No, this is not a discussion about obesity. It is a discussion about cups. And grams. And ounces. And all the complicated, confusing differences in weight measurement in the UK and the US.

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My first few experiences baking in America were not very successful. Being from the UK, I am used to my baking measurements being in grams or ounces. Suddenly being thrown into the world of cups was pretty confusing. How much is a cup? Cups are all different sizes. How much does a cup of something weigh? Translating from one measurement to the other is confusing and often ends up being inaccurate, and a lot of my favourite English recipes ended up useless.

Luckily I have since mastered the cup system (and purchased a kitchen scale for those recipes which give measurements in grams and ounces) but for others who are confused about American weights and measurements, here are a few useful explanations.

Why Do Americans Use Cups?

Measuring by weight rather than by volume is widely considered to be more accurate – so why do Americans use cups? If you take a look at American history, the reason quickly becomes apparent – America was settled by people from all over Europe, and there was no universal system of measurement until 1799, when the metric system was adopted (although it would take time for it to be widely used). Whilst many measurements were based on the English system, there was no general consensus and things were, essentially, a bit of a mess. Add in the fact that it wasn’t exactly easy to get hold of an accurate scale, and it becomes clear that it was impractical for Americans to continue to hold on to measurement practices based on their countries of origin.

Cups as a standardized form of measurement took off after the publication of Fannie Farmer’s 1896 cookbook, The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, which became a widely used manual for cooks across North America. Previously a cookbook might have required ‘a teacup of milk’ – but with no indication as to the size of the cup. Farmer’s book explained the science behind cooking, how to measure a cup accurately (purpose-made measuring cups were already available in cooking stores), and how to follow a recipe to produce the same results every time. However, it is clear that, since you could already buy measuring cups made to a standard size, that although Fannie Farmer popularized and refined the method of measuring using cups, she did not invent it.

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As to who originally invented cups…well, a standard-sized measuring cup holds half a pint. Once the metric system was adopted (1799), it should have been possible to translate these measurements roughly into the half-pint ‘cup’. A little digging suggests that people were using standard-sized cups here and there in the US, but that it was only adopted as the standard unit of measurement after Fannie Farmer’s cookbook and cooking school came into the picture.

Are Cups Really Stupid or Really Smart?

As a Brit accustomed to a kitchen scale, I was irritated by the thought of cups and tended to translate cup recipes into grams in order to use them. Cups can be irksome if you are in a country where standard-sized cups aren’t readily available for purchase. Cups also have the downside of being fairly inaccurate – sifted flour vs. non-sifted flour (not to mention different brands or types of flour) have different weights, so ‘a cup of flour’ has a lot of room for interpretation, whereas 100g flour is always 100g. There is also the issue for non-Americans of measuring something like ‘a cup of butter’ – how do you measure a solid in a cup? Of course, in America butter is divided into sticks, so it is essentially pre-measured. For everyone else, well, you just have to convert it into grams and use a scale. Frustrating.

However, cups have the upside of being a pretty simple way to do things. You don’t need a scale (these can be pricey, they can break, they aren’t all that easy to find in the US). Measuring cups are compact and easy to store, you can get them really cheap in the US, and they are easy for amateur bakers and kids to comprehend. The more I’ve got used to using them, the more I see the appeal.

How much IS a cup?

One cup is equal to half a pint in volume, and can be divided into half, third and quarter cups as called for in a recipe. HOWEVER, the confusing part is that the weight of different ingredients varies widely, so where a cup of flour weighs 128g (this varies by brand and type but let’s not get too complicated here), a cup of sugar weighs 201g and a cup of butter weighs 227g. If you are translating a recipe from cups to grams, it’s best to use a handy conversion chart for each ingredient to make sure you are getting things right. Honestly, you are best off just using the recipe in its original form, and I highly recommend buying  kitchen scale even if you primarily use cup measurements. I also recommend this very nifty measuring gadget which offers every measurement option under the sun all in one simple cone. I bought one as a student and it was extremely handy.

In terms of the cup equivalent in different units of measure, well, take a look at this handy guide below.

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For another conversion of measurement units into various different units, take a peek at this useful chart.

Which form of measurement do you use? Do you think cups are great or irritating? Comment below!

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