.

1 tsp instant yeast = 3.2 grams
1 tsp baking powder = 4.9 grams
1 tsp baking soda = 5 grams
1 tsp cream of tartar = 3.1 grams

Her salt measurement in the back of the book puzzles me. She doesn't specify the type of salt and says that 1 tsp salt = 5.7 grams. That's not the conversion she uses in her recipes though. So here is my salt conversion:

1 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt = 2.8 grams
1 tsp Table salt = 6 grams
1 tsp Rose's salt = 6.6 grams (I include this for myself because I use her book so much :)

Note that Morton's Kosher salt is a whole other animal and is not comparable in weight to DCK.

Salt is a painful topic. Considering that we are a country scared to death of salt, I am amazed that we need so many different types. Life would be so much easier if we could just decide on what the word "salt" means in a recipe. The food writers just threw up their hands in the last 10-20 years and now call for "Salt to taste" or "generous pinch of salt." In baking recipes, that doesn't work and they still call for a particular volume amount without always specifying the salt type, or saying something wishy-washy like "finely ground sea salt." But 5 grams of one salt are just as salty as 5 grams of another salt, and that's good to know.


Lyndsey said...

Very interesting post. I have such trouble with baking because I am a "throw in a little of this and some of that in the pan until you get it the way you like it cook" The hardest part of blogging was actually measuring and writing it down. So for baking I did buy a scale because of the differences in measuring cups too. Also the flour, if it is settled and such. I was hoping that the answer was going to be in what measuring spoons are most accurate! Then I would just go out and buy it! Of course it's more complex than that!:D

Nick said...

I seem to recall Cook's Illustrated doing a similar test, except also including measuring cups. Like you they found that the variance among different tools was pretty bad.

I long ago started using a scale with 0.1 g resolution for measuring things like baking soda, yeast, and salt,for baked goods anyway. Measuring salt by weight for most things is pretty much unnecessary.

Helen said...

Hi guys,

About measuring things like flour with measuring cups -- it's just a joke. I wrote about it before here.

I am sure there is a lot of variability with dry measuring cups due to different shapes even for uncompressable ingredients like rice and sugar, but for flour, there is no such thing as a good measuring cup. If it can be fluffed or compressed, it needs to be weighed.

It just never occurred to me that the difference would be so large for ingredients that can't be compressed, like salt. But when it comes to small quantities, the shape of the spoon can make a difference as big as 100%.

You guys are absolutely right -- cooking and baking are as different as swimming and sailing. For cooking, you don't have to worry about any of this. In fact, measuring devices almost never come out when I cook. Baking is a totally different matter. Some recipes are more forgiving than others, but overall, the exact ratio of ingredients makes or breaks it.

My recent posts give many people an impression than I am a baker by nature who follows the recipe to the letter and measures everything to the gram. Quite the opposite! I am just like Lyndsey -- "throw in a little of this and some of that in the pan until you get it the way you like it" :) But once I started baking, I quickly realized that it doesn't work. I found that the more anal I got about measurement, the better my baked goods became.

I used to think that weighing salt was for seriously obsessive compulsive people, but adjusting a salt amount in a dough or a batter is just not feasible (like it is with a soup or a sauce) so it's important to get it right. I thought I could get it right with any measuring spoon, but I guess not.

Teri said...

Great post! Thanks for putting it up! I see I need to get new measuring spoons.

What's your opinion of measuring cups?

Patrice @ Circle-B-Kitchen said...

I will add my "amen" to your post. I sort of collect measuring spoons and you wouldn't believe the variation in their sizes. I tend to just use the same ones all the time. Thank you for the conversion tables. I will take the time to weigh where it will make a difference. Thank you!

Helen said...


Please see my previous comment about measuring cups. I don't use dry measuring cups for baking (I weigh), and that's the only time the exact amount really matters. If you want to know which ones are more accurate, I'd consult Cook's Illustrated and Rose Beranbaum's books. Measuring cups aren't cheap and I doubt I'll be buying different sets of them any time soon just for the sake of conducting my own accuracy experiments.


Miss Cheah said...

Very informative. Thanks.

Naturelady said...

Thanks for another great post -- and although I too am a "throw in a little of this and that" type cook and love to experiment, I completely agree with you that quantities matter. Baking bread is so different from making a sauce -- you can't adjust later because the ingredients' chemistry has to be in the right balance BEFORE it hits the oven!

PS: your earlier post discussing the need for salt is excellent too -- could you give the link again?

Helen said...

Here is the link to my post about how to season food (in other words how to use salt)

Kenon Thompson said...

Great post and findings!

cosetthetable.com said...

Given the "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" list on that scale... I imagine not many people use it for salt... or even tea. : )