We recruited a panel of amateur cooks of both persuasions to test our chosen range of kitchen scales. Interestingly, some are scientists by profession, but scoffed at the idea that recipes should be prepared with attention to every gram stated.
Others admitted to being more nervous cooks, or at least more careful. As Penelope Farlow put it, "Some recipes are so exotic these days and the ingredients so expensive, it's a tragedy if it turns out badly." The other testers were Jane Bartlett, Claire Blezard, Andrew Simpson, Robert Farrant and myself.
Accuracy was only one consideration when comparing a wide range of weighing devices for the kitchen. Testers were easily put off by design and surprised by huge differences in price. Crucially, they looked for a product which looked attractive, since they felt it would inevitably end up on permanent display
"Hmm, very Italian," said Penelope Farlow drily of this conical mechanical scale, whose perspex cover turns over to become the ingredients pan. "It's the look, not the function that counts." Precisely: however, I thought "the look" of the "Dolly" scale was gorgeous, like a buttercup; Jane Bartlett said her coral version with red perspex knob (the scale is also available in yellow, green or white) reminded her of nothing so much as an upturned breast and other panellists characterised it in turn as "gimmicky", "cute" and "ridiculous".
Unfortunately, it has a major design fault which kills it; the scale is set at zero by turning the base. This means that every time you touch the base, it alters the reading and, even more crucially, the reading depends on where you stand - a problem instantly diagnosed by Andrew Simpson as "parallax error". If you can cope with this, the Dolly weighs up to 2 kilos in metric, or 4.5lbs.
*SALTER AQUATRONIC KITCHEN SCALES
This flat, white plastic, battery-operated scale is being marketed as the first to weigh both liquids and solids in metric and imperial - a novelty which would have impressed us, until we realised that it can actually only be used to weigh water-based liquids.
An ingredients pan isn't supplied, which is supposed to cut down on washing up, since an automatic "add and weigh" facility means the digital reading returns to zero each time you press the button; so "a whole recipe can be made in one bowl".
The trouble is that you have to press the buttons so hard to achieve any measurement at all, that most panellists assumed initially that the machine wasn't working. Then the design features a food trap in narrow groove between the weighing platform and the control panel and the whole thing looks like a telephone - only worse. "Sat in all day, but it didn't ring once," reported Robert Farrant.
Jane Bartlett said that she liked "the simplicity of the design, but was not keen on the way it changes its mind all the time." Momentary fluctuations in the digital display, (for example, from 115g-120g, 55-60mls and back again) were worrying. Were we breathing on it? Was I leaning on the counter? Can a few ounces of flour really be this important?
*SOEHNLE BACINO DIET SCALE
This tiny, round diet scale is as light as a feather and can be held in the palm of your hand with the ingredients pan fitting snugly over the round base - ideal for travel presumably. Soehnle makes a range of very serviceable kitchen scales, but this one seemed the most novel. Too bad, then, that it suffers from the same syndrome of parallax error as the Guzzini Dolly, but seems worse since the calibrations are so tiny. You can hardly read them. "This is hopeless," was Robert Farrant's calculated opinion, while Andrew Simpson waxed ironic. "It would be great it you were diabetic - until you develop glaucoma from measuring out the carbohydrates wrongly because you can't see the measurements in the first place."
***TEFAL MICROTOUCH SCALES
These electronic scales with plastic ingredients pan work on the same principle as the Salters Aquatronic, but went down better with the panel since the rounded shape is more attractive, and easy-to-press buttons seemed to do the job. The pan doesn't invert over the base for storage and hygiene as many of our samples did - "it would have to wear it at a rakish angle, like a hat," said Penelope Farlow, doubtfully. Despite being thought "light and insubstantial" and tipping slightly when you touch it, it weighs up to 3kg when most other scales only achieve 2kg. But the pan is so shallow, it's difficult to imagine how you would accommodate the bulk.
****F J THORNTON VIKING
pounds 63, plus weights pounds 16.50
Despite its price and old-fashioned functioning, this classic pan of cast iron scales with brass ingredients and weight pans turned out to be the panel's favourite. "This will last a lifetime," said Claire Blezard confidently. The "solid brass" pans and decorative discs didn't cut much ice with Robert Farrant, who thought they looked "light and tinny", and it's true that the weights - which are not supplied with the scales - scratched the base of the pan immediately. Jane Bartlett said she "couldn't be fagged with all the little weights," but admitted that it is very pretty and its weighing of even small quantities is, as Andrew Simpson remarked, "bang on." In comparison with fiddly electronic scales, we had to agree that the Viking's reliance on "simple Newtonian mechanics" which will never go wrong was a great relief.
***L'OCA NERA IN OCEANA BLUE
"That looks very Ikea," said a passing guest in our kitchen as a couple of the panellists were admiring this super-expensive, very designerish Italian scale. Ouch. You do have to have an eye for post-modern style to appreciate the L'Oca Nera. Claire Blezard gasped in admiration as it emerged from the box, but Robert Farrant predicted that the pale pearwood of the base would soon become marked and complained that the cobalt blue ingredients pan is fiddly to position on the weighing platform.
"Pearwood? Plywood, more like," said Penelope Farlow, but had to agree that the scale is highly accurate. There is a fault - the needle needs to be longer and finer at the tip to read tiny weights - but on the whole this is a gorgeous piece of equipment, "especially suitable for someone who doesn't do much cooking."
Tefal, call 01604 762726; L'Oca Nera from Oggetti, Fulham Rd, London SW3 (0171 581 8088/584 9808); all the others from branches of the John Lewis Partnership.
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