© Denzil Green
Scales are used in kitchens for measuring ingredients for recipes, and commercially, to measure a food item so that a buyer and seller can agree on a price for it.
Kitchen Scales are very rare in North America. When they are seen in North American kitchens, they are more often dusty, display items than everyday tools. North Americans don’t buy Scales because recipe publishers continue to publish in cups (or in the metric equivalent absurdity of calling for 250ml of flour), and recipe publishers don’t publish in weights because their readers haven’t bought Scales.
Those in North America who have made the switch from measuring by cups to weight say that it’s actually easier. It is easier to match your shopping list with what to buy at a store, where things are sold by weight, not cups. And recipes don’t often turn out for one person, that happened to work for you, because of how loosely or tightly you and they happened to pack ingredients into a cup. Some things are very messy to measure in cups: shortening, butter or margarine, peanut butter, marshmallow spread, etc. You can put a piece of wax paper on the Scales and measure them out on that with less clean-up.
A good Scale for home kitchen use should be able to weigh between .125 oz (1g) and 4 pounds (1800g.) Some will weigh up to 20 pounds (9 kg.) While the ability to measure a broader range of weights may seem good at first, bear in mind that the broader a range a Scale covers, the less accurate it seems to be in distinguishing fine amounts. And, the more that Scales are capable of weighing, the more they cost. If you like kitchen gadgets, you could always get two sizes.
Many Scales offer the ability to switch back and forth from Imperial / American and metric measurements.
There are many different looks and feels to Kitchen Scales. Some people prefer the high tech look; some prefer the highly designed look, so that the Scales truly become kitchen art in name as well as fact. Some people prefer the Victorian look.
Taring a Scale means zeroing out the weight of what you are measuring the food in.
© Denzil Green
Electric Scales are still the most expensive type of Kitchen Scales, though they are getting more affordable. They are also considered by many to be the most accurate. They are, though, as their detractors point out, usually less accurate when the power goes out. They are also not easily transportable between countries without power conversion adapters.
They are, though, very convenient — you can put something on them such as a bowl, tell the Scale that the weight is now zero, add and measure a weight of something, set the Scale to zero, and then add and measure an additional weight of something. This is called a “tare” feature. If you are doing the single bowl and repeated add and zero out process and have to measure in a volume of water, you can do that by weight (without a measuring cup) by remembering that 1 ml of water weighs 1 gram, so 250ml of water means adding a weight of 250g of water.
And, you can switch between Imperial and metric easily with them at the push of a button. Some electronic ones, though, may default to metric all the time. Some people some find it irritating that you always have to press a button to flip it into Imperial or American, and can’t set a default preference.
Some electric ones switch themselves off after a few minutes to save power, and there’s usually nothing you can do to change that setting. This can often catch you out if you’re in the middle of using the zero method of combining a lot of ingredients, and need to pause for a few minutes, or are preparing (washing, peeling and chopping) the next ingredient that you weren’t quite as organized about before starting as maybe you should have been. When you turn the Scale back on, there is no way of turning it on without it remembering where you were at. Consequently, you sort of have to touch it with your finger every minute or so to keep it awake.
Some Electric Scales are battery-operated. These ones too can have an annoying power-saving feature that you can’t adjust.
Digital Scales do their weighing via an electrical current that passes through the surface of the weighing platform.
Many take batteries. Some come with electrical adapters as well so that you don’t have to keep on replacing batteries.
They tend to be quite small and thin, and are considered very accurate. Trained lab professionals, though, point out that to get one for the kitchen that truly matches the precision of a balance Scale, you’re still looking at spending close to $1,000 US (2006 prices.)
Most Digital Scales won’t show small increments in the Imperial Scale: they will display 1/2 ounce all the way from about 7/16 ounce to 9/16 ounce (this is less of an issue when weighing in metric.)
Some have built-in software databases that also give you weight-watcher’s information about the food you are weighing (you have to select from a menu the item of food you are weighing: it doesn’t actually run a tricorder scan on them to know.) Some let you choose by name; others have you choose by a code from the manual that came with the Scale.
Some have clocks / timers built in. They can all be zeroed.
You can also get hand-held ones, which seem to be aimed at street transactions for certain specialty herbs.
Spring Scales are the cheapest Scales.
The way they work is that a weight stretches a spring, causing the measurement needle to move.
They are not considered very accurate for small quantities.
Some allow you to zero them out. Some will have a large round dial on the front that indicates the weight, and you zero it out with the aid of an adjustment knob somewhere off to the side. Others have the dial built as an insert going around the base, and you move the dial to the zero position.
© Denzil Green
Balance Scales are the ones most relied on in kitchens where Scales are actually used on a daily basis. They are also still used in labs.
They are considered extremely reliable because, the saying goes, “gravity doesn’t lie.”
A straight balance, with two trays, is the most accurate. A sliding balance Scale has just one tray in which you place the item being weighed, and you slide a weight along a bar until you hit a number at which it balances. This sliding kind is the kind seen in Norman Rockwell pictures of doctor’s waiting rooms and railway station public rooms, where put a penny in to get your weight.
Some models are also hybrids of the two.
Some models of Balance Scales have scoop shaped bowls, making it easy to pour out what you have measured.
Balance Scales are still very common and easy to buy in the UK; they are harder to find in North America. Fancy foodie stores in North America tend to favour selling the spring and electronic ones, but as noted above, these often end up as decorative showpieces not actually used.
Some weights for Balance Scales look like they are more for show. The brass ones that look almost like chess pieces may require a good deal of regular polishing to keep them display-worthy. Most people are content with the plain, old-fashioned, round cast-iron ones that don’t require polishing. Good weights are cast hollow, leaving an opening at the bottom, then an exact amount of metal is poured in, allowing for more exact production of the weight.
You can switch between Imperial and metric by having two sets of weights.
You zero a Balance Scale out by measuring, say, the weight of the bowl you are measuring in, then adding those weights to the measuring side.
People probably started by weighing stuff in their hands. Even today, some green grocers, when power outages have made their modern electrical Scales useful, may be seen hefting potatoes or apples and making a guess at the weight to keep business going.
Egyptians came up with a simple balance Scale around 5000 BC. It was a stick with a cord exactly in its middle. You’d tie objects to each end of the stick (one of which you knew the weight), and hold the stick up by its middle cord. You’d know how close your weights were to matching by how straight or crooked the stick was.
Improvements were made on this balance Scale over the years, including having trays hanging from each end, replacing the stick with a rod, and mounting the rod on a stand so that you could use it sitting down at the table you were doing business at.
Obviously, soon the issue arose of what constituted a reliable, standard weight acceptable to both the buyer and the seller to use as the known weight at the other end. The first weights used in the trays to measure small quantities of things were probably wheat grains.
When the Romans came along, they instituted a system standard of weights throughout the known world. Around 0 AD, the Romans added a pointer in the middle that indicated when the scales were balanced, or by how much off they were,
In the 1600s, the trays hanging from each end were replaced by trays on top of each end, making it what we call today a “counter scale.”
The Metric system was introduced in 1799 in France and was spread to French-occupied countries by Napoleon. It did not reach Québec, though, because at that time Québec had fallen under British occupation.
In 1824, the British “Weights and Measurements Act” established the Imperial system of weights and measures throughout the British Empire. Being 50 years after the American revolution, it came too late to bring weights and measurements standards in America under its umbrella, so American valuation of how much a unit of measurement was came to be different from Imperial standards.
The English word “scale” (when referring to weigh scales) came from the Norse word “skal” meaning “bowl, drinking cup”.