Metric Cooking Without Imperial Leftovers

By The Metric Maven

Update: 2013-01-17

On 2013-01-10 the 25,000 signature threshold for a whitehouse.gov petition urging the US change over to the metric system was met. This was the threshold required for an issue to merit attention from the Obama administration.   Five days later, the rules have now changed: White House Raises Petition Signature Threshold to 100K.

Before I start the current blog, I would like to make an appeal to my US readers. I tend to  be of the opinion that online petitions are feckless. I would like to make a singular exception this month and encourage my readers to sign the petition at whitehouse.gov called Make The Metric System the Standard in the United States, Instead of the Imperial System. I have tried to sign up twice, once with my home email and once as The Metric Maven. I never received my confirmation emails with a password either time. Yes, I checked my spam filter. I then tried to login and clicked forget password? It indicated I would go to a page where I could change my password. It did not, but it did take me back to the petition, which I then signed. Sven also needed to use the same procedure to sign the petition. Others apparently have been able to breach this vestigial firewall and as of this writing (2013-01-09), there are 20,376 signatures. This is very close to the 25,000 needed to require the White House to pay attention to this issue. The petition will end on January 31, so voting before this deadline is crucial.  Based on my experience with the whitehouse.gov website, I believe more people have tried to vote, and have been unable to, than are shown on the tally. Should we make the 25,000 signature limit, we can then find out if this was a feckless endeavor or not. It will give us something concrete to which we can point when contacting legislators and requesting that legislation be enacted. Thank you.  Now the blog.

When the 2008 Olympics were held in China, there was one group of people the hosts were not certain how to feed. It was the Americans. Recipes sent from all other countries of the world made sense, but not those from the US. In order to make the recipes for Americans, measures with cups, tablespoons, teaspoons, and all the other measurement units unfamiliar to the rest of the world had to be obtained. The necessary glassware and measures were sent from the US, the cooks adapted for the Olympics; the Americans were fed. After the Olympics were finished, they saw no value to these odd cooking utensils with imperial measures, and threw them all away. This story is somewhat apocryphal, but illustrates the metric culinary island to which we’ve banished ourselves in the US.

I’ve read a few cooking blogs that lament our use of imperial measures for cooking in the US. Imperial units isolate new US recipes from the rest of the world, and prevent the world from sharing with us.. These cooks wonder when, or if, we will ever figure out a way to change American cooking to metric—as the other 192 metric countries of the world have done—years ago.

A couple of solar orbits back,  I decided to look into the details of cooking using the metric system. Pat Naughtin often stressed that when changing to metric one should take the opportunity to reform practices within industries and make them better. What I realized during my work, was how different metric cooking is from the way I learned it using imperial. In an earlier blog, I lampooned the way some American computer programs mindlessly convert recipes to metric. Unfortunately this is generally the way people have converted from imperial to metric recipes in the past. When I’ve read through old accounts from the 1970s, metric cooking is treated like imperial cooking, just with different units. This leads to unpleasant imperial leftovers, that need correcting.

Cooking Scale with small bowl zeroed for measuring (click to enlarge)

A fundamental difference between cooking the way metric countries generally do, and ourselves, is the use of a scale to measure mass (weight). A volumetric quantity of flour in a measuring cup will change depending on how settled it is, but it’s mass (weight) doesn’t. Brown sugar can be measured loose, or  packed, so a cup of brown sugar can be of different weight, but occupy the same volume in a measuring cup. This can cause inconsistent results in cooking, but when mass is used, the quantity is assured to be consistent. Most all of us have seen the side of a breakfast cereal box that has a warning like: “Contents may have settled in shipment. Contents are sold by weight not by volume.”  I’m sure many people had called in complaining their cereal boxes were not filled to the top when they opened them. So how much flour is in a cup of flour?—depends, but we can always be certain how much 225 grams of flour is. The mass remains constant. The density does not.

I purchased a scale which would automatically awaken in grams and has a nice large digital display. Scales have a tare function on them. What this means is that if you set a small bowl on the scale, you can press the tare button and it will re-zero the scale so you measure only the contents you then place into the bowl. At first cooking this way seemed awkward, but soon I realized that the use of a measuring cup was minimized to mostly liquids, and a scale was way faster. What one does not realize is how often one has to place contents in a measuring cup, bring it up level with your eyes, or worse bend down and look at it when it’s on a counter top. Many modern measuring cups have graduations which may be viewed from above, this is a great improvement. Measuring cups are often graduated with imperial units facing a right handed person, so to read milliliters, one must turn the cup around, or possibly hold it in your left hand. This is a subtle anti-metric bias. Graduations which may be read from above a measuring cup eliminate this anti-metric bias—for right handed people anyway.

