Sunday, July 08, 2007

Beth: Weights & Measures

There is a reason that, though injured, I wanted to write this article. You see, here at A Year in Bread HQ, we have weighty discussions and a fundamental disagreement that seems destined to remain eternally unresolved. Fortunately for our friendship, we each know that we alone are correct and we are happy to let the other two believe what they want to believe. So we continue to be good friends even across this divide.

Fortunately for you, however, I get to give you my side of the argument first and with any luck, educate you on something that has been weighing heavily on my mind lately before Susan and Kevin arrive to tell you what they believe (which is wrong, remember, but we can humor them — they are so much easier to live with when they think they are right).

What is the great argument here? Only the one true weigh, I mean way to bread happiness!

The question is: How much does a cup of flour weigh? The answers:
· Beth 4.5 ounces (126gr)
· Kevin 5.2 ounces (145gr)
· Susan 5 ounces (140gr)
How is it possible that three experienced, passionate, and sometimes downright geeky bakers can fail to agree on such a basic number? More importantly, what does that mean for people who just want to reliably make good bread?

Sadly, I have no simple answers. The weight of a cup of flour depends on many variables: the exact type of flour, whether it is sifted (and when), how the flour gets from container to measuring cup (scooped or spooned), and (my favorite) the weather.

What I can offer you is a collection of our thoughts on how we deal with the inexactness of measuring flour in real life (and a few related matters) with the hope that you will find your own answer for how much your cup of flour weighs.

"A pint is a pound the whole world 'round." This refers to the fact that a pint of water (or beer) weighs one pound. This means that one ounce of liquid also weighs one ounce and it's the only case where converting from weight to volume or vice versus is painless.

Did you know that a level tablespoon of table salt weighs more than a level tablespoon of kosher salt, and that a tablespoon of sea salt has yet another weight? These issues matter tremendously when working at commercial quantities and when scaling from a relatively small amount of something to a much bigger amount. That's why professional cooks (and bakers) prefer to use weight to measure things.

I prefer to use volume measurements when baking bread — cups, quarts, tablespoons, and so on. The reason for this preference is convenience and accuracy. I have a decent kitchen scale, but its accuracy is imprecise when measuring units below 1 ounce. So although my scale tells me that a tablespoon of yeast weighs 3/8 of an ounce it might actually weigh 5/16ths. However, a tablespoon is always a tablespoon and is always 15 milliliters. At the quantities a home baker works at that's close enough -- even when measuring salt.

The hardest measure, and least precise, is flour. Flour is hydrophilic — it absorbs water. In a precise formula where water is a key element, such as bread, it isn't simply the weight of the flour that matters, it's the weight of the flour in relation to water that is critical. If the flour contains more water you should add less and if it contains less water you should add more.

Creepy Crawlies
Nearly any flour or grain (oats, etc.) will have some kind of insect eggs in it. Even if you can't store your flours in the freezer, just putting them in there for 24 hours will kill any future creepy crawlies.

As a home baker this is getting far too complicated. What matters is the proportion of water to flour, and you can learn to feel and taste and smell that. And once you learn to do so, then the precise measurements become less important. Feel your dough, taste it, and smell it at every step.

Although I love my scale, which is great for weighing out dough when shaping loaves and rolls, when I make bread I usually use cups & measuring spoons because the amount of flour is almost never the same, so I don't need the precision of weights. What I do is always use the same amount of water and yeast, then add more or less flour to make the dough feel right.

That said, I've been converting all my recipes to weight, because when I start baking on a large scale for the wholesale bread bakery we're slowly building here on the farm, I will have to weigh all of my ingredients.

I tend to make the same recipes over and over so I can get a good feel for what "right" is. I've been using the same brand of flour for over 10 years so I'm familiar with it.

I buy 50-pound bags of Heartland Mill Organic Unbleached All-Purpose Flour and Heartland Mill Organic Strong Bread Flour (High Gluten). During the summer, if I have room I store the flour in a chest freezer; in the winter our pantry literally turns into a walk-in refrigerator so everything is fine in there.

