Charlotte, N.C. You ought to be able to count on some things. Death, taxes, measuring tools in the kitchen.
You can trust those cups and tablespoons, right?
Not so fast, toots.
This one came to my attention more than a year ago, when Gourmet magazine shared an insight from its test kitchen: Not all measuring spoons are equal.
Then, a few months ago, I heard from a reader who had discovered a glass measuring cup that was off by 1/4 cup.
Checking into it, I called P.J. Hamel, editor of the King Arthur Baking Co. catalog, who tests lots of equipment.
She wasn't at all surprised. Tools are often off, she said. Even electronic scales can differ. And tools can change as they get old. Plastic cups melt; metal spoons bend.
"We test our own stuff constantly, and sometimes even from the same manufacturer, a set will be different," Hamel said.
At home, I pulled out my equipment: four sets of spoons (heavy-metal, thin-metal, plastic and an adjustable one); two sets of dry-ingredient cups (plastic and metal); and three liquid-ingredient cups (two Pyrex and one called the Perfect Beaker).
Using salt to check the spoons, flour in the dry cups and water in the liquid cups, I found all kinds of variations. Two of my tablespoons held 2 ounces of salt, one held 1.6 ounces and one held 2.1 ounces. Measuring flour was dicey and varied a great deal. Neither set held the 8 ounces that is supposed to be 1 cup.
The liquid cups were the most interesting: one Pyrex cup and the beaker held 8 ounces of water, but the second Pyrex cup was off by a full ounce.
The good news, Hamel said, is that it usually isn't a big deal.
"Unless something is grossly off, it doesn't make a whole lot of difference," she said. "If something is off by a pinch, it's not going to be that bad."
The problem can be relative: If you add a little too much baking soda, your cake will still rise. But if you're measuring five or six cups of flour for bread, she said, you can end up way off. That's when it's worthwhile to weigh the flour, like they do in professional kitchens.
A bigger problem than our tools is our habits, Hamel said.
"People don't measure (flour) right you're supposed to fluff it up and spoon it in and level it off," she said.
But people often stick their cups down into the flour, packing the cup.
In the end, it boils down to paying attention in the kitchen. Experienced cooks learn what a tablespoon of salt looks like and know to adjust baking times according to their ovens.
And it might also explain that other big mystery: Why one cook's favorite cake is another cook's flop.