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Are American cookbooks stupid?
May 3, 2006 6:01 PM   Subscribe

Why do American cookbooks give ingredient measurements by volume and number instead of weight?

Measuring ingredients by weight seems better because (1) it should give better results for things like flour, for which the volume depends on the history ("contents may settle during shipping") but the weight doesn't and (2) it avoids subjectivity (e.g., what constitutes a "medium tomato"?).

When I lived in France I noticed that cookbooks there give ingredient measurements based on weight.

So what's up with American cookbooks? I'm interested in any historical reasons for this, as well as explanations for why I'm wrong and volume/number measurements are better than weight.
posted by betterton to Food & Drink (35 answers total)
 
Scales weren't common kitchen appliances in the US; measuring cups were.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:03 PM on May 3, 2006


Alton Brown (of Good Eats fame) has two cookbooks out that give most measurements in weight...but then again he's a bit of a cooking nerd so thats not too big a surprise.
posted by Captain_Science at 6:08 PM on May 3, 2006


As far as I understand, the weight of things like flour only matter when baking. Or at least, they matter more.
posted by MadamM at 6:09 PM on May 3, 2006


I have a few cookbooks, baking especially, that give measurements by weight but, yes, look around the kitchens of people you know and count the scales present. Not many.

And you are correct, weighing gives better results because good baking thrives on precision.
posted by birdie birdington at 6:12 PM on May 3, 2006


Because measuring by volume is easier than by weight. Scooping a cup into a canister of flour is a lot easier and faster than using a scale.
posted by zsazsa at 6:12 PM on May 3, 2006


Cooking became a SCIENCE. Fannie Farmer "the mother of level measurements".
posted by tellurian at 6:12 PM on May 3, 2006


~ 120g to a cup of flour. That's all you need to know. Other than that, I rarely need to look up anything else, and if I do (usually a substitution) it's easy with the Internet. :)

adjust for your type, brand, and preference of flour and altitude of course..
posted by kcm at 6:13 PM on May 3, 2006


I have a scale out for my espresso (16g/double shot) so it's easy to just net the scale on the bowl I'm mixing in and add until it reaches 120g*N. As easy as spooning if not easier, and way more precise. For a lot of breads/doughs, it's not such a big deal since your last step is usually adjusting the flour/water ratio carefully until you have the consistency you want. The starting measure of flour is only a ballpark.
posted by kcm at 6:16 PM on May 3, 2006


Because measuring by volume is easier than by weight. Scooping a cup into a canister of flour is a lot easier and faster than using a scale.

That and the convenience is pretty much it, I would guess.

In fairness, however, I will answer this question as it should be -

"haha! Americans are so stupid!"
posted by bradth27 at 6:23 PM on May 3, 2006


I may as well give an answer on topic if I'm going to threadjack as I've already done - check out "real" French cookbooks (Escoffier e.g.), as well as *old* cookbooks from all over. They generally just don't give any precise measurements whatsoever, since they assume the chef/cook already understands well enough to adjust on their own.
posted by kcm at 6:24 PM on May 3, 2006


My French ex would bake cakes without measuring at all, other than eggs. She'd make a one-egg cake or a two-egg cake or a sponge cake (a lot of eggs) and just eyeball the other ingredients. And they always turned out beautifully.
posted by TimeFactor at 6:31 PM on May 3, 2006


That's the way we learned to cook and we're slow to change. And it works for us.
posted by JamesMessick at 6:34 PM on May 3, 2006


My American cookbooks do usually also give the weight for things like flour.
posted by smackfu at 6:35 PM on May 3, 2006


Does no search for actual fact any more? Do we all just speculate?

Scales weren't common kitchen appliances in the US; measuring cups were.

No; scales were common at home in the eighteenth century; they just weren't used very obsessively. The exact weighing and measuring of ingredients, rather than cooking by habit and eye, is a creation of the Industrial era. New patterns of work -- especially the increasing likelihood that women worked outside the home or had less opportunity to learn from mothers because they moved to new locations -- resulted in the first appearance of standardized cookbooks in any number starting around 1820.

