Okay, I bought a kitchen scale...

via Pinterest

"I'll never own a kitchen scale."
I remember saying that and firmly believing the words. Now I've decided to give up the habit of saying "I will never ____." I've sworn off too many things only to have them somehow come back to haunt me. Downtown Abbey, skinny jeans, shortening the phrase "two-thousand-seventeen" to "twenty-seventeen," and choosing to cook my eggs with runny centers are just some of the "nevers" which have (deviously) become frequent habits of mine. There are a few things which I have stopped saying "never" about in hopes I can trick fate into truly keeping away from them. Are you interested to know what things?
Liking 1980's pop-culture & fashion (looking at you Stranger Things), online dating, and enjoying french toast are on that list. But back to business: kitchen scales definitely fell under the "never" heading, mainly because I thought they were a little parsimonious; a little Scroogelike, what with counting every gram and ounce to exact proportions. Though not typically a haughty person, I will sometimes indulge in small-scale snobbery over opinions I hold dear. I am fond of my opinions - most of us are - and tend to think they are quite good enough reason to disbelieve someone else's. So when a food blogger I respect and like took to Instagram to ask her readers whether or not they would like to see her recipes described in weights as well as conventional measurements, I thought this was another passing fancy. This blogger has gained thousands of followers with her stellar photography, exotic travel destinations, white marble kitchen, and general elitism. Kitchen scales were yet another thing that separated the pedestrian followers from the truly great, largely by way of whether or not you possess a travel budget and expensive photography equipment. And so I loudly voted "no" and further discussed the bad idea of introducing kitchen scales into the American kitchen in the comments section of her post. I know, A-class fan here. The sort of person everyone loves to see a notification from. You know.
"A meringue is really nothing but a foam. And what is a foam after all but a big collection of bubbles? And what's a bubble? It's basically a very flimsy latticework of proteins draped with water. We add sugar to this structure, which strengthens it. But things can, and do, go wrong." -Alton Brown
And then...revenge. The Ghost of Rachel's Future crept up and laid vaporous, icy fingers on life. I started sourdough school (on hiatus due to my inability to make it home for scheduled feedings) and in order to properly encourage my ill-fated starter, Gucci, to grow strong and well, I ordered a cheap kitchen scale ($10) off of Amazon and got to work. Soon it became habit to come home late at night or before I left for work in the morning, take down my little kitchen scale, and measure out the proper ratios of rye and wheat and water. This was fun. I could clear my measurements with the press of a button, not have to worry about washing up measuring cups or finding them in the first place. But I never dreamed that I would use it for anything but this sourdough project. It made sense that to start a viable life-form out of water, flour, and thin air one might possibly want the precision of a kitchen scale. But for other things I had been making my entire life - BAH HUMBUG. Surely a scale could not effect my chocolate chip cookies, or my whole wheat bread, or cake batters so much that it was worth changing the habits of fifteen, even twenty years of baking. And perhaps for those things, it doesn't. And perhaps for those things, it does. I confess I have not worked through each one of my favorite recipes to find the advised weights and bake them that way instead to see if there is a massive difference. What I have done, however, is seen a distinct drop in how often I need to google. Now when I'm testing a recipe from a UK or Europe-based blog or cookbook I don't have to google how many cups is 250 grams, then try to find the nearest conventional measurement to that amount. I don't have to squint at a stick of butter and try to carve off one fifth of a tablespoon to add to 1/4 cup. I simply glob some butter onto my scale and scrape off whatever is in excess of the required weight. A drop in Google searches is one benefit of my kitchen scale. 
"...Light yet rich, every mouthful is a poem....to describe the cake, it is layers of baked meringue mounted one upon the other, like a regular layer cake, with filling in between." -Julia Child's Mastering The Art Of French Cooking
Startling to me, I began to use the scale for other things. Not just my sourdough, nor just saving time and distraction on the internet. When rifling through the cupboards to find a measuring cup was too much effort, I pulled out the scale, set a coffee mug on top of it, and measured in the requisite 50 grams of sugar. You can use literally anything as a measuring device when you've got a scale. Soap dishes, large ladles, tea cups, ramekins, cream pitchers, anything. Following this revelation came a third - the one that ought to have been most obvious but was, in fact, the thing I scoffed at most. And that is accuracy.
