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Sunday, August 5, 2012

This metric system is confounding me!

by Lili Mounce

Liters, milliliters, grams, kilos, -- wait I know that one. Kilos are what the guys on Hawaii Five-0 are always confiscating from the bad dudes. But the rest of the stuff, that's all Greek to me, or I guess metric to me.

My friend, Sarah, at Everyday Life on a Shoestring, and I have been discussing the difficulties of converting recipes from US Customary to Metric and Metric to US Customary measurements. You see, Sarah lives in the UK, and I live in the USA. So, today, we're doing a metric to US and back to metric joint post today.

I think the greatest difficulties arise from a lack of basic understanding of how we measure various ingredients. As I was trying to convert US recipes to metric, I found difficulty determining whether to use mL or grams, for the different ingredients. I did stumble across a couple of websites with good information, although sometimes they seemed to contradict each other. I wound up going with the best 2 out of 3 answers to my various questions on measures.

I couldn't get the image out of my head of someone using metric measures weighing all the dry stuff. (Picture a balance scale with brass weights for one pan, ingredients in the other.) While I realize there is more accuracy in weights than scoops, I just prefer my scoop-and-dump type of baking.

Then one of my daughters (isn't that how it always is, the kids understand the new-fangled gadgets better than us, the adults) showed me how to use the measuring cup that has a built in scale (gift from a friend, had it for a year and just now know how it works!) A measuring cup, like this, with scales built in is how I now imagine those on metric measuring their dry ingredients.

I also realized that many measurements common to the US make no sense outside of our country. Such as when a recipe calls for a stick of butter. To those outside the US, there is no real definition to what amount to use. Just how big is a stick of butter? And things like if you're weighing your flour, just what would a heaping vs. a rounded cup look like?

So, from my end, I've tried to clarify some of the US Customary measures.

In the USA

Here in the USA, most recipes are measured by volume, not weight. (Professional bakers do use weight for measurement accuracy.)

We have two types of measuring cups, one for fluids, and one for dry ingredients. The fluid measuring cups are pourable and have markings all up the sides, in ounces as well as 1/4 cup, 1/3 cup, 1/2 cup, etc., plus metric measurements.

The dry measuring cups are more like scoops. And there are different cups for each amount. Sets come with 1/8 cup, 1/4 cup, 1/3 cup, 1/2 cup, 1 cup scoops. We measure small amounts of both dry and liquid ingredients in measuring spoons, ranging from 1/16 teaspoon to 1 Tablespoon.

Be aware, internationally, we have some things with the same name, but different capacity.

A cup is not a cup is not a cup. 
A metric cup, common to recipes used in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, Lebanon and Latin America, is slightly larger than the US customary cup. A metric cup contains 250 mL (or 16  2/3 international tablespoons), while the cup standard to the USA contains 240 mL (or 16 international tablespoons).

And, a pint is not a pint is not a pint.
A US pint is 473 mL, while a UK pint is 568 mL (about 20% more than the US pint). A US fluid ounce is 1/16 of a US pint. Whereas, a UK fluid ounce is 1/20 of a UK pint.

Here's a table of Standard US Customary Measurements (no recipe I know actually calls for gills of anything, but I thought you'd like to know, and for me it's fun to think of calling 1/2 cup a gill) and rounded Metric Equivalents

1 gallon  =  4 quarts  =  8 pints  =  16 cups  =  128 fluid ounces   **equivalent**  3.75 liters
1 quart  =  2 pints  =  4 cups  =  32 fluid ounces   **equivalent**   950 milliliters
1 pint  =  2 cups  =  16 fluid ounces   **equivalent**   480 milliliters
1 cup  =  8 fluid ounces  =  16 tablespoons   **equivalent**   240 milliliters
1 gill  =  1/2 cup  =  4 fluid ounces  =  8 tablespoons   **equivalent**  120 milliliters
1 fluid ounce  =  2 tablespoons   **equivalent**  30 milliliters
1 tablespoon  =  1/2 fluid ounce  =  3 teaspoons   **equivalent**   15 milliliters
1 teaspoon  **equivalent**  5 milliliters

To determine baking temperature, here's a formula to do the math yourself (if you want to exercise those little grey cells)

°C = (°F - 32) x 5/9

Clarification on some US oddities, to help in measuring:

1 stick of butter  =  8 tablespoons  =  4 ounces  =  1/4 pound (the wrapper on a stick of butter is marked with lines for tablespoons)