So Tellurian is right.

The Food Timeline adds detail:
...most old recipes were not much more than shopping lists with cursory prep notes. Detailed instructions were not considered necessary because it was understood that whoever cooked the food already knew the basics. Measurements are time/country/food specific....Scientific cven temperatures and exact measurements had no place in pre-industrial kitchens, which explains why food was commonly "served forth" when it was "done." Standard measurements and detailed cooking instructions were a by-product of the Industrial Revolution and are commonly attributed to Fannie M. Farmer, principal of the Boston Cooking School.
Where I work, we do a historic foodways demonstration drawing on reciepts of the 1600s and 1700s. Almost all of which say things like 'Take the right amount of flour and mix with as much butter as you need. Add some fresh cream and enough sugar."
posted by Miko at 6:55 PM on May 3, 2006 [1 favorite]


kcm: also, adjust by as much as 10% depending on how you choose to measure/scoop it and how you store your flour.
posted by aubilenon at 7:11 PM on May 3, 2006


Measuring ingredients by weight seems better because (1) it should give better results for things like flour, for which the volume depends on the history ("contents may settle during shipping") but the weight doesn't

Sure, but that's not a general thing, that's a flour thing. It's also why serious baking recipes, even in the US, go by weight of flour.

and (2) it avoids subjectivity (e.g., what constitutes a "medium tomato"?).

This is not a serious concern. If for some reason you have a recipe that is so fragile that having slightly too much or too little tomato will ruin it, you can always specify a weight of tomato (or call for a prepackaged container, which will have been measured by weight). But almost no recipes are so fragile.

When I lived in France I noticed that cookbooks there give ingredient measurements based on weight.

For everything? Even spices? Bleah.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:19 PM on May 3, 2006


So the answer is that Farmer chose to use volume measurements and subsequent American authors followed her example? Is there a similar trackable source for the use of weight measurements in Europe?
posted by mr_roboto at 7:28 PM on May 3, 2006


To me, it looks as though it's the British who adopted scales rather than standard units of volume during the Industrial era, whereas Americans kept the older standard.

Measures of capacity :
In general :

* 2 gills = 1 cup
* 2 cups = 1 pint
* 2 pints = 1 quart
* 2 quarts = 1 pottle
* 2 pottles = 1 gallon
* 2 gallons = 1 peck
* 4 pecks = 1 bushel
* 3 bushels = 1 bag
* 12 bags = 1 chauldron or chaldron

or

* 4 bushels = 1 coombe
* 2 coombes = 1 quarter
* 5 quarters = 1 load or wey
* 2 loads or weys = 1 last (yes !)

Now comes the joy ! There are several different basic gallons, and one has to use a sliding rule.

In England, the Winchester standards were used since the 15th Century. They were slowly modified, as usual : at the beginning of the 18th Century, we had a wine gallon containing 231 cubic inches, an ale gallon of 282 cubic inches and even a corn ("Winchester") gallon...

The Weights and Measures Act of 1824 defined an Imperial British Gallon to replace all others : it was to contain 10 pounds of pure water at 62°F (inspired by the decimal system ?) (= 4.54609 liters).

At the same time in the US, the old wine gallon (also called Queen Anne's gallon) just discarded in England became the new official US Gallon (= 3.785411784 liter).At least in England, they had a common system for liquid and dry measures thereafter.

In the US, there are two systems : for liquid measures, the base is the US Gallon just mentioned. The dry measures are based on the old Winchester Gallon (= 4.404884 liter) or 268.8025 cubic inches. I won't calculate each equivalent in the three systems, I am sure the interested reader would like to enjoy it all alone.

Note : not all units are used in all three systems and the cup is rather recent.
posted by Miko at 7:32 PM on May 3, 2006


"In England units of measurement were not properly standardised until the 13th century, though variations (and abuses) continued until long after that. For example, there were three different gallons (ale, wine and corn) up until 1824 when the gallon was standardised.

