Why you should bake by weight – and a cake

If you visit here occasionally, you may have noticed that some of the recipes I provide are measured by weight (the British ones) and some by volume (the North American ones). For the past few months I’ve also been making frustrated attempts to convert the recipes and provide them both ways, so that everyone can make them in the method to which they’re accustomed. I’ve decided not to do this anymore – converting volume to weight measurements is often not terribly accurate and I am forever making hopeless amateur mistakes. From now on I’m going to bake all recipes in the way they were originally written.

That being said, I do think one method is superior to the other. I have a soft spot for volume baking because it’s what I’m used to and it feels like home. But I now agree with my sister that we should all go European and weigh our dry ingredients. Here’s why.

  1. It’s more accurate. This is the reason why professional pastry chefs and commercial kitchens measure by weight. Think about it: 125 grams (or 4.4 ounces) of flour is always going to equal 125 grams (or 4.4 ounces) of flour. But one cup of flour? It’s not always the same thing. Shirley Corriher explains in her book Bakewise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking: “Weighing is the most accurate way to follow a recipeā€¦ in measuring volume, there can be more than a 2-tbsp difference per cup in different measuring methods (dipping the cup into the flour versus spooning the flour into a cup). So how you measure the flour does matter.”

And how about brown sugar – what does ‘1 cup firmly packed brown sugar’ mean, anyway? My ‘firmly packed’ may be someone else’s ‘lightly packed’ – but we can all agree on 218 grams of brown sugar, right? For the right results every time, you need to weigh your ingredients.

  1. It’s easier. One of the reasons bakers who start measuring by weight don’t go back to volume is because it’s so simple, especially with the fancy new digital scales. No fiddling around with four different measuring cups – just set the scale to zero, dump in your first dry ingredient until you get the correct reading, reset the dial to zero, dump in your next dry ingredient, and so on. Then add it all to your bowl. Or take butter – I hate those recipes which call for 6 Tbsp of butter. How do you successfully cram butter into a measuring spoon? But hey, you can measure 90 grams of butter in no time! And the best thing? Instead of dirtying a whole set of cups, you’ve got just one scale to wash.

Even with weight-based recipes, measuring spoons and cups obviously aren’t going to disappear from your kitchen. Wet ingredients are measured in a liquid measuring cup (though some recipes do weigh more viscous liquids, like yogurt) and you’ll still use measuring spoons to measure small dry amounts, like your leaveners. But I do hope you’re all set to unearth your scale from the bowels of the kitchen odds and ends cupboard, where jelly moulds and percolators go to live out their useless lives.

I also figure you’ll need a recipe to practise with.

This super easy coffee and walnut cake is probably the first recipe I ever baked with a scale. It was given to me by my friend Harriet’s mum in 2002, when I visited their beautiful farm in the wild and woolly west of Scotland. Weigh away!

(PS. Whatever you do, don’t try to convert a recipe unless you’re sure what you’re doing. This can lead to all sorts of disastrous errors like thinking, “1 cup of flour is equal to 250 ml in volume, so it must be equal to 250 grams in weight” – it’s not!!)

Mrs. G’s Coffee Walnut Cake

170 g (6 oz) sugar
170 g (6 oz) unsalted butter
170 g (6 oz) self raising flour
3 eggs
2 Tbsp instant coffee, dissolved in 1 Tbsp hot water
113 g (4 oz) walnuts, chopped

125 g (4.4 oz) icing sugar, sifted
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 Tbsp instant coffee, dissolved in 1 Tbsp boiling water

Preheat the oven to 190C / 375F. Grease and flour an 8-inch or 9-inch square cake pan. If the pan isn’t non-stick, you may want to line the bottom with parchment as well.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or with a hand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping down the bowl after each addition. Beat in the dissolved coffee. Fold in the flour, and when the flour is starting to incorporate into the batter, add the chopped walnuts. Fold everything together until just combined.

Scrape the batter into the pan and bake in the centre of the oven for between 15 and 20 minutes for a 9-inch pan, or between 20 and 25 minutes for an 8-inch pan. The cake is done when it springs back when lightly touched and a thin knife inserted in the centre comes out clean.

While the cake cools in the pan on a rack, make the icing. First, make sure you dissolve the coffee is VERY hot water or the coffee won’t dissolve completely and you’ll end up with unpleasant brown flecks in your icing. Whisk together the sifted icing sugar with the vanilla and coffee mixture until it’s smooth and silky (if it seems too thick add a tiny bit more liquid). Once the cake is cool, spread the icing over the top. The icing will harden somewhat to form a shiny glaze.