A Brief Guide to Cooks' Measurements Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

A Brief Guide to Cooks' Measurements

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Artwork of an old fashioned kitchen balance. Confused about quantities in recipes? Fear not, we hope we can help you feel confident about using recipes where the measurements are unfamiliar to you.

Online recipes mean that we can seen in seconds thousands of similar ways to cook a meal, bake a cake or simmer some soup. This is great - right up until you reach the list of foodstuffs and find that:

  1. you have no idea how much a cup of sugar really is and/or
  2. your scales are broken

A lot of us older h2g2 Researchers remember a time when baking just meant using various kitchen spoons and a good eye for the resulting mixture1. None of us had ever weighed an egg.

But Now?

We try to use grams as the default measurement in the Guide, but this has led to some interesting discussions where the Researcher has written their recipe in the traditional weights and measures for their country - as is right and proper. For example Sweden uses 'decilitre' as the norm, while we are all aware that 'cups' are the measurement of choice in the USA.

Take for Example the Basic Ingredients for a Victoria Sponge Cake

Imperial measurements were easy to remember - 4oz of everything plus two eggs, and when scales were luxury items in many kitchens, cakes were baked using tablespoonfuls as an equivalent for an ounce of flour and sugar. The basic thing to remember is that a recipe is proportional. So, by baking the same type of cake using metric measurements, it is not necessary to work out how many grams are exactly the equivalent to 4 ounces. What you do of course is to round each ounce to the nearest 25 grams. And then alter the whole recipe in proportion.

Cups and decilitres are a whole 'nother kettle of fish, being measurements of volume rather than weight - so the cook really has to look hard at what is being measured; eg a cup of sugar would weigh more than a cup of flour. Denser foods weigh more, volume-wise, than lighter ones. Or is that 'mass'2? (You see it's getting scientific now.)

So - Where is the Helpful Advice?

Rather than use your personal calculator and a formula, you can easily use an online conversion website or an app on your phone.

Don't panic when your recipe asks for a baking tray of a certain size. If your ruler only has centimetres, just click onto the online conversion gadget. It is better to be sure than to guess. Too big a baking tin and your cake will be rather flat, too small and your cake batter will overflow, make a mess in your oven and be wasted.

It might also be of some use to have a list of 'at a glance' equivalences.

  • 100g = 3.5oz
  • 100ml = 3.5 fluid oz
  • 1 cup = 8 fluid oz
  • 1 stick of butter = 4oz
  • A US pint and a UK pint are different measures:
    • A US pint = 16 fluid oz
    • A UK pint = 20 fluid oz

Remember, as well, that a US teaspoon is 40% larger than a British teaspoon. This would make a huge difference if you were adding a concentrated flavouring or some salt!

Our Best Advice?

If you often find that you're using recipes from other parts of the world, you might be best advised to buy either a set of scales or some measuring cups and spoons. This is because converting each of the ingredients to your local weights and measures may involve quite a bit of maths. And if your maths are as shaky as this Researcher's, then it is far easier to use the published measurements.

You can easily find measuring cups and other measuring equipment for sale via the Internet, should your friendly local kitchen paraphernalia shop not stock them.

1Cake mixture is often called 'batter' depending on whereabouts you are in the world.2Thanks to jon-m for his explanation of mass.

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