Amongst bakers, the question of using measurements in weights versus cups is extremely contentious. In general, these days, most bakers (especially anyone who considers themselves professional) will swear by weight measurements. There has been a big call to get homebakers to move away from cups and adopt weights.
Why use weights? Benefits of weight measurements
There are a lot of good reasons for using the scale instead of cups. Weight measurement offers some significant benefits:
- Better control of precise measurements - you don't have to worry about over- or under-filling a cup measure, levelling flour or the difference between sifted and unsifted flour volume.
- It is easier to scale up or down a recipe by weight. Have you ever had a recipe that calls for an awkward measurement that is difficult to divide by cups? With a scale, it's never a problem - even halving 3 eggs by weight can be accomplished with precision.
There are also some arguments in favour of weights that I don't particularly agree with:
- Many will also claim that using scales saves on washing up - that is one factor I've never personally found to be true, since I usually need to use a plate or bowl to measure the weight before adding to my mix.
Problems with the Flour Example
Now, I actually do like using weights for certain recipes - patisserie in particular. But, I think that cup measurements still have a place for the homebaker.
This is because the arguments I've seen in favour of weight measurements really only focus on flour.
Ever notice that everyone demonstrating the significance of using a scale will use poorly measured cups of flours as their example? Well, yes, of course if you go measuring your flour without any care for actually levelling the cup or scooping evenly, you're going to get drastically different amounts. That's not really a demonstration that cups are useless so much as a demonstration that bakers should take some care in scooping their ingredients.
If you scoop and level your flour in your cup measures, the degree of difference will be much more negligible.
Those same bakers arguing for scales will continue to use teaspoons and even tablespoons as measures in their recipes on the grounds that these are micromeasurements. Well a teaspoon of salt weighs 7g. If this is an insignificant micromeasurement, then the fact that an entire tablespoon of flour only weights about 9g is also quite an insignificant measure overall.
If you level your flour, you're unlikely to go much more than 10g over/under the necessary amount for your recipe. Unless you are making delicate patisserie (choux or other finicky pastries), this amount of variance is not going to dramatically effect the result of your overall bake.
Arguments in Favour of Cup Measures
Personally, I think cup measures have some important benefits, so I want to weigh these in to the discussion.
1. Opportunity for Baking Creativity
How many of you have heard that 'baking is a science'?
It's not untrue - the chemical reactions of ingredients in baking is exactly what produces a well risen bread or moist cake. But, how many of you have been put off home baking because science sounds scary? Or exclusive? As if you can't do it without deep knowledge of the chemical process?
I've heard from many people that they love to cook but hate to bake. They like cooking because they feel more empowered to experiment with a recipe and they feel that baking can't be experimented with. This fear of baking is only compounded by adding an obsession with precision to the mix.
Yes, to get results, baking does require recipes and measurement. But in most homebaking recipes, you don't need to be unfailingly precise. I feel that the current appeal to use scales limits people feeling free to be creative.
2. Focus on Baking by Ratios
The true science in baking is actually about ratios.
If you're used to baking by volume and cup measurements then you actually are gaining a skill that can see you make cake with a literal cup. I've made pound cake with a mug in a pinch.
By thinking about baking in terms of ratios, you start to understand the amounts needed and the relationship of the ingredients to each other. For example, using pound cake as an example, I know that I need 3:2:1 - 3 cups flour, 2 cups sugar, 1 cup butter. Another 1 cup of buttermilk and about 1 cup of eggs. It doesn't really matter what size the actual cups are, so long as the ratios stay the same.
With an eye to the volume you can then adjust the leavening agents. If you're using conventional cups for the 3:2:1 ratio, it's ½ teaspoon of each baking powder and baking soda with a bit more salt. If you're using a smaller cup or a larger cup, eye it up and add a bit more of each just knowing that you use equal parts of baking powder, baking soda and a bit extra salt.
Vanilla or other extracts to flavour and bake until a toothpick tells me it's done.
3. Making your Family Recipes
Now, maybe this is just me, but one of my favourite parts of baking is making family recipes.
Cup measurements came into use in the US in the 19th century. All of my grandmothers' recipes are in cups. Yes, if I really wanted to, I could go through each of these and translate them into weights. But, why convert recipes that already work?
I'm perhaps a little too much of a stickler for tradition, but I like using the recipe as it was actually passed down. It reminds me how I started baking and gives a better sense of continuity with my family than superficially converting them to weights just to keep up with a trend.
Conclusions on Weights versus Cups
Honestly, I'm all for using whatever you're most comfortable with in terms of your baking! If you're a lover of weights or a firm supporter of being as precise as possible, then stick with it and embrace the scales. But, if you're like me and still have a soft spot for cups, know that you're not alone!
With few exceptions, all of my recipes are in cup measurements - this is what I grew up with and what I credit with giving me confidence to experiment with baking. Cups provided an avenue for me to learn how baking worked and to understand ratios, whereas I found weights restrictive and with an air of exclusivity.
As an aside, I should also note that my reluctance to endorse scales may also stem from the fact that they aren't always precision guaranteed. Mine aren't very good or accurate - sometimes throwing up all sorts of odd readings! So there is that too - take it for what it's worth. And make your own decisions on how you prefer to bake!