Some commonly understood approximations, often found in US recipes:
  • Firmly packed is most used for brown sugar. One fills the measuring utensil with brown sugar, then presses down firmly, with the back of a spoon, to firmly pack the cup.
  • Lightly packed is as implied, fill the scoop and lightly pack in with the back of a spoon.
  • Sifted refers most often to flour. It can be used to combine ingredients, such as baking soda, salt spices with flour (for even distribution in a recipe). Or, it can be used for gaining accuracy, when passing one recipe between people, in the measuring process. A sifted cup of flour has more loft and will weigh less than an unsifted one. If a recipe states "1 cup of sifted flour", sift your flour before measuring. If a recipe states "1 cup of flour, sifted", measure your flour first, then sift.
  • Heaping means to overfill a utensil, often as much as can be filled, without spilling onto the counter.
  • Rounded simply means to fill the scoop/spoon so the contents are mounded above the line of the utensil.
  • Scant means just slightly less than the utensil holds, by about 1 teaspoon per cup.
  • Level/even, means to fill the utensil, then using a straight edge, such as the blade of a knife, scrape off any contents above the line of the utensil.
  • A dash or a pinch is about 1/16th of a teaspoon.
Finally, two charts --

here's a chart of US to metric conversions (for converting a US recipe for metric cooking) that I've found quite helpful.

And here's a listing of metric to US conversions (for converting a metric recipe to US kitchens) and item descriptions (or, why is a biscuit in the UK not fluffy and white?)

Are you as confounded by all this as I am? Why we can't all cook using one system of measurements is beyond me!

Want to know what the UK thinks of US measurements? Go ahead and click!


  1. What a great article, Lili. I've always wondered about the conversions too. I like to read the UK based Money Saving Old Style boards at, and would have to convert any recipes I find there. It would be nice if we all used the same system.

  2. Good morning, Belinda!
    Metrics still baffle me. There should be simple answers to conversion questions. I have found my measuring cup with a built-in scale to be quite helpful, when trying to cook with a recipe from outside the US.
    Thanks for reading!

  3. Numbers elude me...metric is like a dead language to my addled brain. Hence, I am printing your blog out! I'm going to tape it to the inside of my cabinet door in the kitchen. Thanks, Lili!

    Mother Connie
    PS/How do you have the oomph to post on a SUNDAY? I'm not even finished reading the Sunday paper! grin/giggle

    1. HI Connie!
      It really is a lot like learning a foreign language, I think for both sides. From what my friend Sarah, at Everyday Life on a Shoestring tells me, in the UK, the US way of measuring is equally baffling.

      I guess it will just take practice for me, as I'm trying to include metric equivalents in the recipes I post. Sometimes, though, I can't seem to figure out how to make the conversion. What has helped me is to Bookmark the links towards the bottom of this post. I can find most of the answers I need at those two sites.

      Thanks for visiting!

  4. Maybe this question would be best for Sarah, but I have a British muffin cookbook (it was a gift) and I'm really not sure what "superfine sugar" is--granulated, powdered, or something other than that? That cookbook makes the conversions for me. :)

    1. Hi Kris,
      First off, welcome back from your trip! I hope you and your family had a great time!

      I have heard of superfine sugar. It's a finer grind than regular granulated. I have heard that it is used for beverages, puddings, baked goods (especially light baked goods like angel food cake). It gives a finer texture in baked goods and frequently is referred to as "baker's sugar". I believe the English call this castor sugar. It's not quite the same as powdered sugar. Powdered sugar is ground even further and usually has corn starch added.

      You can make your own super fine sugar in a coffee or spice grinder. I did a post on making powdered sugar a while back. If you grind regular granulated sugar for a bit, you will have something close to superfine. My homemade powdered sugar is somewhere between superfine and powdered.If a recipe from the UK calls for super fine sugar, then it may be a good idea to weigh your sugar (as that's how the amount would be stated in the recipe). A cup of superfine sugar may be slightly heavier than a cup of granulated.

      I have seen superfine sugar in small boxes by C & H, in stores. Anyways, that sounds like an interesting cookbook.

      One more sugar info tidbit, powdered (or confectioner's) sugar is often referred to as icing sugar outside of the US.

      Thanks for dropping by!

    2. You missed your calling. You should have gone into research. :) Thanks for clarifying!

      Yes, we had a great trip. Good to be home again.

