Food writer and culinary expert Michael Ruhlman didn't want us to get through a week of celebrating kitchen gadgetry without singing praise of the digital scale. Damn the cups and tablespoons, cooking by weight is the only path to awesomeness.
The kitchen is a place where tools, gadgets, and gizmos—that is, the very non-human objects that entrance guys—are in continual use. I, like every cook I know, love my tools. The breakfast chef instructor when I was at cooking school reportedly slept with her omelet pans. She understood. Cooks throughout America go kind of silly in the head when they go into a cookware store (I pretty much want everything I see even when I don't need anything).
While important to remember—as American's chief food geek Alton Brown has noted here and elsewhere—you don't want unitaskers in your kitchen (unless it's an air-popper used to toast pine nuts!), things like hand blenders and cable thermometers with wireless remotes are incredibly useful.
But for all our gadget hunger, America has yet to embrace what is one of the most important tools of all in the kitchen. A digital scale.
Why is a scale important? Because recipes work better when you weigh ingredients. A cup of flour can weigh between 4 and 6 ounces. That means if you've got a bread or cake recipe that calls for 4 cups of flour, you might measure out 16 ounces or 24 ounces—a 50% difference in the main ingredient! No wonder people are so afraid of making their own cake. Measuring is easier and cleaner and results in fewer dirty measuring cups when you use a scale. You can measure everything right into your mixing bowl. Have you ever tried to measure out a cup of shortening? It's a mess.
Another example: If you know pasta is three parts flour and two parts egg, fresh pasta dough takes about two minutes to put together. Put your bowl on a scale, crack in your eggs and add 1.5 times as much flour. Two large eggs are about 4 ounces, so you'd add 6 ounces flour. Need four portions? Put four eggs in your bowl and add 12 ounces of flour. Recipes scale up and down multiple times and always work.
Pancake batter, in fact all quickbread batters, are essentially equal parts flour and liquid and half as much egg. You can measure out all your ingredients into a big measuring cup with a spout for easy pouring. If I'm just making pancakes for my 10-year-old kid, I use one egg. If making for me as well, I add another egg. If my wife wants some, then I make a three-egg batch.
Moreover, this kind of proportional cooking by weight works in grams, ounces, whatever unit you want. Whether you mix 20 ounces of flour and 12 ounces of water, or 500 grams of flour and 300 grams of water, it's going to be good bread dough.
So as more and more of us head into the kitchen, I've been on a mission to urge people to embrace the scale. I've become a scale evangelist.
I use a My Weigh scale and love it. It works great and doesn't cost a fortune. Thomas Keller and his gang at French Laundry, Per Se and Bouchon use A&D scales, which are very sensitive but a little pricey.
My Weigh recently came out with a new one that does something really cool. It measures by percentage. Which is how a lot of bakers measure. The standard baker's percent of bread, for instance is 100% flour, 60% water, 3% fresh yeast, 2% salt. With this scale, you simply pour in the flour, hit percent, then the "tare" or zeroing button, and begin adding the water till it reads 60. Zero again and add your next ingredient.
This is a tool that really does make cooking easier and faster. So the next time you need a gadget fix, skip the panini press and buy a scale.
Michael Ruhlman couldn't have written Charcuterie without a scale, and his most recent book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, is devoted solely to cooking by using proportions by weight. It is the opinion of at least some Gizmodo editors that Michael's recently published Elements of Cooking is a must-have for people who take their own cooking (and eating) seriously. He also blogs at ruhlman.com.