Weigh to Measure (or how this old baker learned a new trick!)
When I first learned to bake many years ago, I was taught to measure all ingredients by volume. Pull out the measuring cups, spoon in the flour or sugar, level it off by scraping the top of the cup with a knife and dump the contents of the cup into the mixing bowl; repeat. Brown sugar gets packed into the measuring cup. Spoon in the brown sugar, then press it down into the measuring cup with the back of the spoon. Once the packed sugar reaches the top of the cup, dump it into the mixing bowl. And so on and so on until all ingredients have been measured.
This is how I measured ingredients for years. Most times, my recipes turned out okay. But sometimes (usually when I was baking something for a special event!), they didn't turn out okay. Breads wouldn't rise properly, cakes would be too dense or cookies would spread too much.
These problems can be the result of any number of mistakes but until about 15 years ago, I didn't realize that the most likely reason was improperly measured dry ingredients. What happened 15 years ago that brought me to this realization? That is when I discovered King Arthur Flour. Reading through my first KAF cookbook, I learned about measuring dry ingredients by weight using a food scale instead of by volume. What I read made sense. If you put too much flour into your bread dough, you won't get the rise you are looking for in the final loaf. Too much flour in cake batter and your cake will be dense instead of light and airy.
How different can the weight measurement really be from the volume measurement? Well, the best example is flour. Measuring by weight, one cup of all purpose flour weighs 4-1/4 ounces. However, if you measure flour by the spoon and level method, you could be adding as much as one extra ounce of flour per cup called for in the recipe if you don't fluff the flour before you scoop it into the measuring cup. Doing the math, if your bread recipe calls for 4 cups of AP flour, you could be adding as much as an extra cup of flour to the dough. That is a significant difference and will certainly result in a denser loaf with a lower rise. Ditto for your cake batter or your cookie dough.
So, besides having a significant impact on the final product, why else would you want to measure your dry ingredients by weight instead of by volume? How about saving time. Instead of pulling out the measuring cups, spooning in the flour or sugar or whatever, leveling off with a knife, dumping in the bowl and repeating, here's what you do: put measuring bowl on scale, set the scale to zero, dump in the flour (4-1/4 ounces per cup) until you reach the appropriate weight and ... you're done. Next ingredient, please. Maybe your recipe calls for both granulated white sugar and brown sugar. Okay, put the bowl on the scale, zero the scale, put in white sugar (7 ounces per cup), zero the scale, put in brown sugar (8 ounces per cup). Done. No pressing brown sugar down into the measuring cup then scraping it out of the cup and into the bowl. And, there's less to clean up since you don't have to wash the measuring cups, leveling utensils or spoons.
Like anything new, measuring by weight takes some getting used to. But, consistent use leads to familiarity and you will find yourself referring less and less to the weight/volume conversion chart for the ingredients you use most often. I encourage you to try measuring your dry ingredients by weight. You can find a good food scale for a reasonable price in your local kitchen supply store or online. Volume to weight conversions can be found online. King Arthur Flour has an awesome master weight chart available on its web site. You might be surprised (as I was) how quickly your recipes will come together and the consistency you can achieve with the final product.