Dear United States of America. Could you please buy some ruddy kitchen scales? Here in the UK, we love your food, we really do.
We guzzle your dirty burgers, crave your Cronuts and scoff your hot dogs like there’s no tomorrow. But your recipes are giving us heartburn. Why on earth do your cookbooks and food websites cling to cup measures when kitchen scales are much easier, more precise and infinitely less faff?
Take cucumber, for example. At this moment I am looking at a recipe in a US cookbook that calls for six cups of chopped cucumber. What does this mean? Do I chop the cucumber big or small? Do I cram it in or fill it loosely? Is it OK if some of my cucumber sticks over the top? Are we talking an American cup (about 240ml), an Australian, South African or Canadian cup (250ml), or do I just grab my favourite mug because I don’t know you’re referencing a special calibrated vessel?
This isn’t the end of the world when it comes to cucumber, of course, or other ludicrously cup-measured solids like grated cheese or chopped chocolate. It might just mean the flavour and texture of your dish won’t be as good as it should be. But apply this vagueness to baking and there’s trouble afoot.
US food website Serious Eats – which has seen the light and offers both cup and weight measures in its recipes – once asked 10 people to measure a cup of plain flour into a bowl. Depending on the scooping method, how it was packed and whether they tipped every last bit out, that cup of flour weighed anything between 113g and 170g. (Apparently, according to websites devoted to the science of weighing flour, the official weight of 1 cup of plain flour is 120g and the correct technique is to spoon it into the cup, then level off with a knife). This is a huge disparity; someone might make a cake with 40 per cent too much flour in it. I’m thinking that'd be a pretty dry cake.
I also think that US home cooks used to feel that weights and scales were somehow too complicated or hard, or required math
Cup measures also create unnecessary havoc in my kitchen and this makes me cross. A simple but delicious recipe like this banana cake one on US community food website Food52 requires five separate cup and three spoon measurements. If you happen to own a gazillion measuring utensils, your kitchen will be strewn with unnecessary mucky cups and spoons by the time the cake goes into the oven. If you don’t have enough cups – and for goodness sake, who does? – you will need to wash your utensils as you go. This is stupid, stupid, stupid.
Excellent and inexpensive kitchen scales are available these days for very little money. And the best feature is the tare (or sometimes call the zero) button. This allows you to reset the displayed weight back to zero and weigh multiple items in the same container. So, place your mixing bowl on the scales, reset it to zero and pour in the correct weight of flour straight from the packet. Reset to zero and add the sugar, and so on. See? Look mum, no cups. And all my ingredients are precisely weighed out.
I asked celebrated US author, chef and baking expert Alice Medrich, and a crusader for reform in this area, why scales had not found their way into US kitchens and thereby into cookbooks. She thinks there may be deep-seated cultural issues at play, where cups are seen as The American Way and scales are considered “almost unpatriotic”.
“I have sometimes wondered if Americans think using a scale is some kind of Communist plot left over from the cold war,” she jokes. “I also think that US home cooks used to feel that weights and scales were somehow too complicated or hard, or required math.
“Many people are surprised at the notion that using a scale would make anything better; they have no idea they need one. I have pointed out that a decent scale costs less than 10 lattes or large cappuccinos, which so many urbanites pick up daily on their way to work. “
But Medrich says there are signs of hope. In the digital age, Americans have developed a love of gadgets, so scales don’t seem as intimidating as they once did. And her cookbooks now carry weight alongside cup measures, something some celebrity chefs are catching on to.
“The main argument is that it will make everyone a better baker, but it's also easier, quicker and cleaner to use a scale,” Medrich says.
In her utopia, spoon measurements would also be abandoned (I agree that getting all that honey off a tablespoon is certainly a conundrum) and ounces/fluid ounces would be thrown out in favour of grams, which are “so much cleaner on the page”. Hear, hear.
I would also humbly suggest the US stop measuring butter in sticks. Sticks! No one else on the planet has a clue what this means. But for the record, it’s 110g. In the meantime, if you have to use their measurements, there’s a lovely cups-to-weight conversion table here and here are some products to make it that little bit easier...
San Telmo measuring cups
No more fretting over what "one cup" really means while pouring over American recipes.
This copper measuring cup set from Anthropologie comes with four cups all clearly marked with measurements such as '1/4 cup' and '1/2 cup' so you know exactly how much to use.
2-in-1 measuring jug
If you don't have enough space for extra utensils purchased solely for the chore of deciphering American recipes, why not invest in this Joseph Joseph measuring jug?
It has a soft grip for easy, comfortable pouring and has clear, easy-to-read measurements in cups, tablespoons, millitres, fluid ounces, and pints on each side, so you can easily figure out what the equivalent you're looking for is.
US cup to grams/millilitres kitchen conversion chart
Never have to worry about calculating just how much "one cup" should be in grams again with this colourful conversion chart.
It features the conversions to grams for the most common baking ingredients including flour, sugar, and butter. Stick to your fridge, hang it over the table, or even print off a smaller version to keep inside your handy recipe book.
Butter in America is typically sold in 1/2 or 1 pound packages and divided into sticks weighing around 1/4 pounds which is why you'll regularly see the phrase "stick of butter" in American recipes.
For us Brits who get our butter in considerably larger packages, this can be a little confusing, but this butter dish should help. Designed to hold an American stick of butter, simply place exactly what you need inside the dish before adding it to the recipe. It does add an extra step to the baking process, but it's worth getting your measurements perfect.