I buy organic whole grain flours (white whole wheat, whole wheat, rye, etc.) in smaller amounts because they go rancid faster. These are best kept in the freezer if possible to keep them fresher.

I store my flour in the original 50-pound bags which I store in large plastic tubs. I fill 2-gallon size commercial plastic tubs with all-purpose and bread flour from the big bags. I just scoop the flour into the tubs with a 2-cup s/s measure. When I'm baking, I take a s/s measuring cup and scoop up enough flour so that the cup overfills in one scoop. Then I scrape off the extra flour with the lid of the tub.

For the longest time I only measured things by volume, using my long practiced kitchenMage sense (sort of like Spidey sense but without the precipitating radiation) to tweak doughs that looked a bit off somehow. One day, after measuring 7 cups of flour for my usual batch of baguettes again, I decided to give in and spend the 50 bucks for a shiny metal box that would magically tell me the correct amount of flour each and every time.

As they say in Minnesota, "Ya sure, you betcha."

I am not saying I stopped weighing things, actually I use the scale all the time. Weighing ingredients, especially flour, is convenient and, once you figure out the correct amounts for a recipe once, reasonably reliable. But you need to figure out what the person who wrote each recipe meant when they said "1 cup" because, as you can see with the three of us, it's probably not what you mean when you say 1 cup.

When I have to measure flour by volume, I shake the plastic container that I store it in, scoop a measuring cup full and level it with the lid — pretty much like Susan. But I seldom measure that way. I usually weigh flour, figuring 4.5 ounces per cup) and leave out about a cup when I am mixing the dough. That flour, and more if needed, gets added once the dough has been mixed a bit and I have a feel for what it needs. The actual amount of flour I use (by weight) gets written in the margin of the cookbook so that after I have made a recipe a few times I know how much flour I need to use.

Usually after I have done this with a few recipes in a given book, I can generalize the weight to the rest of the book. When I can't, it makes me wonder what sort of committee wrote the cookbook — I can deal with high variance from one person to the next but not from one recipe to another in the same darned book!

What does this all mean for you? Well, a couple of things.

First, if you bake something and it doesn't come out quite right — heck, even if it is a total failure — don't blame yourself. Measuring a cup of flour is dirt simple stuff, yet the experts can't even agree amongst themselves. Even beyond that, all books have typos, the rigor of recipe testing varies from book to book, and, as anyone who made meringue on a rainy day will tell you, even environmental factors matter.

More importantly, you need to find your own path through this uncertainty. Susan's approach is a solid one: a cup of water weighs the same amount almost everywhere (I just know someone from Denver will be here to say it's different there). My approach of determining what a given author means in their cookbook will help you a lot as you bake using a variety of recipes. That last bit of advice from Kevin is perhaps the most useful: feel your dough. Once you know what a stiff dough feels like compared to a soft one, you will gain confidence in your baking that goes far beyond certainty as to the weight of a cup of flour.

But I am still right: a cup of flour weighs 4.5 ounces and don't let those heretics tell you otherwise.

Further reading: Weighting to measure

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Blogger Joanna said...

You have NO IDEA how pleased this argument makes me. I am really enjoying this blog, but the one thing I've been struggling with is your weights and measures. I even asked my sister to bring over a set of US cups from California last week. She did, and I haven't yet had a chance to try them out. I'll have to tell her it was kind but completely unnecessary ;)


7/09/2007 3:47 AM  
Anonymous Ulrike said...

Until the age of 25 I never thought of measuring in volume. I grew up with scales and I weigh everything, including Nutella ;-)

7/09/2007 4:14 AM  
Anonymous susaninoz said...

I must admit I find the conversions you give at the start of each recipe interesting. Here in Oz we would normally only list liquid ingredients by metric volume e.g 125ml although they can also be listed as volume measurements e.g. 1/4 cup (I won't say US volume because your cups and spoons are different measures to ours).

Non-liquids e.g. flour are generally given by volume but can just as often be given by metric weight.

