Friday, December 2, 2016

Why I Bake Bread Using a Scale, and You Should Too

I am doing some posts about my adventures in baking bread, including some recipes, and I realized that I have become completely attached to weighing ingredients rather than using measuring cups. So the first recipe had volume measurements but if you try that and want to keep following you will need to get a scale. You can get a good one for very little money. I picked one out for you on Amazon for 9 bucks but now it costs $40, so forget that. But if you look on Amazon you will find digital kitchen scales for $10-15 that will works great.  I would stick with one that gets 4.5 stars or more. (Update: thesweethome.com gives top honors to the Jennings CJ4000, which apparently measures to 1/2 gram accuracy, helpful for things like spices. I don't think I can count on my current scale to be any closer than 2-3 gm. As of this writing it is $26 on Amazon.)

People assume I'm advocating for a scale because it's more precise. It is true that weighing ingredients is more accurate, since flour especially varies in how much it compacts depending on how you store and measure it. I have taken a certain amount of good-natured guff in response to my admittedly-crazily-obsessive post about the inaccuracy of tablespoon measures.  My cousin Anna, a far more accomplished baker than I will ever be, wrote, "When one is not in a medical setting, that level of precision rarely matters. That's what I love about baking!" And her mother Barbara, award-winning cookbook writer/culinary historian, who first introduced me to bread-baking when I was 8, was even more pointed in a good natured way: "What is the takeaway message? My answer would be, walk away when a mathematician is in the kitchen. I am trying to think of a recipe that demands precision in tablespoon measures. I'll get back to you when something turns up."

They are right, of course.

So why weigh your ingredients, really?

  1. It's easier, quicker, and has less cleanup.  You put your mixing bowl on the scale, zero it, and throw in the ingredients one by one, zeroing the scale again after each one. No measuring spoons and cups to wash out (OK, you might still occasionally use a measuring spoon). Have you ever measured out tahini in a measuring cup? Or peanut butter? It's not pleasant to try to get air bubbles out, and it's not pleasant to wash the measuring cup afterwards.
  2. It's a snap to scale your recipes, at least if the weights are in grams (g). If you want to make a one-and-a-half-recipe of something with 1 and half cups of flour, it's annoying.  If you want to make a one-and-a-half-recipe of something with 120g of flour, use 180g of flour.
  3. This is especially true if you are experimenting with baking bread, where you actually might want to make a loaf 25% bigger, for example.
  4. Europeans cook by weight, and it's another reason they think Americans are crazy.
  5. Bakers give recipes in "baker's percentages," which means that all ingredients are measured by weight, relative to the amount of flour. So if water ("hydration") is 70% and salt is 2%, and you have 400 grams of flour, you need to use 280g of water and 8g of salt.
  6. It makes it easy to improvise with recipes. Suppose you have a yeast bread recipe and you want to use sourdough starter instead.  If you use 200g of starter, just subtract 100g from the flour and 100g from the water.  (Assuming your starter is equal parts water and flour by weight, which I strongly recommend.)
  7. It makes it easy to refine your recipe. If you make the same recipe a lot, which I mostly do not, you will remember how it's supposed to feel. But if you make it infrequently, and the dough was too sticky this time, you can make a note to cut the water by 20g next time.

The one problem I have is that I sometimes add too much of one ingredient by accident. But if you do that and you want to correct it, it's easy to scale the others up.

So give it a try!

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