At this point it may be best to introduce a recipe to use for illustration. The Chocolate Chip Cookie originated in the US, and is an obvious choice. I went to allrecipes.com and found their Best Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe. The site has an option to convert to metric. When I did this the recipe below was offered:

The conversion is much better than others I’ve seen, but has a few problems. First, the butter, white sugar, brown sugar, flour, chocolate chips, and chopped walnuts are all  weighed in grams, that’s good. The unintentional, algorithmic humor is that the recipe originally called for 1 cup of packed brown sugar. When weighing brown sugar, as is called out in the metric version, packing it beforehand is a superfluous waste of time. It reveals the mindless metric conversion the software performed. Two eggs are obviously two eggs. Ten milliliters of vanilla extract may be measured using two 5 mL (tea)-spoons.

In the case of ingredients like spices, they are often in such small quantities, that measuring them becomes inaccurate. Remember a gram is about the weight of a plain m&m. If you are trying to measure 1 to 5 grams, your scale will not easily distinguish a gram from two grams. (there are culinary scales that are accurate to 0.1 gram, but they are around $500.00 which breaks my budget) This converted recipe indicates you should use 5 grams of baking soda. This is a bad practice, and will cause frustration. It has been converted from 1 teaspoon of baking soda. One should directly use the equivalent volume which is 5 mL. The recipe calls for 3 grams of salt. I tried measuring three grams of salt, don’t do it, you will only encounter frustration. The imperial version of the recipe calls for 1/2 teaspoon of salt, use the 2.5 mL (1/2 tea)-spoon. The two teaspoons of hot water were taken directly to milliliters and are fine. For spices and such, use volume measure.

I have a viewpoint on how imperial recipes should be converted for Americans in during metrication. Americans are not used to using a digital scale (believe me–it’s easier than what we do), so volumes should be placed next to the weights in parenthesis. This allows a person to implement the recipe if they don’t have a scale. With luck, the parenthetical volumes would be dropped for weight, as Americans realize the ease of using a scale in grams. Here is how I would convert the Best Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe for Americans to use:

Best Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ingredients:

225 g butter, softened (240 mL)             5 mL of baking soda
200 g white sugar (250 mL)                  10 mL of hot water
220 g brown sugar (350 mL)                 2.5 mL of salt
2 eggs                                                    335 g Semisweet Chocolate Chips (475 mL)
10 mL vanilla extract                              115 g Chopped Walnuts (240 mL)
375 g all purpose flour (600 mL)

1) Preheat oven to 175 C (1750 milligrade)

2) Cream together the butter, white sugar, and brown sugar until smooth.
Beat in the eggs one at a time, then stir in the vanilla. Dissolve baking soda in hot water. Add to batter along with salt. Stir in flour, chocolate chips, and nuts.
Drop by large spoonfuls onto ungreased pans.

3) Bake for about 10 minutes in the preheated oven, or until edges are nicely browned.

With a scale, the ingredients may be measured very quickly. I took the mixing bowl from my mixer and placed it on the scale, used the tare button to zero out the bowl, and then added 225 grams of butter. If you are brave, you can continue adding the other ingredients using the tare function, but I don’t recommend it. Next obtain a small bowl, place it on the scale, hit tare to zero it, and measure the white sugar. Put it in with the butter in the mixing bowl. Use the same bowl to then measure the brown sugar, and place it in the mixing bowl with the butter and white sugar. You can then set your mixer to about medium speed and creme the mixture for about 8-10 minutes.

While the mixer is creaming, you can use the a bowl to measure out 375 grams of flour. You may wish to also measure out the chocolate chips and walnuts. I often use a small paper bowl or plate and set the measured ingredients aside to be added later. Once you have the hang of using a scale, it is much faster and more accurate than using a measuring cup for dry ingredients. If you are within a gram or two, that’s fine, a gram is a very small unit of mass, it will still  be closer than the old way of cooking.

Contemporary measuring spoons are marked in 2.5 mL, 5 mL and 15 mL, so the vanilla, baking soda, hot water and salt are all straightforward to measure.

