What does a cup of flour weigh? It’s surprisingly complicated
This is the second article in a series giving you a behind-the-scenes look into the hows and whys of the decisions that go into our recipe writing at the L.A. Times.
A reader recently asked me, after reviewing the first recipe we published with our new metric weight measurements, why our weight for “1 cup all-purpose flour” — stated as 142 grams — was different from another publication that listed a cup as being 120 grams. Is there not a standard? And if so, who’s right and who’s wrong? Questions like these show people are paying attention to the details.
How does a cook know who to trust in an instance like this? Should you apply the standards of one source (say, the L.A. Times) to all the others? In this case, no, you should adhere to the weights called for within each publication’s recipes because not all brands measure flour the same. But therein lies the dilemma.
Some recipe developers reach their weight measurement by spooning flour delicately into a cup, while others call for scooping the cup into a canister, which obviously makes the measurement a little heavier. As an example, I sent the reader this list, which shows the variations among several publications that list the weight of “1 cup of all-purpose flour”:
King Arthur Flour: 120 grams
Bake From Scratch: 125 grams
Washington Post: 126 grams
The New York Times: 128 grams
Bon Appétit: 130 grams
AllRecipes.com: 136 grams
The L.A. Times; Cook’s Illustrated: 142 grams
But when faced with this information, there seemed to be a glitch in the matrix of an otherwise very disciplined system. Why does no one agree on what the weight of 1 cup of flour should be?
We should have a universally accepted measurement for flour, and all ingredients like it, but we do not. Doing so would certainly help all the cooks in this country and show a unified front among the publishers that state they are committed to that aim. But, similar to how buying the same size pants from 10 different fashion brands will give you 10 different fits, keeping the method of measurement unique to each publisher forces you, the reader, into choosing — maybe unintentionally and subconsciously — the brand you’re most comfortable with.
I know this all sounds very granular and niche, but in an age where every food brand’s goal is, ostensibly, to help its followers become better cooks, wouldn’t a universal system be the most beneficial, especially when faced with a generation of people that is , arguably, more interested in cooking than the previous one? As with most changes that would benefit everyone, the clear choice is yes, but capitalism and ego say otherwise.
I’ve worked at roughly seven companies in one capacity or another for a long enough period of time to understand and adopt their styles and standards while working there. Each had its own way of relaying recipe information to the reader, from the order of ingredients and equipment called for — do you first call for the bowl or the ingredients that go into said bowl? — to how specific ingredients should be described — is it a “rib” of celery, or a “stalk”?
This “philosophy” creates recipes unique to each brand, but it does so at a cost to readers.
Above all, recipes should be instructional and written with an emphasis on clarity. When a reader researching recipes for, say, pie crust, stumbles upon two different versions, no matter how clearly they’re written, if the measurements and methods don’t match, that novice cook will be confused and frustrated. And this group is, I believe, the biggest portion of cooks in this country, not the few highly devoted and discerning loyalists. New cooks just want a recipe, period, and they don’t really care if it’s tested well or from a trusted source. This is a truth that many of us who really care about a recipe’s provenance and merit find hard to accept.
To that point, let’s return to that cup of flour. There’s a now-infamous editor’s note on the New York Times’ Cooking site that explains the discrepancy between what that paper uses as the weight for 1 cup of flour — the aforementioned 128 grams — versus that of a developer whose recipe it featured, which measured that cup at 145 grams. The note doesn’t address the why and, therefore, adds to the confusion: Instead of setting the record straight and possibly contradicting its author, the New York Times decided to put the choice in the reader’s hands.
To play devil’s advocate, I suppose I should ask: Does standardizing even matter? From the smallest measurement of a cup of flour to the largest, the difference is only slight: about ¾ ounce/22 grams or — if using our equivalent volume measurement — 2 ½ tablespoons. That discrepancy is not a huge deal if you’re using only 1 cup. But as soon as you measure more than that, you can see how adapting one brand’s style to another’s could add an extra ¼ cup or more of flour to your recipe, making cakes drier and pie crust and cookie doughs crumblier.
In the end, recipes are fundamentally ratios, not absolutes, so as long as the whole recipe is consistent with itself, everything probably will turn out OK. But we all want guarantees in life, and when the often-precarious emotion of the cook is tied to the success or failure of a dish, the question of consistency and clarity carries much more weight.
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