"Be accurate when you measure flour or you will run into cake and pastry problems. Although a scale is deal, and essential when you are cooking in large quantities...." -Julia Child's Mastering The Art of French Cooking
Baking is science. I try to pretend like it's not science because science and I have never got along so well, but at its foundation, baking is less art and more chemistry. The more I agree with this statement and pay heed to the ensuing logic, the better my baking has become. With some things like oatmeal raisin cookies or fudgy brownies, an extra few grams of flour or brown sugar isn't going to kill your jam. But there are things in the pastry world which are as finicky as you would expect science to be. When you're creating a chemical formula, it wouldn't do you any good to measure extra milliliters of boric acid into the beaker and hope your final product would work out the way it always has. The beauty of science, though, is that if you do follow the formula and instructions, there is a very high chance you'll succeed perfectly well. This is something the disorganized of us don't count on. Ever. But we could and that's the beauty of protocol. So those dodgy recipes that we're all so afraid of? If we would just follow instructions and measure out the proper ingredients by the proper weight, there wouldn't be much cause for trepidation.
"Thus the metric system did not really catch on in the States, unless you count the popularity of the nine millimeter bullet." -Dave Barry
With the weather cooling down the way it has, I thought I'd to try to make macarons. I've been afraid of them since trying (with conventional measurements, mind you) at a friend's house in the middle of Georgia's early summer. Humidity was rank and I had no clue where anything in the kitchen really belonged or was located. Of course they didn't go great and I wasn't surprised. I thought macarons were something the gods only could achieve. And maybe a few lucky mortals - mortals who had thousands of followers, white marble kitchens, owned better photography equipment than I, and probably had some sort of a travel budget. You know. The kind of humans who own (and use) kitchen scales. But was it possible that I - still equipment-less and travel budget-less but in possession of a kitchen scale now- could try again and even dare to hope for success? I gathered my courage and a recipe written in weights, and got to work. There were approximates involved. Things like "the whites of three large eggs (100 grams)." A gram is a gram the world round. I found that substitutions were more exact by this method. When I was out of conventional granulated sugar which I was supposed to grind till superfine, I could measure out exactly fifty grams of cane sugar and grind it down to the same effect. Had you asked me to measure 1/2 cup, this could have gone differently as the crystals of natural sugar are larger and heavier than those of table sugar. There was no guessing as to whether my almond flour would pack down heavier than the recipe. Grams are grams. As the steps continued to the macarons, my confidence grew. This was not as difficult as they said, apart from the fact that I had to follow precise instructions. Do you know, my success as a rule-follower continued all the way through the oven stage (when I skimped on testing the temperature and lightly scorched my shells, but hey)? By the end of this experiment, I felt a need to apologize, because the proof sat robed in parchment paper on my kitchen counter: one dozen beautiful macarons made of egg whites, ground almonds, superfine sugar, and the simple willingness to follow exact instructions.

Sometimes baking is a formula. Sometimes the formula is there, not to squelch creativity, but to insure that your hard work pays off well. Who knew that following the rules would be a good thing? Who knew that a reasonable approach to perfection could be attained by someone who does not have thousands of followers, a fancy camera, white marble counters, and an extensive travel budget? Gram are grams the world round. And here's the thing: a $10 kitchen scale will tell you that.

2 comments

  1. And again, Rachel succeeds at making something as mundane as the decision to purchase a kitchen scale delightful and thought-provoking. You make me want to go out and buy one, even though I don't have time to bake. Such the magic of well-spun words.

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    1. You're so kind, Kate. And if you ever do have time to bake again...well...you know my opinions on the subject of kitchen scales. XD

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