From bread to beef wellington, porridge to vindaloo – a lot of us use recipes in our everyday life. There are lots of ways of constructing and interpreting a recipe. You can use cup measures as your foundation, as is popular in the US of A (more on cup measures here). You can weigh things using pounds and ounces as is/was customary in many English speaking countries, or use grams and kilograms. You can measure everything by volume, everything by weight – or a balance of the two.

In a previous post, I looked at redefining traditional units like pints and pounds in rounded metric values and what the advantages would be (see How to Hang on to your Stones). In this post, I’ll look at how that would work in recipes, the pros and cons of using these ‘modernised’ values and the pros and cons of leaving them as they are. I also look at the cup measure discussed previously and if they would be useful to use in recipes. And to tie it all together, there are some opinions from a couple of experts in the area – enjoy!

Why use traditional units in recipes?

To recap on previous posts (e.g. Hang on to your Stones!) these are the main reasons for hanging on to traditional/customary/imperial units in recipes:

  • Units of a more useful size. Pounds, pints, ounces, cups, tablespoons. They’re all typically of a size that is more useful than their metric equivalent in most recipes. For example, ounces are a handier ‘chunk’ of weight than its much smaller metric counterpart – the gram. Also, spoons and cups are easier to visualise and sometimes more convenient.
  • Smaller numbers. Following from the point above, if you use ounces rather than grams you end up with smaller numbers, that are easier to divide or multiply, than if working with numbers in the hundreds (as you get with grams and millilitres).
  • They sound better. Pints, ounces, pounds all sound better and roll off the tongue nicer than millilitres, litres and grams.
  • Tradition. There’s a long tradition of using these units in the UK, Ireland and the US and you could say they are part of our culture. This is especially true when you’re talking about a traditional recipe like Irish soda bread or Victoria sponge – it seems more fitting in these recipes to use pounds and ounces, especially as they would have been originally designed using those units.

I’m not suggesting here that we ditch metric in recipes, but I do think having the option of using traditional units in recipes has some advantages worth considering. If we did want to keep these units in recipes, there ae a few options, as outlined in the following sections.

Using ‘metricated’ customary units

In a previous post, I explored the idea of redefining imperial/customary units into more round metric values. For example: 1 oz = 25g, 1 lb = 20 oz (500g); 1 fl oz = 25ml, 1 pint = 20 fl oz (500ml) etc (more details here). In terms of recipes, this would have the advantage of being able to create an ingredient list that is more likely to be nice round numbers in both systems. It would also be easier to convert between the two unit types. So for example a recipe as follows (try to guess what it’s for!);

  • 200g plain flour
  • 4 eggs
  • 600ml milk
  • Salt

Could become

  • 8 oz plain flour
  • 4 eggs
  • 24 fl oz milk *
  • Salt

* can also be displayed as 1 pt 4 oz.

The disadvantage here would be that all current kitchen scales would need to be adjusted and measuring jugs replaced. Also, recipes that currently use pounds and ounces would not be compatible with changed scales and could lead to confusion.

Award winning and well known chef, Antony Worrall Thompson, gave me his opinion on these ‘modernised’ units and the use of cup measures;

Anthony Worrall ThompsonAntony Worrall Thompson @AntonyWT

Award winning chef, author and TV presenter

I don’t see any major problem in cooking for your change in values, but you are dealing in history so all the recipes out there at the moment would be very incorrect several years down the line. One area of cooking that needs precision is the baking side, pastry work etc. Working in cups either American or Australian, makes more sense to me as long as the public realised it can’t be any cup or any table or tea spoon and that these are precise measurements by volume and not weight, i.e. a cup of salt weighs much heavier than a cup of flour. Am all in favour of retaining Imperial, especially after Brexit!

That brings me on to the next possibility;

Using cups

The popular choice in the US. This involves measuring everything (or at least most things) by volume, including dry ingredients. You will encounter them in an American cookbook or recipe website. 

Irish designer & food blogger Helen James discovered the usefulness of using cup measures while living in the US:

Helen James Helen James @hjamesdesign

Baker, TV presenter, Designer

I lived in NYC for 12 years so I started using cup measures when I was there. I find them very handy, but best used with a recipe you are familiar with or one where EXACT measurements are not necessary. One where a little over or under isn’t going to make a huge difference. Also using them correctly is key.

Helen has a guide to how to use cup measures in recipes here.