So after all that useless trivia :-), I'm with Kevin. Give me volume measurements and I'm happy to look and feel and make adjustments accordingly.

7/09/2007 4:35 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Good for you.{g}

7/09/2007 8:06 AM  
Blogger Baking Soda said...

I'm with Joanna, so glad with this argument.
Beth, your method is mine, all the way (although my cups weigh 140 gr :-0). I try to figure out how much a cup weighs in each book and go from there, feeling the dough. Though I have to admit, there are books that I can't figure out...
And then there's the weather, how old your flour is, the seasons and most importantly the differences in flour in various parts of the world...

7/09/2007 8:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i agree with baking soda. i think weather is the most important thing. if it is really dry outside the 4.5 gr cup might be enough, but if it is really most the 5.2 gr cup might not be enough. its all relative to the humidity levels.

7/09/2007 2:02 PM  
Anonymous Anita said...

Thanks for this very interesting and informative post. I am also relieved to see that I am more or less fine with not having 'exact' measurements since I am very much a home cook, making not more than two loaves at any given time.

I have a lot of 'adjustments' to make since I bake in India where this kind of bread making is left to industrial bakers. All I have to play with are the refined all purpose flour and whole wheat ata, the flour for all out flat breads. But all these years of kneading flour gives me the confidence of the touch-feel-smell thing and I am usually successful in my attempts...and therefore, interested in new recipe!

This blog has become a great resource!

7/09/2007 9:21 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Don't forget "taste." You can tell a lot from the taste of raw dough.

7/09/2007 9:48 PM  
Blogger kitchenmage said...

Joanna, it's a work in progress.

ulrike, hmm, I just scoop the nutella with my finger and eat it. grin

susaninoz, I'm the weird one who weighs everything - even liquids.

Kevin, of course you agree with her.

baking soda and anon, evenTinierTown gets ten feet of rain a year. Until three years ago, I lived where it got less than half that. Then I switched flour brands...what a mess!

Anita, that 'selection' of flour is an extra challenge!

7/09/2007 10:04 PM  
Blogger BC said...

I think that the only reason we use measurements is to allow us to communicate with each other.

So bring on all the measurement languages you use - weight, volume, metric, imperial. Bring on the descriptions too - taste, feel, look and smell. Descriptions help the most when I'm unfamiliar with a recipe. Keep it coming you multilingual ambassadors of bread.

7/09/2007 11:30 PM  
Anonymous Artemis said...

I'm immensely grateful for the weight option. I had previously been using a pizza dough recipe that was by volume and always held back on incorporating that last bit of flour as I judged the feel of the dough. But some days it just wasn't right. I find with weighing the flour (and your gorgeous recipes) my final product is consistently superb ;-)

7/10/2007 10:17 AM  
Blogger JMonkey said...

Personally, I still prefer weights, ironically for the same reasons that Kevin prefers volumetric measures: speed and accuracy. I like the ability to tinker with hydration and see how it affects the bread over time, and weighing makes that easier for me.

And with the "tare" function, I find it's quicker to weigh ingredients than it is to measure them with cups and teaspoons.

But, heck, that's just me. Lots of folks I know make better bread than I do using cups and measuring spoons. And when I make quickbreads, I still usually use cups, mainly because I'm too lazy to convert the recipes to weights ....

7/10/2007 11:30 AM  
Anonymous Susan said...

jmonkey took the words right out of my mouth. To each her own, but it's weighing all the way for me.

Thank you for this site, I love it!

7/11/2007 1:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey yall! I guess I never thought much about weighing my ingredients until I came on AYIB. As a home cook I have always measured by volume. Weighing seems like a lot of trouble unless you are baking and cooking professionally. The only time I would like to weigh is when I divide the dough into loaves. It is nice when they are consistently the same size. I can see the advantage of weighing, but since it's just me and hubby most of the time, I will probably stick to measuring by volume. Oh, if I get some "found" money that I just want to blow, I might buy one of those fancy kitchen scales! ha

I did notice that the weight of a cup of flour was inconsistent, so I would struggle with that; and also I think Susaninoz said that the US volume was different from where she lives. Looks like we need a common weight system to be able to exchange recipes worldwide.


