Measure for Measure – or not quite?

contains no added corona.

This all started because my wife made an off the cuff remark about teaspoons getting smaller.  Not the spoons that sit around in saucers, nor even the silver jobs that sit in the mouths of the over-privileged, but rather the items  that the cooks among us use to measure materials repeatedly and reliably when they are concocting some inestimably delicious delight from a recipe.

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She was comparing two such spoon measures, bought in the UK over a period of years and was convinced that there was a small but noticeable difference between them.

That may or may not be true, but it did get me thinking about measures in general and cooking measures in particular.

Crumbling Imperial Majesty

I grew up in an age when my world was switching from an imperial to a metric system.  This still causes me some difficulty but only in a patchy sort of way.  I was delighted to see that the World of Empire had pretty much gone, but did struggle a bit with all this continental stuff.  Anyway, weren’t all these Imperial units based on something decidedly French in the first place, namely the Avoirdupois system?  You can’t tell me that was dreamt up in Dagenham!

No, it wasn’t the metric system that I struggled with. That was dead easy. It was just that my head kept wanting me to convert measures back to old familiar units.  The real problem was trying to switch systems without anyone noticing much.  This meant that everyone was forced to carry loads of duplicate numbers and conversion factors floating around in their, sometimes already inadequate, brains.

As a case in point, I still think of fuel consumption in miles per gallon, even though I pay for my fuel in pence per litre.  How the hell does that work?

I also still drink pints of beer, although I buy wine in 70cl bottles. I tend to think of distances in miles; of sacks and the like in pounds (lb) or hundredweights (cwt), for example a 56lb or half cwt bag of some bulk material; of vehicle weights in tons and cwt, as in a ten-ton truck or a 30cwt van.

Having said that, kilometres and kilos do not throw me. I can convert them in my head fairly rapidly.   I am even more ambi-whatever- it-is in terms of my height, being able to understand that equally easily in both currencies so to speak.

Two things where I have really made the change are: Ambient temperature where I always think in °C rather than °F, and haven’t carried out a mental conversion for a long time;  and body weight where I have no real idea what my weight is other than in kilos.  My adult children however, tell me how many stones and pounds they weigh – so where does that come from?

Still I digress.  I wanted to discuss cooking weights and measures.

US and us – Take the scales from our eyes

First of all, I had a sneaking memory from somewhere that the US had the same unit names for slightly different things from those we once used in the UK.

Now you may know, that a US gallon (128 fluid oz) is smaller than an Imperial gallon (160 fluid oz), a US pint is smaller (16 fluid oz) than an Imperial pint (20 fluid oz), and so on.   I guess the confusion is compounded by both having the same relationships ie eight pints to one gallon.

So, starting with basic fluid measures, what can we rely on when we pick up an American Cookbook?  And compare it to an English Cookery Book?  Apart from the spelling of the genre of course.

I once firmly believed that millilitres, grams, kilograms, litres, °C, °F, fluid ounces, and ounces, were reliably constant.  However, a little research reveals that this may not be so.

The metric stuff is OK, however, there is a difference between a US fluid oz and an Imperial fluid oz. It is not huge, but the US measure is very slightly larger. Lord knows why!

 In the US they commonly use the term oz to indicate both ounces and fluid ounces so, if you are looking for a pinch of confusion to add to a curry, you need look no further.

All good reasons to stick to milligrams, millilitres, etc. as far as I’m concerned.

However, I haven’t even touched upon the dreaded US cup!  When I first stumbled across this, I naively assumed it just meant a cup. You know, like a cup of sugar –  not a mug, a cup. A sort of teacup.  The sort of teacup one could have an insignificant storm in.  But no!  It is actually an official measure (ish).

So, what is a cup?

Unlike bra sizes, cooking cups come in just the one size 240ml.

Ha! that’s all you know. 

In the US, A cup measures 16 tablespoons, ½ pint, or 8 fluid ounces. However, remember that these are all US measures not Imperial ones.

A US cup is about 237 ml. Rougher equivalents of 240 ml and 250 ml are sometimes used and the latter fits nicely with a US pint of 500 mL and a pound of 500g.

Oh hell! If we are going to mess about rounding things up and down for the sake of convenience, why not just use the metric system in the first place? 

However, if you are determined to be patriotic, make sure that you stick to the units from only your chosen country.  Don’t go mixing your friends’ or foes’ ounces, pounds or gallons, with your own, or you may find yourself miles up a creek without even a wooden spoon!

I don’t want to make this sound like an attack on the US system because we have some pretty bizarre hang-ups from bygone ages here too. We measure horses in hands, horse races in miles and furlongs, we even name the odd horseracing classic after a defunct currency like “The 2000 Guineas”.

We like to mix things up too!

30 metres of 2 by 1  was a common way of buying 2” x 1” (that’s 2 inches wide by 1 inch thick) timber. If you wanted quite a lot of it, you could buy it in 30 metre bulk lots. Of course, it wasn’t actually 2” x 1” but it was close, and that was what the industry was accustomed to ask for.

So how long is a piece of string?

Thinking further about it, back in America good old Samuel Langhorne Clemens made his mark, so to speak, using an old measure. A tiny bit cryptic, I know, but it shouldn’t take too much to fathom it out.

I was going to make a joke about being out of my depth but then I read that his name may have come from chalking up whisky shots on a slate in a bar, rather than the calls on a Mississippi riverboat.  Another childhood illusion shattered through overuse of the internet!

Furthermore, at least the US system has 100lb in a hundredweight unlike the UK where it clocks in at an unlikely 112lb.

But even so, given all this stuff about weights and measures, we should be OK as long as we take it all with a large pinch of salt – smoked Himalayan of course!

3 thoughts on “Measure for Measure – or not quite?

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