Cups of flour and teaspoons of baking powder have historically been the standard measurements on ingredients lists across American cookbooks and food magazines, at least ever since Fannie Farmer popularized standard measurements in the late 19th century. But a movement is afoot to change all that.

Professional bakers have long used weight (grams or ounces, mostly the former) over volume measurements (cups and tablespoons). And while it’s not yet ubiquitous, cookbook writers have increasingly been placing their fingers on the scale to convince home bakers that weighing ingredients using a digital kitchen scale, which run between $25 and $70, yields more consistent results. (The increasingly global reach of cookbooks may have something to do with the switch, too.)

“As more cookbooks are focusing on the science factor of baking, authors and cooks are relying on weight measurements for accuracy,” says Jenny Hartin, cookbook promotions manager for Eat Your Books, a cookbook indexing site designed to help users quickly find recipes in their own physical cookbook collections, and creator of The Cookbook Junkies, an internet group of over 35,000 cookbook fanatics. Hartin examined 20 baking books published in the last 12 months and found that five relied on volume measurements alone while 15 gave both types of measurements, her preference, because, should the batteries in the scale die, she can still continue baking.

Weighing ingredients makes perfect sense to me. After all, no recipe developer or cookbook author – me included – ever wants to open an email with a subject line that reads: “Your recipe didn’t work.” In many cases, the recipe is not the culprit. The measuring is. Cups of flour and tablespoons of sugar vary based on who is measuring them and which measuring cups and spoons they are using. Also, the type of flour, humidity and temperature all play into how much you can stuff into a cup. My guess is that teaspoons will likely never go away, though, as weighing those tiny amounts hardly tips the scales.

Rudalevige spread blueberry-cardamon preserves from Turtle Rock Farm in Freeport between layers of her spice cake. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

In the course of testing baking recipes for a fellow cookbook writer recently, I was trying to accurately determine how many cups of flour comprise exactly 325 grams. I fluffed the flour with a fork, used the fork to pile it into a cup measure, and leveled it off with a knife. I did the same process on the same flour 10 times. I did not get the same volume measurement twice.

Beyond accuracy, there are also three good reasons why weighing most of the ingredients going into the mixing bowl fits into a greener eating lifestyle.

Pulling out the scale instead of measuring cups and spoons conserves time because it’s easier to put the bowl on the scale and add the ingredients in sequence by weight than it is to measure each one separately. A tenuous sustainability link, perhaps. But it does back up my assertion that greener cooking doesn’t have to be time consuming.

Weighing ingredients also reduces water usage because there are fewer dishes to wash at the end of the process. Just think how much water it takes to wash out the peanut butter residue on a measuring cup. Set the mixing bowl on the scale and simply use a spoon to pile in the required weight of peanut butter. And it could potentially cut down on food waste. While in my testing, the variation in the weight of my volume measurements was a five percent spread, in a similar King Arthur Flour Company test across a group of home bakers, weights varied up to 20 percent. A spread that big could very well affect how much your cookie batter spreads, how high your cake doesn’t rise and how easy, or not, your pie dough is to roll. These conditions could, in turn, easily influence whether the resulting goods are gobbled up – or chucked in the bin. Weighing ingredients also makes it easy to increase (or decrease) recipes to the size you actually need.

Waste not, want not? Weigh it.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester and a cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a new cookbook from Islandport Press based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

An old-fashioned spice cake with blueberry jam and whipped cream frosting. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Old-Fashioned Spice Cake with Blueberry Jam and Whipped Cream Frosting

I recently was chatting with a friend who was lamenting the lack of spice cake in his life. I dug out the recipe for one I used to make – on a splattered page of my 1980 copy of “The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook” – when I was growing up. Then I updated it with weights instead of measures. Turtle Rock Farm in Freeport makes a blueberry cardamom “spreadable fruit preserve” that plays into the theme of this cake very well.

Makes one (8-inch) double layer cake

FOR THE CAKE:
200 grams (2 cups) cake flour
180 grams (3/4 cup) milk
150 grams (3/4 cup) granulated sugar
115 grams (1/2 cup) light brown sugar
113 grams (1/2 cup) butter, softened to room temperature
2 eggs
21/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
226 grams (1 cup) blueberry preserves

FOR THE FROSTING:
232 grams (2 cups) heavy cream
56 grams (1/4 cup) confectioners’ sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

To make the cake, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Grease and flour 2 (8-inch) round cake pans.

Measure all the ingredients into a large mixing bowl. With a mixer running at low speed, beat all ingredients until just combined. Increase the mixing speed to high, and beat for 3 minutes. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. Bake 25 to 30 minutes until a skewer inserted into the middle of each comes out clean. Cool completely on racks.

To make the frosting, measure the cream, confectioners’ sugar and salt into a mixing bowl. Beat on high speed until stiff peaks form. Fold in vanilla.

Invert 1 layer of the cake onto a plate. Spread the blueberry preserves over it in a thin layer. Spread a thin layer of cream on top of the preserves. Top with the second layer of the cake. Frost completely. Store frosted cake in the refrigerator until ready to serve.