Personally I think (and I’m no master chef) that cup measures can be very handy in a recipe, even for dry ingredients in smaller amounts like a ¼ cup sugar here or a cup of oats there. They would be handy in smaller recipes where it might be more convenient than faffing about with weighing scales, but they can get messy if you have a long list of ingredients and only one set of cup measures, or if measuring anything gooey or sticky. That said, I haven’t used cup-based recipes for baking so must try it some time!

Using imperial units

And then of course there is the option of using imperial units, as they are today, unmodified. Most recipes today seem to be completely metric, with the exception of teaspoons and tablespoons, but there are quite a few that use both metric and imperial side-by-side, especially in printed recipe books.

Valerie O’Connor, blogger at valskitchen.com and author of books like “Val’s Kitchen: Real Food, Real Easy” and “Irish Bread Baking for Today” amongst others, gave me her thoughts on using pounds and ounces in recipes:

Valerie O'ConnorValerie O’Connor @valoconnor

Food blogger and book author

Interesting ideas. I lived in Germany for years where it was all grams but I’m for both tbh. It’s a pain in the arse having to change recipes for both quantities but it has to be done and I generally do an oz as 25g and 500g for a lb which of course is way off! 

For traditional Irish stuff it’s oz and lb all the way. Drinking half a litre of beer never sounds the same does it?

And Catherine Leyden, baker on the Odlums recipe site and on TV3’s Morning Ireland agrees with using both metric and imperial in recipes.

Catherine LeydenCatherine Leyden @CatherineOdlums

Well known home baker

I would suggest keeping both imperial & metric! As lots of home bakers still use imperial, oz & pints

Imperial units have been used for a long time in these parts, so the advantage of leaving them as they are is that no existing recipes, weighing scales, measuring jugs etc would need to change.

Aesthetics

One thing you might notice in recipes that display units from both systems is that they sometimes can look ‘clunky’ and not easy to read. They are usually separated with a forward slash or in brackets. A better way of displaying them might be to space them evenly apart and display each system on opposite sides, for example:

8 oz Plain flour 225g
2 oz Oats 50g
1 pint Milk 550ml

 Or something like this, using italics to differentiate one from the other (like what’s used on Irish and Welsh road signs to differentiate Irish/Welsh from English):

8 oz 225g Plain flour
2 oz 50g Oats
1 pint 550ml Milk

In summary

My own preference would be to use the ‘redefined’ traditional units maybe alongside cup measures where they make sense. However, having to buy new or realign weighing scales would make that difficult. It may have been a more realistic option back in the ’70s when the changeover to metric was happening. Not sure why something like that wasn’t considered…

Failing that, at least showing imperial units alongside metric (as is the case a lot of the time) gives the person cooking the dish the option of which they want to use.

In terms of cup measures, I think we should make them an official unit of measure at 240ml (16 Tbsp) for use with recipes and food portions. Every recipe is different, sometimes using cup measures either fully or partially would work well, other times weighing stuff out would be better, especially for bigger or more complex recipes.

What do you prefer to use in recipes?

Kitchens, pints & pounds
  • Mark Williams

    Chortle. The one thing `expert’ Antony Worrall Thompson got right (did he send you any of his wipes?) was the bit about accuracy in baking. The difference between, say, 1 2/7 and 1 4/9 imperial pounds—yay for `smaller’ numbers—can be the difference between marginally OK and embarrassing failure. Here’s a little experiment for you to try out:

    0. Pre-heat oven to Fahrenheit temperature redefined in terms of `rounded metric values’.
    1. Mix up exactly one cake with 0.7 Irish usuelles pints of flour, sieved twice but knocked about a bit while you measure it.
    1a. Working out the quantities (and `balance’ of units) for the other ingredients is left as an exercise to the reader.
    2. Decant sludge into a 200 mm tin and place into oven for 1 1/4 millifortnights.
    3. Remove, allow to cool, extricate and enter the result into local produce show—bonus points for doing this blindfolded.
    4. See whether you get back an empty plate and a prize ribbon or the whole submission sealed in a HAZMAT bag.

    Irish road signs use italics and Scottish ones use colour, either of which is fine for distinguishing purposes. The Welsh tried to make both languages `equal’ by using identical type—and as a result their written signs are simultaneously expensive, visually intrusive and typically useless when the languages are interleaved. Your tabular suggestion is much more legible for any reasonable number of units, including zero (e.g. Mrs. Beaton’s 1:1:1:1 Victoria sponge) and one.

    What do I prefer? That’s easy; metric masses all the way, same as `most recipes’ and practically all professional chefs worldwide. Anything else really would be a `faff’.