I do not know exactly when I first held a measuring cup in my hand. But I do remember that the many times that my mother and I made sweet potato pies we did not measure ingredients. In fact, if we did, I am sure that we were very liberal with ingredients–especially the sugar! But, needless to say, those non-measuring moments led to lengthy periods of adjusting ingredients and trying to answer questions such as “Does this taste right?” “Does it need more nutmeg?” “Should we add extra cinnamon?” “How many pie crusts will this fill?” The process was obviously inefficient, but the product was invariably praise-worthy according to family and friends.
Unlike cooking, baking is a process dependent on precise measurements, temperatures, and timing. A minute too long in the oven can result in a dry cake while opening the oven door too soon (lowering the overall oven temperature) can ruin a soufflé. By the same token, inaccuracies in measuring ingredients may result in products that are, among other things, inconsistent in texture, too tough or, most notably, different in taste from iteration to iteration.
Of course, the work-around to this and other baking processes is to define a procedure for measuring ingredients and stick with it. Many a cookbook or cooking website suggest to level off ingredients in measuring cups with a knife or other straight-edge object. However, it is recommended to weigh ingredients in order to ensure accuracy and consistency of pastry products as measuring cups and spoons may vary in volume depending on the manufacturer.
Modern kitchen scales are inexpensive and widely available from online and brick-and-mortar stores. Additionally, with the widespread use of digital technology, it is possible to weigh ingredients with accuracy to the gram or ounce. I recommend purchasing a digital scale that allows mutliple weight settings (grams & ounces) and the ability to tare or “rezero”. The tare function is most useful when, for example, you want to weigh a large amount of an ingredient directly into the mixing bowl.
It is important to note that the above guidelines apply to dry ingredients. Wet ingredients (e.g., milk, water, oil) should be measured in liquid measure cups and spoons. The proper procedure for measuring wet ingredients in the liquid measure cup is to do so on a level surface, pouring the liquid in until the volume reaches the appropriate line. The proper volume measure on the cup should always be read at eye-level. If there is a small amount (1 tbsp or less) of liquid required in the recipe, pour the liquid until the volume is level with the top of the measuring spoon.
So, you ask: “Should I buy a scale and new measuring cups and spoons?” The decision is entirely up to you, of course. The theme of this post is to remember that consistency is key in baking. However you decide to measure your ingredients, the end-product is sure to bring a smile to those who eat it.