American Software vs. Metric or Mormons Making Coffee

By The Metric Maven

It is my understanding that during the Bejing Olympics the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) sent measuring cups and spoons to China. This was done because the Chinese could cook recipes from anywhere else in the world but not those from the US.  The non-metric units of the US were a complete bafflement to the hosts, and when the Olympics were over, they just threw the cups and teaspoons away seeing them as useless.

I began cooking with metric about three years ago. It took me a while to understand that I needed a scale with a digital readout in grams. I realized that metric recipes generally use mass instead of volume for dry ingredients. The best chefs do this also. The surprising part was that because of the fact that 50 milliliters of water weights 50 grams, I could actually estimate using the mass of many liquids also. After I became used to using the digital scale and it’s tare function, I found cooking in metric vastly easier, quicker, and more enjoyable than it had been in imperial.

My father has been interested in cooking his entire life. He uses a software package to index his recipes. During a recent visit to his home, my father marinaded steaks and served them for supper. I had not tasted steaks made this way since I was a boy, and later asked for the marinade recipe by email. He sent me the recipe in imperial units as I would expect and then said he had included a metric version from the program so I would not have to convert it. Below is a reproduction of the metric recipe:

After I saw this I wrote my father an email, and asked if he had created this metric recipe  as a joke. No, he assured me, it’s how it came out of the recipe program. I was just gobsmacked by the use of fractional values of centiliters, deciliters and milliliters. According to the metric recipe this would make one cup of marinade.

This strange metric usage made me think of a story told to me by a deceased family friend, known as Skeez, about his experiences in World War II. He talked about riding in troop trains across the US when he was in the military. He gushed and gushed about the great food the women would have prepared for them at each rail stop. Word had “gotten around” that the food at all the Utah stops was good—but don’t drink the coffee. Mormons are forbidden from drinking coffee, but when they were catering for the government, and were required to brew it, the coffee was not remotely as good as the food..

In fact, the coffee served by Mormons was so awful, that considerable speculation went into the method used to make it so completely unpalatable. Some argued that they reheated the same giant container of coffee over and over during the week, and just added more as it decreased in volume. Others thought they just re-used the coffee grounds and added new when it didn’t look black enough. For me “Mormons Making Coffee” was a metaphor for people trying to implement something about which they had only a very slight acquaintance or understanding, and no working knowledge. Like an American presiding over a cricket match.

Whoever programmed the recipe software my father owned, had proved to me that he was like a “Mormon Making Coffee,” but more specifically he was an American Using Metric. There could be no certainty how an American might imagine metric should be used in cooking, and as we see, anything could happen. The two hallmarks of the metric system which make it elegant for cooking, is that it can be implemented to whole value (integer) numbers and only a simple set of prefixes need to be used. It was clear that the confused, and nearly incomprehensible, American measurement vernacular had been imposed on the metric recipe. The use of 1 1/8, 2 1/2 and 1 1/4 with metric values was ultimate proof. As the saying goes, there is no crying in baseball, and no fractions in metric. Metric recipes generally use whole numbers and milliliters–only. And certainly not fractions. Generally spices are measured in volume as indicated, but not with fractional numbers. The brown sugar would be measured in grams. Let’s take this simple recipe and write it as I would have expected to see it.

Don’s Soy Sauce Marinade

125 mL LaChoy Soy Sauce
125 mL Orange Juice
30 mL Lemon Juice
12 grams (15 mL) Brown Sugar
30 mL Salad Oil
3 mL Pepper Sauce
1 Clove garlic, crushed
1.25 mL Black Pepper

Combine ingredients. Use to marinate beef, pork, or chicken before grilling or broiling. I usually put it in a Ziploc bag with the marinade for 2 to 4 hours before grilling…..for a little different flavor add 30 mL of Worcestershire sauce.

Yield 300 mL

This is the best I could do with this conversion. You will note that other than the black pepper, I was able to use whole numbers for the rest of the ingredients.

This episode in my life illustrates something I did not appreciate until a few years ago. Although the metric system is much simpler than the, bloated, and uncorrelated set of units used in the US today, metric should still be even simpler. There are metric prefixes that should be eliminated, which I call the prefix cluster around unity. More formally it’s Naughtin’s 4th law. Some prefixes with units, like the centimeter the centiliter, deciliter should be vanquished. The use of prefixes that are spaced by a factor of 1000 seems to work very well, and is about as simple as it gets for metric system implementation. In cooking, the milliliter is probably all you need for volume, the gram for mass, and the millimeter for distances, and that’s it—done!—nothing else to learn!

American Interpretation of using The Metric System in Cooking (click to enlarge)

With a metric recipe and proper instructions—perhaps even Mormons could successfully make palatable coffee. But not if that metric recipe was created by imperial to metric conversion software, which had been written by American programmers. Without instruction in the metric system from childhood, and its mandatory and efficient adoption in the US, our software designers will probably continue to use metric in an obtuse manner, and continue to create the illusion that the metric system is complicated, when it’s a paragon of simplicity.