    3. Hi Kris,
      I just happen to like food history and information. Weird quirk of mine. Glad to had a good trip.

  5. A nice summary of conversions. I had a couple of thoughts while reading. Long ago, flour didn't come pre-sifted like it does today. So most of the time, sifting is not necessary unless mixing ingredients or in the most delicate of baking.

    Also, when you said that a stick of butter is a nonspecific term, it reminded me of all of the older recipes that call for an amount that was the common package size at the time. However, package sizes change which can cause problems with the recipe.

    1. I know what you mean about package sizes changing. Seemingly ordinary specifications in a recipe, like "2 cans tuna" (from one of my mom's old recipes for tuna casserole), can throw a recipe off. I think that tuna used to come in 7 oz. cans. And now I believe they're 5 oz. That could make a difference!

      At least we've standardized just what 1 cup equals, and don't often have recipes that call for "1 handful" of an ingredient like flour or sugar, where the amount could really matter to the outcome.

      Thanks for your comments!

  6. Weird! I had no idea that US and UK pints were not the same, or that cups are different in different countries!

    I actually had to memorize most metric to US/English conversions for pharmacy, so some things are just impossible to forget (like how many ml are in a teaspoon, tablespoon, ounce, pint, etc). Quarts just seem funny to me and never stick in my brain. I remember a pint because there are 12 ounces in a regular beer/soda can but if you get a pint glass at a bar then it's a little more (16oz). Plus in the pharmacy there are pint-sized bottles of a few things--they look larger than beer bottles and all say 473 ml on them!

    I've never really had to think about it in terms of baking though. It never occurred to me that people wouldn't measure dry things in something other than a cup!

    1. Hi Mallory!
      You would think that we could all just settle on one way to measure. It didn't used to matter whether people in the US knew metric or people in the UK and Europe and elsewhere knew US Customary, because rarely did recipes cross borders. Now with the internet, there is so much exchange of ideas and recipes, I find I'm coming across recipes from time to time that I want to try,but I haven't understood metrics. I'm getting there, but some things still frustrate me.

      I imagine that home cooks in the UK are just as casual about their accuracy as we are when we bake and cook. I mean, I just scoop and dump, most of the time, I do not get out a knife and scrape off the excess in a measuring scoop, the way we had to do it in Home Ec. And UK home cooks probably have developed an eye for "about how much 400 g of flour" look and don't worry too much if there's 395 g or 405 g.

      Thanks for visiting!

  7. What a helpful post. Thank you for taking the time to research and put it together.
    The measuring cone Sarah mentioned looks like a great tool.

    1. You're welcome! it's been helpful to me to do this research. Metrics are beginning to make sense.

      And if I ever got serious about baking as a profession, then weighing my ingredients would be the way to maintain consistent results. But for now, scoop and dump rules.

      I haven't asked Sarah how the Tala cone works. But I was out today and think that I saw something very similar.

      Thanks for commenting!

  8. Thanks so much for all the 'equivalents' Lili - and especially for the 'stick of butter' conversion ( I now just have to look at how a 'quart' converts into Metric)...
    Being of BabyBoomer era,and in younger years far more interested in English lessons than Math, I was caught between never having really learnt the Imperial system which Australia inherited from Mother England and the newly introduced Metric system. The school introduced the Metric in our final year of Primary school ( age11) and then by the time we were in 1st year of High School ( aged 12), it was assumed that we 'had it all worked out'! - sadly not!
    Until now, with cooking the old fashioned recipes from the US etc, I have had to resort to Googling for conversions but now I too am going to print off for my own benefit your conversion chart.
    I aalso never realised that the wording regarding flour in a recipe could mean 2 different process orsers are required! Go figure!
    Many ( tonnes or tons or pounds of) thanks.
    Cheers and blessings :)

    1. Hi Julie,
      I just looked up a quart. A US quart is 950 mL. Or are you thinking an Australian quart is different? Yet another twist to this metric conversion thing!

      I've bookmarked the two links that have conversions on my computer. It makes it so much easier to figure things out. However, there are still things that are more complicated.

      In the US, when recipe calls for blueberries, for example, it's measured in cups, not by weight. So to figure these things out, I google how much a cup of blueberries weighs, then convert that to metric. One step further, but it is doable. And there's tons of info available out there. Surprisingly, someone has weighed just about everything!

      In the US, school always talked of us learning metric. but never really pushed it. I think we had one year in math with some equivalents and that was about it! A shame we can't all live by the same system.

      Thanks for commenting!


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