As I’ve said, metric conversion is the perfect time to examine your current practices and consider changes. If you have never used cooking parchment paper, I recommend you give it a shot. Rather than greasing a pan, which after cooking can create a petroleum sludge which requires scrubbing to remove, cut a piece of cooking parchment paper to the same size as the baking sheet, and place the cookie dough on it as you would normally. Bake as usual, and when you take the cookies out of the oven you can easily remove them with a pancake turner—after they cool 4-5 minutes.. I have a second baking sheet lined with parchment, and blobs of cookie dough, ready to go into the oven when the first pan is done. I cut a third piece of parchment paper and put it on my counter. I place the warm cookies on the parchment protected counter. This frees up the cookie sheet for more dough as the second set of cookies is baking. You do not need to cut a new piece of parchment for each bake, just use it again with the same cookie sheet from which you just removed the cookies. You will be surprised how much easier baking cookies this way is. Best of all it’s a bachelor’s dream, no cookie sheets to be cleaned. Just throw away the parchment when finished.

Cookie dough ready for baking on parchment paper

 

Baked cookies using metric recipe

Alton Brown taking the measure of a Donut. Are they metric calipers?

The results were very Good Eats. Alton Brown is one of the best known Chefs on television. His program Good Eats was very popular with the public and myself. Alton does his best to explain the scientific basis for why he cooks his recipes the way he does. Cooking is presented in an entertaining manner, in a way one cannot imagine Julia Child embracing. I bring up Julia as she did all her recipes using the metric system. She had obtained her culinary education in France, and realized how much easier using metric measurement was, and continued its use when she returned to the US. The recipes were then converted to imperial for her US audiences and in her cookbooks. I’ve watched a lot of Good Eats episodes and in one Alton seems to have indicated he prefers the use of metric measures. Alton, I implore you, consider creating a show called Metric Eats.  You would be doing your country and the world a favor. As for my readers, while you are waiting for Alton, you can download my humble offering of a cookbook here. It is fairly abbreviated, but should give you a decent starting point for exploring cooking with metric. I have made two compromises with it. I have Fahrenheit temperatures in parenthesis next to Celsius, this is of course not consistent with Naughtin’s Laws and is bad practice, but in the US difficult to avoid. Another compromise is that I have placed volume measurements in parenthesis next to the mass values for each recipe. This is to facilitate metric cooking even if one does not own a scale.

Another online option is The Metric Kitchen, my only complaint with this site is its  tolerance of centimeters, but it does discourage them and prefers millimeters. And considering the trespasses in my metric cook book, I have only a marginal leg to stand upon complaining, or criticizing at all.

I have noted that one negative aspect of imperial cooking, which has not been eschewed from metric cooking, and should be. It is a stealth imperial leftover, which has seemingly gone unnoticed, or possibly ignored, but that is the topic of the next blog.

4 thoughts on “Metric Cooking Without Imperial Leftovers

  1. You can get precision scales much cheaper than $500. You made the same mistake I did when I first stated looking, and looked at the wrong category of scales.

    Try and get a pocket scale. These will generally measure somewhere from 50 to 300g, with a precision of either 0.1 or 0.01g. I got the MyWeigh Palmscale 8, which measures 300g with a precision of 0.01g for just €40 from RightOnScales.

    Their US shop has that one for $48, and they have plenty more options.
    http://www.rightonscales.com/web/pocketscales/

    Amazon has a few pocket scales quite cheaply in the US, and there’s plenty more information to be found on digitalscales.com. They have links to more scale retailers on the homepage, with more information about brands, manufacturers, comparisons, etc.

  2. If I may offer one improvement, here in Australia most recipes measure the small ingredients using teaspoon (tsp/5ml) and tablespoon (tbsp/20ml) measures. Everyone here has a set of Australian standard spoon measures in their kitchen drawer, and instead of having to convert ml into spoons, it’s just easier to do it directly. So, your recipe would contain 2tsp vanilla, 1tsp baking soda, 2tsp water and 1/2tsp salt.

    • You’d be surprised how many people actually don’t know the difference between a dessertspoon and a tablespoon, nor what their actual volumes are. Certainly not everyone has a set of those special measuring spoons and many people just use whatever spoons they have in their cutlery draw.

      Also, note that from an international perspective, the tablespoon varies depending on which country you’re in. It’s 20 mL in Australia, but 15 mL in Europe and the US. (Well, technically the US tablespoon is 1/256 gallons, but close enough)

      They are terrible measurements. Although I grew up with them in Australia, I have since learned that doing everything in grams or explicit mL measurements is much better. But, as a convenience for people without precision scales or measuring containers, giving small quantities as a fraction of a teaspoon can be useful as a secondary measurement to help reduce the guesswork.