7/11/2007 2:03 PM  
Blogger BreadBox said...

A pint's a pound the world around. Except when it's not. Which is most of the rest of the world.

In Britain, of course, a pint of pure water weighs a pound and a quarter.

Except that these two statements are inconsistent. Even taking into account the facts that
a) a pound is the same in both countries
b) a pint in the US is 16 fl oz
c) a pint in UK is 20 fl oz
one has to consider the fact that fluid ounces differ between the two countries as well!

7/12/2007 7:44 AM  
Blogger lucette said...

Very interesting. I'm really comfortable with volume, and since I've been baking a long time, I also feel comfortable using a little more or less flour depending on what's going on. But I am thinking about getting a kitchen scale, to see if that works for me.

7/12/2007 11:08 AM  
Blogger ejm said...

DON'T get me started! Oops, too late... :-D

I generally measure in volume rather than by weight - but it's only because it's easier to dip my 1/2cup measure into the bag of flour and transfer it directly to the bowl - rather than dip into the bag of flour, transfer it to my (nondigital) scale then dump the contents from the scale half into the bowl and half onto the counter, curse, scoop as much of the contents back into the scale, try to scrape any that actually got into the bowl, curse... (well, you get the picture) I'd love to have a scale like the one that Nigella Lawson has - with a nice little spout on one side of the stainless steel bowl for ease of pouring.

Having said all this, I very much like to see what measuring system people use. As already pointed out, a US cup holds less than a Cdn cup (I believe Cdn and Aus cups are the same)

US cup = 240 ml
Cdn cup = 250 ml

BUT a Cdn halfcup measure is equivalent to 120ml. Does this make sense?? NO.

I use my halfcup measure to fluff, scoop flour. But I use my cup measure to measure liquid. All because I think most bread recipes call for too much flour. (I love slack dough bread.)

A couple of years ago I did a test and measured several different scoops of flour to try to ascertain what weight of flour I used.

This is what I came up with:

1/2c unbleached allpurpose flour = 66 gm

(on my scale: 70gm using 'fluff-spoon-level' OR 80gm using 'fluff-scoop-level' methods of putting unbleached allpurpose flour in the cup)

1/2 c wholewheat flour = 62gm
(on my scale: 55-60gms using 'fluff-spoon-level' OR 70gm using 'fluff-scoop-level' methods of putting wholewheat flour in the cup)

Okay, I think I've probably ranted enough about this. Except to add that I maintain that the measurements for bread making are not carved in stone. Bread is incredibly forgiving. For the home baker, it really doesn't matter if one loaf is a little different from the next.

-Elizabeth, in Canada, where an ounce is an ounce the world over but a pint holds 2+1/2 cups unless it's an American pint holding 2 cups, unless the cups are Cdn cups... AUGH!!! and it just gets worser and worser - a fluid ounce is not the same even within Canada because some measuring containers come from the US and some come from Canada. (Sorry, I just couldn't help myself from ranting just a little more...)

P.S. On a happy note, I have my first try at sourdough made with my own captured wild yeast proofing! I'm very excited.... (and yes, I measured everything with my Tablespoons, halfcups and cups, using the eyeball method for levelling.)

7/13/2007 1:27 PM  
Blogger kitchenmage said...

elizabeth, I am just nodding in agreement with it all... OTOH, wild yeast sourdough? now that IS exciting!

7/13/2007 2:49 PM  
Anonymous Anita said...

Hmmm...will have to try 'tasting' the raw dough from now... :-D

Loved ejm's rant!

7/13/2007 9:47 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...


> Hmmm...will have to ry 'tasting' the raw dough from now... :-D

Don't make fun.{s} Tasting tells you a lot about dough. Sometimes more than you wish.

7/13/2007 10:13 PM  
Blogger ejm said...

