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In response to a ques­tion today I thought it might be inter­est­ing to visit why some recipes use mass (weight) instead of by vol­ume (cups) or by count.  Bak­ing is a sci­ence peo­ple. Unlike a lot of savoury recipes, adding a dash of bak­ing soda or a smidgen of yeast prob­a­bly won’t get you the best pos­si­ble baked prod­uct.  Baked goods rely on chem­istry and the cor­rect ratios of leav­en­ing agents to do the job.  You don’t guess at the tem­per­a­ture of the oven and con­sider near enough to be good enough.  No, we fol­low the guide and hope like hell we have it right.  We have ALL read our ingre­di­ent lists incor­rectly.  Heck, it seems the older I get the more often I am likely to for­get an ingre­di­ent altogether!!

For most of his­tory, most cook­books did not spec­ify quan­ti­ties pre­cisely, instead talk­ing of “a nice leg of spring lamb”, a “cup­ful” of lentils, a piece of but­ter “the size of a wal­nut”, and “suf­fi­cient” salt. In Europe, cook­books used mass (“weight”) rather than vol­ume, though infor­mal mea­sure­ments such as a “pinch”, a “drop”, or a “hint” (soupçon) con­tinue to be used from time to time. In the U.S.A., Fan­nie Farmer intro­duced the more exact spec­i­fi­ca­tion of quan­ti­ties by vol­ume in her 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.

Today, most of the world prefers mea­sure­ment by weight, though the pref­er­ence for vol­ume mea­sure­ments con­tin­ues in North America.

Flowers measuring cups

So pretty!

In domes­tic cook­ing, bulk solids, notably flour and sugar, are mea­sured by vol­ume, often cups, though they are sold by weight at retail. Weight mea­sures are used for meat. But­ter may be mea­sured by either weight (14 lb) or vol­ume (3 tbsp) or a com­bi­na­tion of weight and vol­ume (14 lb plus 3 tbsp); it is sold by weight but in pack­ages marked to facil­i­tate com­mon divi­sions by eye. (As a sub-packaged unit, a stick of but­ter, at 14 lb [113 g], is a de facto mea­sure in the U.S.)

Cook­books in Canada use the same sys­tem, although pints and gal­lons would be taken as their Impe­r­ial quan­ti­ties unless spec­i­fied oth­er­wise. Fol­low­ing the adop­tion of the met­ric sys­tem, recipes in Canada are fre­quently pub­lished with met­ric conversions.

Dif­fer­ent ingre­di­ents are mea­sured in dif­fer­ent ways:

Liq­uid ingre­di­ents are gen­er­ally mea­sured by vol­ume worldwide.

Dry bulk ingre­di­ents, such as sugar and flour, are mea­sured by weight in most of the world (“250 g flour”), and by vol­ume in North Amer­ica (“1/2 cup flour”). Small quan­ti­ties of salt and spices are gen­er­ally mea­sured by vol­ume world­wide, as few house­holds have suf­fi­ciently pre­cise bal­ances to mea­sure by weight.

Meats are gen­er­ally mea­sured by weight or count world­wide: “a 2 kg chicken”; “four lamb chops”.

Veg­eta­bles may be mea­sured by weight or by count, despite the inher­ent impre­ci­sion of counts given the vari­abil­ity in the size of vegetables.

Chopped or cut-up meats and veg­eta­bles are gen­er­ally mea­sured by weight, except in North Amer­ica where they are mea­sured by volume.

Met­ric measures

In most of the world, recipes use the met­ric sys­tem of litres (l, some­times L) and mil­li­l­itres (ml, some­times mL), grams (g) and kilo­grams (kg), and degrees Cel­sius (°C). The word litre is always spelled liter in the USA.

The English-speaking world fre­quently mea­sures weight in pounds (avoir­du­pois), with vol­ume mea­sures based on cook­ing uten­sils and pre-metric mea­sures. The actual val­ues fre­quently devi­ate from the uten­sils on which they were based, and there is lit­tle con­sis­tency from one coun­try to another.

Most blog recipes tend toward the home-based cook and most of our recipes use vol­u­met­ric mea­sures.  How­ever, from time to time you are going to come across a recipe that is based on mass or weight.  Most of the West­ern world uses mass mea­sure­ments and with our world becom­ing such a small place through the use of tech­nol­ogy it helps to know how to deal with alter­na­tive mea­sure­ments and why it’s a good idea.

Mass or weight mea­sure­ments tend to be far more accu­rate than a cup o’ this or that.  This is largely due to the fact that a lot of the bak­ing cup sets are just not accu­rate, hav­ing been designed to look pretty rather than to be com­pletely precise.

Ref­er­ences:

Grif­fin, Mary Annarose; Gisslen, Wayne (2005). Pro­fes­sional bak­ing (Fourth ed.). New York: John Wiley. p. 6. ISBN0-471–46427-9. Retrieved 2010 Dec 15. “Vol­ume mea­sure is often used when scal­ing water for small or medium-sized batches of bread. Results are gen­er­ally good. How­ever, when­ever accu­racy is crit­i­cal, it is bet­ter to weigh.”

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Comments

Cakewhiz on 4 March, 2011 at 2:12 am #

Those mea­sur­ing cups are so cute!
And thanks for clar­i­fy­ing all these details about mea­sure­ments. It truly is a science…heheh.


Colleen on 4 March, 2011 at 10:28 am #

Thanks for drop­ping by… they are cute mea­sur­ing cups.. won­der how accu­rate they are?


New Site Sarah Palin Pictures on 22 March, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

Those mea­sur­ing cups are so cute!And thanks for clar­i­fy­ing all these details about mea­sure­ments. It truly is a science…heheh.
+1


Deck on 2 March, 2012 at 10:11 pm #

This is largely due to the fact that a lot of the bak­ing cup sets are just not accurate”

It is not largely due to the cups.

I have some fancy metal cups. I couldn’t repli­cate the same “one cup” of flour if I tried for a week. It would always be different.

Tell me 100 grams and give me a scale and I’ll give you 100 grams.

I keep hear­ing the rea­son Amer­i­can bak­ing books use cups is the chicken and egg prob­lem so please stop doing any­thing to encour­age the fur­ther use of vol­ume measurements.


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