Updated 2012-11-10  Fixed quantities in recipe.

15 thoughts on “American Software vs. Metric or Mormons Making Coffee

  1. The use of prefixes is standardized throughout all of the SI units. It’d be odd to remove dL and not dm, and dm is very useful as 1dm^3 is exactly 1L (so you wouldn’t want to remove it).

    Every SI unit has the same prefixes. Depending on the unit, some serve more purpose than others. However, there’s nothing stopping you from saying 50cL instead of 0.5L, 5dL or 500mL. Just pick what feels natural.

    • It would not be odd to remove prefixes from SI. In fact, that is exactly what happened when SI was developed out of cgs. dL and dm are no longer formally part of the system.

    • SI should remain as it is with all of its prefixes in place. How SI is used should be the decision of the leaders of the disciplines that use it. For example, engineers prefer to use prefixes in increments of 1000, thus the centi, deci, deka and hecto are not accepted.

      It would be up to the cooking industry to make a decision on what prefixes to allow and to what to avoid.

      When it comes to blame when spotting bad practice, blame the particular person for it, the discipline that is responsible, but never blame SI it self as SI is just like a set of tools. It is up to the user to define and pick the right tool(s)l for the job.

  2. You missed 30 mL of salad oil in your conversion. Also, somehow you incorrectly converted “1 1/4 milliliters ground pepper” to 2.5 mL of pepper. I’m also not sure how you determined the yield, since adding the volumes of all ingredients adds up to about 300 mL.

    • I did miss the Salad Oil and I copied the 2.5 mL of pepper from my recipe as I added more—but didn’t notice the difference when I posted. It should be fixed now. Thanks.

      MM

  3. Amazing how convoluted the conversion from the original recipe became. The black pepper amount could be in grams since it is dry no? Hope you sent the simplified version as a example and the program can be changed to default to mL and g for future use!

  4. In Australia, we use metric, but many common measures are expressed in terms of cups (250mL), teaspoons (tsp, 5mL) and tablespoons (tbsp, 20mL). Volume measures seem to be used a lot for small measurements and sugar/flour (e.g. 3 cups of flour, or 1/2 cup sugar). I’m not a chef – this is just household cookbooks I’m talking about.

    Locally, those ingredient volumes would be expressed as:
    1/2 cup LaChoy Soy Sauce
    1/2 cup Orange Juice
    30 mL Lemon Juice (maybe 1 1/2 tablespoons, but tablespoons are often whole)
    3 tsp Brown Sugar (note volume not mass)
    30 mL Salad Oil
    1/2 tsp Pepper Sauce
    1 Clove Garlic, crushed
    1/4 tsp Black Pepper

    The 1/4, 1/2 and 1 teaspoon a common measures and every kitchen has a set of spoons of those measurements (plus a 1 tablespoon measure).

    • In Sweden we use metric as well, but we also use tablespoon and such in cooking. But there is a problem with this when it comes to using international recipes. Namely the following:

      In most of the world, 1 tsp = 15mL
      In Australia, 1 tsp = 20 mL

      In some countries, 1 cup = 250 mL
      In some other countries, 1 cup = 200 mL
      In the USA, 1 cup = 240 mL
      while 1 cup isn’t defined in South America, Europe (expect GB) and most of Asia and Africa.

      • tsp is the abbreviation for teaspoon (5 mL). A dessertspoon (dsp) is 10 mL and tablespoon (tbsp) is 15 mL, or 20 mL in Australia.

  5. Does your father live in England or possibly Canada? Otherwise, if he lives in the US, why would he send you a recipe in imperial when the US doesn’t use imperial? I find that odd. Or are you just applying the wrong name again to the units used in the US?

    This is one of those occasions where calling USC as imperial can cause big problems. USC volume units and imperial volume units differ immensely.

    An USC cup based on NIST definitions is 236.5882365 mL. A USC cup for food usage is 240 mL. An imperial cup is 284 mL. You are talking 44~48 mL of difference. Mixing your imperial and USC can and will cause things not to come out right.

    If you are referring to older units used in the UK, they by all means call it imperial. If you are referring to the US, then call it by its legal name: USC.

    • What about the cup for dry ingredients 236.69 mL? I live in the US and most containers for liquid measure sold in stores are 250 mL even though NIST definitions is 236.5882365 mL . In stores I see packages for some cooking pots with writing “Metric and English units” convertible.

      • All US cups are manufactured according to the rules of the Food & Drug administration, which defines a cup as 240 mL, an ounce as 30 mL, a tablespoon as 15 mL and a teaspoon as 5 mL.

        The NIST definition is a fluke as it is ignored.

        The USC side of the cup as cups & ounces and the 8 ounce 1 cup marking means 240 mL, not 236 point whatever. So the difference between 250 mL on the metric side and 1 cup on the USC side is only 10 mL.

  6. … just go to the drive through and order a double quater pounder, less confusing.
    and oh so delicious!

    • And oh so unhealthy!

      Actually by the time the meat is cooked all you are left with is 100 g. So you may as well call it a 100 grammer. It even sounds better.