Sunday, April 21, 2013

The most useful tool for your kitchen*

Several years ago now, I decided that many recipes from even impeccable sources are very inaccurate. You know the ones I mean. “Finely dice one carrot,” or “Slice one medium onion”. When I first started cooking, I would really agonize over exactly what that meant. Exactly how big is a “medium onion”? I’d fake it, using my judgement and sometimes get wildly differing results from one time to the next.

Then I had a conversation with my friend Chef Paul Lasky, an experienced and very talented man in the kitchen (who, sadly, has given up professional cooking). Paul told me the problems was due in large part by inexact recipes. All good cooking operations – whether restaurants or caterers – have a “bible” for their standard dishes. This way, if the chef is unavailable, whoever takes his/her place can jump in and do the cooking. This is especially important for house specialties. You don’t want to disappoint patrons when certain standards on the menu are not available because chef isn’t.

That’s where the bible comes in. It has a list of ingredients, using accurate measurements that allows anyone with the necessary technique and knowledge to recreate the dish accurately. What separates the great cook from the merely good ones is the ability to turn out exactly the same dish every time. The possibility of achieving this begins with having accurate ingredient measurements.

Since being told this, I’ve been weeding out favorite recipes that have “fuzzy” ingredient lists. If it says something like “1 medium onion, chopped”, I either chuck the recipe or if I want to retain it, I figure out exactly what that means for best results. So “1 medium onion chopped” turned into “3/4 cup onions, diced”. However, lately I’ve been getting even more fanatical about measurements. Here’s why: depending on what the size of the dice is, you might get more or less onion than you counted on. Larger dice = less onion because of the space left in between.

So I got more precise and wanted to specify the size of the dice, ie “3/4 cup onion, 1/4" dice”.

Then about three years ago I started messing around with home curing. Researching that, it became clear that the only way to accurately measure the ingredients was by weight. In measuring salt, especially curing salt, it’s really critical.

I’ve had a kitchen scale for years, but it wasn’t all that accurate and it couldn’t deal with even medium amounts of things. It was only good up to about half a pound. Forget weighing a large piece of meat. Yes, for a large roast, I could use the bathroom scale, but I knew it was never really accurate.

So I cruised the internet for a solution. My parameters were (in descending order of importance):
  1. accuracy
  2. ability to weigh adequate amounts (up to 20 pounds, if possible)
  3. ability to weigh either in imperial (ounces) or metric (grams)
  4. electronic rather than spring-loaded (for accuracy over a longer period because springs wear out)
  5. easy to use and clean
  6. not too expensive
  7. compact for storage
The first thing I found is that there are a lot of scales out there, at wildly differing prices. Most for sale in kitchen stores (for home use) didn’t have a very large capacity. Others looked like they’d be a pain in the butt to clean.

My eventual choice was the Salter 3013 Stainless Steel Aquatronic Scale. It features:
  • a 22-lb capacity
  • a stainless steel bed for easy cleaning
  • it measures dry or wet ingredients
  • it automatically compensates for the weight of a bowl, plate or dish in which you might place what you are weighing or measuring
  • handles imperial or metric values at the push of a button
  • it’s very compact and lightweight
  • it’s accurate as all get out

I got mine for $49.95 (Canadian) from a site that’s sadly now out of business.

The only drawback I’ve found is that when you’re weighing in grams, it goes up only by twos. So if you want, say, 5 grams of something, you have to fake between 4 and 6. These are generally minute amounts (unless what you’re weighing is very light by volume, ie something like saffron). But all in all, I can live with that. If it could measure milligrams, this scale would be perfect for my needs.

Regardless of what you decide to buy, I highly recommend purchasing a kitchen scale. Mine is now in use nearly daily, and I cannot imagine doing any curing without it. The real problem is transferring all my recipes to weight measurements of ingredients wherever that’s possible (and that often means making a particular recipe a few times to get it accurate).

The results? All of my more finicky recipes that have been converted to measurement by weight now come out absolutely identically every time – (especially baking). For portioning, it is absolutely essential. For some ingredients (like spaghetti), it is absolutely indispensable. And obviously, if an ingredient list for a recipe does list something by weight, you’re all set if you’ve got a scale. (How many times in the past did I run to the supermarket across the street to surreptitiously weigh an ingredient?)

I cannot recommend strongly enough the inclusion of this very powerful cooking tool in your kitchen arsenal. If you want to home cure, you simply must have one.

Trust me…

*Well, at least I think it is!


Merlin said...

I have a Salter model 2010. Max weight 5 pounds, but when you're in gram mode, it goes up in 1 gram increments.

Rick Blechta said...

Actually, I didn't understand why the 3013 doesn't have this same capability. Obviously, it's designed for the US market and metric measurement was more of an afterthought (it does measure fractions of ounces quite nicely), but your model clearly shows that the capability is there electronically (bet they have very similar circuitry -- if not identical). It is indeed an odd oversight on the part of Salter.

What I like best about the model I purchased is that I can put any size bowl onto its flat plate, turn it on and it will register the weight of the bowl, zeroing out the readout, after which I can weigh my item easily. Since the weight capacity is so large, throwing on something like a turkey is easy.

The mark of a good tool (in any environment) is that when you start using it, you can't imagine how you'd ever gotten on beforehand. A good kitchen scale is like that for cooking.

Thanks for writing in!