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Weights and Measurements

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The Great British Baking Show is airing again this fall and I have to confess it is one of my favorite shows.  I love the restrained and understated manner of the participants and judges, and enjoy picking up various tips and hints for my own baking.  I am also fascinated by the British passion for “sponge” cake which is a cake made with butter, sugar, flour and eggs but no liquid – very unlike most American cake recipes.  I decided I wanted to try this type of cake but first I wanted to check a few recipes.  Unfortunately many British recipes use measurements which are not familiar to Americans.  We are still using cups and teaspoons while the British are using grams and ounces.  What, for example, am I to make of a recipe which calls for the following amounts:

Maybe not these scales?  / Photograph by Andrew Weber
Maybe not these scales? / Photograph by Andrew Weber
  • 200g/7oz caster sugar
  • 200g/7oz baking spread
  • 210g/7½oz self-raising flour
  • 4 large free-range eggs

The United States Constitution, Article I, section 8 gives Congress the power to “fix the standard of weights and measurement.”  In 1790 Congress considered a plan prepared by Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, which proposed standardized measurements.  The plan was based on units of 10 but it was not adopted.  The United States, by custom, rather than law, continued to use traditional English weights and measurements.  In 1866, to help with international trade, Congress passed The Metric Act (14 Stat. 339).  This law allowed for the use of metric system but did not require it be adopted universally.

Not until the 1970s did the idea of using metrics catch on with Congress–it did not however catch on with the general public.  Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act in 1975, Pub.L. 94-168.  This law called for “coordinating the increasing use of the metric system in the United States and to establish a United States Metric Board to coordinate the voluntary conversion to the metric system.”  In 1988 Congress passed the  Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act, Pub.L. 100-418, Title V, §5164 which stated that the metric system was to be the preferred system for weights and measures in the United States.  This was followed in 1991 by Executive Order 12770 which directed the Secretary of Commerce “to direct and coordinate efforts by Federal departments and agencies to implement Government metric usage.”  However, the 1988 law allowed an exception for documents intended for consumers, which means our cookbooks and cooking stores still traffic in cups and teaspoons measuring sets.  On a purely practical note, it would be expensive for me to trade in my five sets of measuring spoons and two sets of cup measures to convert to another system – but how am I going to bake this British sponge cake?

I could whip out my phone and convert these measurements as I bake to match my 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 and 1 measuring cups, but that would be laborious and probably leave my phone pretty sticky!  I could also convert all these measurements ahead of time but as the recipe has 16 different measurements to be converted, I would probably be too tired to bake once I had finished my calculations.  And even after converting these amounts I still have problems – how much of a cup is .84?  Thankfully, recipes are moving more towards weight measurements so all I need is a scale that converts from pounds to grams to ounces with the flick of a switch.  Now I have to figure out the oven temperature conversion – what is Gas Mark 4?

Comments (2)

  1. Margaret,

    For $19 at Target you can get a real nice electronic scale that you can choose to run in Gr’s or Oz’s. My friend that is a professional baker told me several years ago that I should measure my flour to get the best accurate measurement possible. I’m sure you noticed that everyone in the “Great British Baking Show” measures their flour every time.


  2. I know it’s a zombie post, but I had to comment. You must believe me when I tell you, once you start cooking metrically, you will never want to touch another 1/3, 1/4, 1/8, 3/4, 22/64, 31/22, cup, teaspoon, tblp, foot, pound or inch again. Halving/doubling/tripling/quadrupling recipes using volume and/or mass in the metric system is a breeze. Buy yourself a $7 digital gram (kitchen) scale and you can pretty much toss all of those goofy old cups and teaspoons.

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