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    Copyright 2008-2015Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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Weighing in on kitchen scales

Digital kitchen scale

Farhad Manjoo, better known for his columns on computer and phone technology, has now tackled kitchen tech for the New York Times in his  ode to the electronic kitchen scale.

And while I applaud the general idea that it’s a valuable tool–after all, we use ours daily–I’m both stunned and unsurprised at the same time at the limited perspective he shows [chorus, because he’s a boy]. For Manjoo, as for the food bloggers he quotes (J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats, Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen), using a kitchen scale is about cooking more precisely and with fewer measuring cups, spoons, bowls, etc. Which is fair enough, I suppose, if you’re really worried about whether you already cook well, or if you have ambitions for exactitude.

But why do most Americans who actually have a kitchen scale get one in the first place? The fact that our kitchen scale came with a “The Biggest Loser” sticker on it might give you a solid clue.

We got our scale because our daughter developed Type I diabetes at age nine. Although we started out with half- and third-cup measures for simple foods like beans or plain pasta, we really needed to be able to calculate how much carbohydrate was in more complex or variable-density foods like breads and baked goods so we could give her the right amount of insulin for them.

Our school office manager said she’d gotten one on doctor’s orders after suffering a stroke in her early 40s, and she swore by it to help her cut back significantly on carbs and get her portions right.

Health concerns, not haute cuisine, are the most urgent reason to learn to use a kitchen scale. Not that better-tasting food isn’t important, but learning how to eat more moderately by measuring and knowing what’s in a serving would help at least two-thirds of Americans back themselves down off the high-BMI, pre-diabetic ledge. Especially since an international diabetes conference just reported something like 350 million people worldwide now have diabetes, double the number from 20 years ago.

Digital scales seem to do the most good, for us at least, in preparing homemade pastries or complex dishes (such as quiches or filled pastas). Our other best use is weighing out complex high-carb foods like pastries and candies that we’ve bought elsewhere, since they can be so variable in density or sugar content.

Unfortunately, weighing out treats is usually a big eye-opener for us as well as our daughter. That blackberry pie my husband lugged home from a specialty bakery run is worth a meal and a half of carbs if you do the picture-perfect wedge. We’ve started to cut our pieces a little thinner not just so our daughter doesn’t feel shortchanged but so we don’t get slapped when we step on the big scales the next morning.

Along the way the scale has helped us learn carb fractions for different foods and figure portions for them so it’s easier to estimate when we eat out.

It’s not so tempting to eat a whole doughnut for Sunday breakfast from the surprisingly good and inexpensive bakery three blocks away when you discover that even the relatively modest sugar twist (a real doughnut utterly unlike Starbucks’) represents 60 grams of carb, worth a whole meal without even accounting for a glass of milk, and the jelly doughnut is something like double that. And once you’ve eaten it, you won’t really feel full. Dangerous goods. Better to split the doughnuts and eat something more substantive with them.

Bonus points for my daughter’s practical algebra skills here: she’s figured out how to calculate carb fractions based on the nutrition labels for her own custom blend of low-carb, high-fiber cereal and ultra-carby granola on regular mornings, and she’s pretty fast by now. The extra flourish on the calculator may make me roll my eyes (and yes, at a certain point I’m always thinking, “Just pour it, already!”) but she’s having fun showing off. Even though she’s done the measurements and calculations often enough to be able to eyeball the amounts in a cup if she wanted to.

Because of course, it can be taken too far…

After all, you can’t lug a kitchen scale to school with you in your backpack every day. Most diabetics of longer experience count by eyeballing and estimating when they eat out rather than agonizing over every gram. You can get a little too involved and dependent on the precision a scale offers and forget how to trust–and train–your innate abilities.

Which brings me back to Farhad Manjoo’s column. There’s nothing actively wrong with the way he’s using his scale, I suppose–except for his exuberance about pouring flour straight from the bag into the mixing bowl, then pouring sugar straight on top of that. If you overpour, you should be taking some back out, but then what? Discard the excess sugar now that it’s contaminated with flour? Ignore the contamination and scoop it back into the sugar sack? Take it from a former lab rat, you’d have done better in the waste-not sense as well as the food safety sense to weigh each separately into a paper cup or onto a plate and then pour it in the bowl.

But that’s for things that really benefit from weighing. Manjoo’s using the scale to figure the exact portion of coffee beans to use each day. One of his interviewees is using the scale to weigh out the exact amount of sugar for his iced tea. These things would do fine by eyeballing–or just using a spoon like a normal person.

Do you really need a kitchen scale to figure out how much grated cheese you want in your mac and cheese? Wouldn’t grating it until it looks and tastes good to you work at least as well?

These guys have lost their trust in their ability to eyeball or cook by feel as they check and recheck their precision on the digital scale. Couple that with the cachet of doing as the French do (that is, when they bother to weigh ingredients instead of cooking by instinct, which they’re inordinately proud of) and you have a new American tech obsession parading itself as competence chic.

It’s like checking your e-mail every 20 minutes. Or bringing your new iPhone to the dinner table and looking up instant info on the Web every time your wife brings up a topic to which neither of you knows the answer. (AHEM!!!) Not that I’ve ever met (or acknowledged meeting) any certain husbands who got that obsessive over their apps. Trust me, it does NOT make them more competent or enjoyable conversationalists…even if they do occasionally bring home some serious pie.

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