In the U S A the system of weights and measured first adopted was that of the English, though a few differences came in when decisions were made at the time of standardisation in 1836. For instance, the wine-gallon of 231 cubic inches was used instead of the English one (as defined in 1824) of about 277 cubic inches. The U S A also took as their standard of dry measure the old Winchester bushel of 2150.42 cubic inches, which gave a dry gallon of nearly 269 cubic inches. "
posted by Miko at 7:40 PM on May 3, 2006


Whoops, here's the link

Here's some more information:

Volume
The names of the traditional volume units are the names of standard containers. Until the eighteenth century, it was very difficult to measure the capacity of a container accurately in cubic units, so the standard containers were defined by specifying the weight of a particular substance, such as wheat or beer, that they could carry. Thus the gallon, the basic English unit of volume, was originally the volume of eight pounds of wheat. This custom led to a multiplicity of units, as different commodities were carried in containers of slightly different sizes.

Gallons are always divided into 4 quarts, which are further divided into 2 pints each. For larger volumes of dry commodities, there are 2 gallons in a peck and 4 pecks in a bushel. Larger volumes of liquids were carried in barrels, hogsheads, or other containers whose size in gallons tended to vary with the commodity, with wine units being different from beer and ale units or units for other liquids.

The situation was still confused during the American colonial period, so the Americans were actually simplifying things by selecting just two of the many possible gallons. These two were the gallons that had become most common in British commerce by around 1700. For dry commodities, the Americans were familiar with the "Winchester bushel," defined by Parliament in 1696 to be the volume of a cylindrical container 18.5 inches in diameter and 8 inches deep. The corresponding gallon, 1/8 of this bushel, is usually called the "corn gallon" in England. This corn gallon holds 268.8 cubic inches.

For liquids Americans preferred to use the traditional British wine gallon, which Parliament defined to equal exactly 231 cubic inches in 1707. As a result, the U.S. volume system includes both "dry" and "liquid" units, with the dry units being about 1/6 larger than the corresponding liquid units.

In 1824, the British Parliament abolished all the traditional gallons and established a new system based on the "Imperial" gallon of 277.42 cubic inches. The Imperial gallon was designed to hold exactly 10 pounds of water under certain specified conditions. Unfortunately, Americans were not inclined to adopt this new, larger gallon, so the traditional English "system" actually includes three different volume measurement systems: U.S. liquid, U.S. dry, and British Imperial.

On both sides of the Atlantic, smaller volumes of liquid are traditionally measured in fluid ounces, which are at least roughly equal to the volume of one ounce of water. To accomplish this in the different systems, the smaller U.S. pint is divided into 16 fluid ounces, and the larger British pint is divided into 20 fluid ounces.
posted by Miko at 7:43 PM on May 3, 2006


look around the kitchens of people you know and count the scales present. Not many.

Or... everybody. Mine, my mum's both my sisters, every friend that cooks...

Course, we're aussies and we use that stupid metric system.

Unlike cooking, baking is a science not an art. Consistent results demand weighing.
posted by wilful at 7:56 PM on May 3, 2006


Unless you're a really serious cook, the difference is negligible.
posted by Miko at 8:11 PM on May 3, 2006


In the US, there are two systems : for liquid measures, the base is the US Gallon just mentioned. The dry measures are based on the old Winchester Gallon (= 4.404884 liter) or 268.8025 cubic inches.

Um. I assure you that a half-cup in a measuring cup intended for liquids is the same as a half-cup measuring cup intended for dry goods.

I think that what you mean is "Farmers use bushels that are derived differently than the cups and gallons that we use in the kitchen." But this isn't a dry / liquid difference, this is a specialized-farming-measure / general-kitchen-measure difference.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:20 PM on May 3, 2006


Just an anecdote: about 20 years ago my mom bought a nifty plastic measuring cup in Germany (total capacity about 1 liter/quart). On the sides are several scales, for flour, sugar, rice, etc, indicating the weight of the ingredient. So, to get 500 gm of rice, fill the cup to this line, etc. I guess even in places where weight is the standard measuring system in the kitchen, it's still more convenient to work by volume.
posted by Quietgal at 8:20 PM on May 3, 2006


I've never even seen a decent kitchen scale; they seem to be quite uncommon. Measuring cups are readily available everywhere.
posted by jellicle at 8:23 PM on May 3, 2006


ROU_Xenophobe, I don't mean that at all. It's a quote directly from the link, provided among the others to help explain why the US didn't adopt the same measurement systems as the Brits.

