It can take some careful investigation and testing to distinguish good recipes from bad but one that lists ingredients only by volume always starts with a yellow card in my book. Other writers, like the author of this article on Ochef, have discussed this problem but I believe there is a uniquely Canadian perspective here that I’ll deal with in this post.
But first, what’s the difference between a certain amount of an ingredient measured by weight or volume? Density, usually. Some of the things we cook with, like flour, are compactible so that depending on how they’re measured a widely variable amount of air will also be included and this will change how much material goes into the bowl. Others like salt are manufactured in a variety of crystal shapes and sizes. So, a tablespoon of Diamond Crystal kosher will always have the same weight as another from the same box but have a weight that differs significantly from a tablespoon of Morton’s.
To those who ask “does it really matter if I use five percent more or less flour than the recipe called for?” I say “you, sir or madam, obviously don’t bake many (excellent) cakes”. But also, convenience is an issue because all ingredients (I can think of) are easier to weigh than scoop, pour, or dollop. Whether we’re dealing with sticky ones like honey, maple syrup, shortening, and peanut butter or even just water for bread dough it’s easier to press the tare button on your kitchen scale and pour until your target is hit. Measuring by weight means never again having to bend down to eyeball the gradations on a measuring cup or care what a meniscus is.
Why then do many recipe publishers still stick to volume measurements? The first reason, I bet, is basically that they are afraid that for a home cook to buy a good kitchen scale (which have become surprisingly inexpensive) they will have to forgo the latest, glossier volume from Barefoot Rachel Lee. The other reason, apparently, is that they think they are just following the rules.
In the 14th edition of the CP Stylebook on page 251 there is a recipe for Apple Oatmeal Squares. Ingredients are listed by volume only and then the active steps are given in a numbered list. I interpret this as a bare minimum example but it seems from the stark homogeneity of recipe formats in Canadian cookbooks and magazines that publishers consider this example as inflexible gospel.
When I criticised the recipes in my Gay Lea Butter post their PR rep politely pointed out that they were just following the lead set by CP and Canadian Living. I don’t doubt that Canadian Living is the widely-recognised leader for magazine recipe formats in Canada but the problem is that they’re horribly contradictory in their advice. In this YouTube video from June 2008 they state that weighing is more accurate but then go on to measure by volume.
Also, notice that the scoop-and-level method (which tends to compact the ingredient being measured and therefore gathers more of it) is used for the flour. This directly contradicts their official recommendation to use the spoon-and-level method (even the methods’ names are difficult to tell apart) in The Complete Canadian Living Baking Book (also 2008 and excerpted on this page from their website). This second method is more widely-accepted and doesn’t compact the ingredient as much as the first so uses less by weight. The point is that measuring by volume is intrinsically inconsistent and that it is much easier to ask recipe users to buy a scale than to flip to a cookbook’s introduction to double-check the dry measuring technique every time they want to make pancakes.
Publishers, join the 21st century and please print recipes with weights and give us the option of convenience and accuracy. Cooks, get yourself a good digital scale with tare and unit buttons on top and a display that can be read even with a large bowl on the scale. Because some ingredients like baking powder and yeast can still be measured (reasonably accurately) by volume I think you’ll get more use from a scale with a higher weight ceiling than one with super-fine low-range accuracy.
Update: Chris Nuttall-Smith, food writer at the Globe and Mail, referred to this post in his piece on December 6, 2011 about the same topic. I’ve take this opportunity to make some minor edits to this post but have made no substantive changes.
I’ve also added a link to the OXO Good Grips Food Scale that Cook’s Illustrated highly recommends. Since Amazon.ca no longer has the OXO on sale (they now want $80) I can understand that some will want a less expensive option like the Ozeri Digital Scale that goes for $19.95 or the Ozeri Touch II that Amazon has for $34.95 right now.