Mass vs Volume? Baking is a Science People!

by Colleen | February 25, 2011 3:22 pm

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.


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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