Weighing Your Options
Whether you choose mechanical or digital scales for your operations, here's how to spec what you need.
By Janice Cha
If you've been in foodservice long enough you know that scales can save you money, ensure consistent recipe execution and, out on the dock, help you determine whether those pricey boxes of frozen seafood or steaks really contain as much product as the weight labels say they do.
So scales are key to your operation, and there are two main categories for back-of-house use: mechanical spring and digital or electronic. (We're saving the discussion on legal-for-trade scales used by supermarkets and delis for another day.) Read on for what to look for when specifying.
Dial 'M' For Mechanical
Mechanical scales are the Old Faithfuls of the kitchen for two reasons: They're reliable and require no batteries. These units use a spring that either compresses (as with a platform scale) or stretches (as with the hanging scales found in the produce department) to calculate weight. (Technically speaking, they're measuring the local force of gravity on an object.)
The weight capacities for mechanical portion-control scales range anywhere from 1 lb. to 50 lbs. or more. Measurement increments generally range from 1/8 oz. to 2 oz. Some models include metric measurement marks as well.
A few mechanical scales on the market can be safely run through the dishwasher, a key selling point since scales get a workout in the commercial kitchen, often becoming covered in food debris by shift's end. Most have a stainless steel platform that can be removed for thorough cleaning.
Be aware, however, that some mechanical models need to be disassembled before washing and your staffs may find reassembly a challenge. Also be aware that in some cases, the clear plastic lens covering the dial can become cloudy after too many trips through the warewasher, so be sure to check the manufacturer's warranty.
Speaking of dials, most manufacturers offer rotating dials that let you adjust for the weight of the container so you're only weighing ingredients. One maker offers a write-on/wipe-off dial that lets you easily mark the weight of your daily special food components for easy-to-read portion control.
For speedier weighing, many mechanical platform scales include a handy "dashpot" feature, a sort of shock-absorber that stops the needle instantaneously at the correct weight. Otherwise your worker has to wait several seconds until the needle stops moving for an accurate read, seconds that cumulatively cost time.
The Digital Weigh
Digital scales win approval for their speed, accuracy and easy-to-interpret numerical readouts. Their innards are a little more complicated, involving the use of a strain gauge under the weighing platform that sends an electronic signal to the scale's weight indicator when compressed. They require either batteries or an electric outlet for power.
In the kitchen, digital food-portioning units have maximum capacities ranging from 5 lbs. to 20 lbs. and measure in uber-precise increments as small as 0.05 oz. Out on the receiving dock, however, you'll find burlier digital scales capable of weighing loads of up to 1,000 lbs. Dock scales that measure 300 lbs. to 500 lbs. are the most common.
Electronic weight readings come up almost immediately, and some operators prefer the numerical readouts of these scales to the hash marks of mechanical scales, believing they're easier and faster for staffers to interpret.
Digital scales will generally give you various display options, in decimals or (for some units) in fractions, to better match your recipes. And of course these units can also be set to weigh in pounds/ounces or kilograms/grams. A few versions include a counting feature for inventory purposes.
Another benefit of digitals is their flat profile and compact size. Some models, such as pizza scales, have separate readouts and platforms, handy for weighing wide items. And speaking of platforms, several units come with two sizes of removable pans for greater flexibility.
On A Tare
Most digitals offer an automatic tare setting. The tare function works by touching a button or pushing a foot pedal. "Touchless tare" is available on certain models, which means all you have to do is wave your hand past a sensor to reset the display to zero.
The tare functionbe it push-button, foot-pedal or touchlesscomes in handy when assembling pizzas or sandwiches directly on the scale platform. You start with the dough and sauce, then set the tare to zero to add the predetermined weight of cheese, reset the tare, add proper weight meat and so on.
The touchless tare option comes with at least one caveat for users. Anything that obstructs the sensorsuch as the sauce, flour and grease found in pizza prep areascan prevent the tare function from working properly.
Finally, the kitchen's hot, humid and fast-paced environment can be tough on electronic equipment. So as you spec digital scales, make sure housings are sealed against high heat and humidity. A few of the newest scales on the market are so well sealed they're considered both waterproof and shock resistant.