I should have more clearly marked those excerpts as quotes, because I can see why it isn't obvious they all come verbatim from the links which precede them.

I'm not fully satisfied with these explanations, but they're the best I can do without becoming truly obsessed with the question.
posted by Miko at 8:34 PM on May 3, 2006


I do not doubt that they are direct quotes. But you and I both know that measures of volume are not different for dry and wet measures in the US -- if they were, we would need dry and wet tablespoons and dry and wet cups, but we use the same cups and tablespoons and whatnot for dry goods, liquids, and intermediate goops.

The stuff about Winchester bushels is exceedingly misleading, implying a difference that just isn't there. It's more accurate to say that there is a measure called a bushel, used by agriculture and nobody else, that has a different historical origin than do other measures of volume.

Sorry if I'm testy. The American traditional system of measurement is bad enough without implying badnesses that aren't there.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:16 PM on May 3, 2006


I've never even seen a decent kitchen scale; they seem to be quite uncommon. Measuring cups are readily available everywhere.

That would be because you're in Toronto. In the UK, they're everywhere, and can be bought in any supermarket or hardware store. I've got both scales and measuring cups, because I often use US recipies as well as international ones. And using scales is much faster and much simpler, not to mention less fiddly washing out of the cups. If I've got a bit of time when doing a US recipe, I'll measure out the ingredients using my cups, and then weigh the contents of the cup and write it in the book. That way I don't need to fart around with the cups again.
posted by talitha_kumi at 4:17 AM on May 4, 2006


Sorry if I'm testy. The American traditional system of measurement is bad enough without implying badnesses that aren't there.

Yeah, you are testy. I'm not "implying" anything, I'm presenting historical background which gives a broad context for splits between English and American systems of measurement. If that requires someone to read, absorb, and independently apply it, so be it.
posted by Miko at 6:52 AM on May 4, 2006


My apologies then.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:12 AM on May 4, 2006


I've never even seen a decent kitchen scale; they seem to be quite uncommon. Measuring cups are readily available everywhere.
That would be because you're in Toronto.
No, they're easy to find in Toronto too: Sears, The Bay, HomeSense, Canadian Tire, any specialty cooking store. They're less common because more people demand measuring cups because cookbooks give volume measurements, but they're still readily available.
posted by mendel at 7:36 AM on May 4, 2006


Why do American cookbooks give ingredient measurements by volume and number instead of weight?

Because the only scales most Americans have in the home now are in the bathroom, and those lack the requiste precision. Exception: drug dealers.
posted by Rash at 8:49 AM on May 4, 2006


Scales rock. I vastly prefer digital, but I like precision, if I'm going to be bothered at being careful at all.

Americans are funny that way. They think cups and such are easier, but most have never used kitchen scales. Cups are cheaper though.

The dry vs. liquid measures are valid definitions, they simply don't apply to most things in the kitchen. However the place where they do enter is with fruit. Berries are in pints or quarts. Apples in pecks and bushels. Maybe some recipes would call for fruit in these measurements. At least, they were sold this way back in the old days, when I was a child
posted by Goofyy at 9:40 AM on May 4, 2006


Thanks for the helpful answers; now I will reframe my question. OK. I accept that originally recipes didn't give measurements at all, and at some point cooking was industrialized (e.g., by Fannie Farmer) and measurements became part of recipes.

Then: why did the U.S. go with volume for most measurements, while other parts of the world (France, UK, Australia) went with weight for most measurements?
posted by betterton at 1:37 PM on May 4, 2006


Betterton: That's the good question, the one I was really hoping to find an answer to last night. And despite my mad Googlebilities, it was not to be found. I may take this to a couple of the food historians I work with. It's certainly interesting.

Who standardized recipes in Britain? That's a trail I haven't followed yet.
posted by Miko at 6:35 PM on May 4, 2006


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