Well, rats!! I am coming back here with my tail between my legs to report that my first attempt at a sourdough bread made with recently captured wild yeast was a miserable failure. But I refuse to believe that it was because I didn't weigh the measurements... :-D


7/15/2007 4:22 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

Hi to all,
This post is from Daniel Leader author of Local Breads. The question of measuring by volume vs. weight is a question I have labored over most than most people.
The best bakers I have visited or worked with have exclusively measured by weight and most often using the metric system. I strongly suggest that you take the plunge and bake metric. Your results will be more consistant.
I am actually in South Africa doing some consulting work and it is easy once hydration levels are established to translate recipes to using "Local Flours", we always test batches in 500 gram flour weight to start. Its the a size of a home batch. Best to all.

7/27/2007 8:05 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Thanks for chiming in. Assuming that by "hydration levels" you mean the natural water content of the flour, how do you establish hydration levels?

7/27/2007 8:51 AM  
Blogger kitchenmage said...

Daniel, I am blowing kisses towards South Africa! "The best bakers I have visited or worked with have exclusively measured by weight and most often using the metric system."

Everyone who thought I was weird for weighing water may now apologize. grin

Kevin, I think that, in this case, Daniel means hydration level based on the baker's percentage of a given recipe. Essentially the percentage of the flour's weight that the water (or all liquids) represents. I am reaching into the back of my brain so the numbers may be off but it's something like <60% is typical, really wet dough goes to ~70+...80 is soupy...or something. I know the rosemary filone is ~60%, which seems a bit drier than most rustic breads.

7/27/2007 11:14 AM  
Blogger sylvia said...

People aren't really claiming they are using volume for consistancy because of the different weights for "a cup" ?!

That's the volume measurement being inconsistant, not the scale! I can understand that because you top up and test until it's right, you don't NEED an exact measurement, but claiming that measuring a powder is more exact is silly.

It does seem like people have some funny scales. I put my bowl on the scale, set it to 0, then pour in the flour until I have the right amount. For me, this is much easier than dipping the measuring cup in over and over again. But I can see it'd be a pain if you had to put it into one bowl for the scale and then transfer it to the correct bowl for cooking with.

Weighing liquids is sorta weird though ;)

7/28/2007 10:08 AM  
Blogger Lien said...

I'm dutch, so I grew up with weighing with scales. When I first started baking from american books, it was a struggle to get the right amount of flour. So it's a good thing that more and more books give the metric weight as well. But even that is not a garantee for the right amount, as stated the source of flour, year of harvest etc. gives it al a different outcome. You need experience and courage to just add as much as needed, and this is something you only learn by doing.

as for liquids; I always weigh water or milk I use for baking. This is so much easier and accurate... and there is no spill trying to transfer your full cup of water to the mixing bowl ;-).

8/07/2007 2:23 AM  
Anonymous Carol said...

This is so late in the game - probably no one will ever see it. It's very humbling to me to know that my great-grandmother, a farm wife that baked bread every day for the household and farmworkers, measured flour for baking with a saucer. No standardized measuring cup or scale - just scooped it up with a saucer. That's experience.

11/17/2007 5:51 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

The single thing that matters most about any baking measurement is consistency. Grams, teaspoons, cups, or saucers, measuring consistently is the key to success

11/17/2007 6:18 PM  
Blogger Mom to Many said...

On the subject of *feeling* the dough.
The frustrating issue for me is getting off your game. I had a stretch after my 3 pound very sick preemie came when he got ALL of my attention. I mean all. It was rare for a loaf to emerge from my oven. Muffins occasionally, but no bread. I was accused of stunting his ability to walk because his feet never touched the ground. But, I had my reasons and that is a story for another venue.
My point is I fell off of my game. When I got back to baking 8 months later I had to learn all over again over several batches of bread to *feel* the dough again.

It was so frustrating for me to not be able to be scientific about the whole operation. I had to get in tune with the dough again.
What a strange concept that was at that time for me.

There is science in bread, but intuition is pretty important too.

5/06/2010 11:42 AM  

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