Someone’s in the Kitchen with the Metric System

I’ve written before about what it would take for us to integrate the metric system into our daily lives but one of the areas where it would really need to take hold is in the kitchen and grocery store. This week I’m addressing the kitchen issue.

What would need to change in YOUR American kitchen

Once the switchover occurs, you’ll be able to hold on to your liquid measuring cups (unless they’re so old they don’t have metric units on them—that would make them pretty old—time for measuring cups 2.0 me thinks.).

Kitchen scale

A sleek way to move toward metric kitchen measurement.

But you will have to give up your “dry” measuring cups (Hopefully you haven’t been using them interchangeably over the years as I once did.)

Why? Because the metric system measures mass not weight. (Be careful you don’t confuse the two. They’re not the same thing. An object’s weight can change since it’s dependent on gravity but an object’s mass doesn’t change no matter what planet it might be on. Here’s an accessible site in case you want to learn more.)

Using mass instead of volume should improve your cooking, and your baking in particular, since baking tends to be a bit more persnickety when it comes to measurements.

In fact, the King Arthur Flour website goes into quite a bit of detail about the implications of measures and includes:

Although in 1959 English-speaking scientists agreed to use the metric system for scientific and technological purposes, that’s been of little use to bakers.

Needless to say, I hope that will change (Not the right year by a long shot but at least they’ve put the two thoughts together…).

Still, I was surprised that that the company included information that apparently in this country our measuring cups can legally vary by up to 12%!   Add to that that how hard one scoops into a container of flour can also vary how much it holds—by quite a bit.

There can be a variance in how much of a dry ingredient, such as flour, is actually in a measuring device. This is affected by the manner in which it is added to the measuring cup and by how much the ingredient is compacted. Humidity is also a factor in the weight of the dry ingredient. (Recipietips.com)

Talk about a recipe for disaster!

Archimedes scale

Archimedes scale. Cool but you’d need access to water and has no tare function.

Once we transition, we’re all going to need kitchen scales. I highly recommend a digital version for a couple of reasons: most have a “tare” functions and most can switch back and forth between grams and U.S. Customary units (could be helpful until all our cookbooks are in metric units).

The tare function is really handy because let’s say you want to measure several dry ingredients measured in grams.

First, put your container on the scale and hit the tare button. The number will zero-out so you don’t have to subtract its mass before adding anything else.

Then, let’s say you need 2 grams of salt, 40 grams of butter and 13 grams of baking powder.

You could add the two grams of salt, and then add the butter until you reached 42 grams and baking soda until you reached 53 grams.

Or, much easier, just zero-out the scale with the tare button after each ingredient and put in the exact amounts specified in the recipe.

A truly logical system

One thing that struck me while I was doing research at the Library of Congress a few months ago was the consistency of some of the ingredients in both “weight” and volume measures. Upon reflection, however, it makes perfect sense since the kilogram was designed to have equal volume and mass at the same time.

In the early metric system there were several fundamental or base units, the grad or grade for angles, the metre for length, the gram for weight and the litre for capacity. These were derived from each other via the properties of natural objects, mainly water: 1 litre of water weighs 1 kg and measures 1 cubic decimetre (dm³).  

Where recipes might start to “break down” would be for ingredients that would be much or less dense than water. (See the image below.)

From a metric cookbook that included both mass and volume measures. Note the similarities.

From a metric cookbook that included both mass and volume measures. Note the similarities.

There is another caveat here: depending on how precise your scale is, it might have trouble with small amounts of something. I have seen some metric recipes that measure these small amounts in milliliters rather than mass.

Cutting board with built-in scale.

Cutting board with built-in scale. (Hopefully doesn’t dull your knives.)

Unless you have serious concerns about your scales I’d advocate for their use. For those folks who just couldn’t stand the idea of measuring ingredients without spoons, we’d want to trade in our current tablespoon, teaspoon, half and quarter teaspoons for metric units, and while you can buy them here, the measures equate to our current measures so they don’t make a lot of sense: .6 mL and 1.2 mL, etc. Much more logical would be: 1 mL, 2 mL, 5 mL etc. (Maybe when we get our act together we can get them in this country.)

Still, I will say that I have a precision scale that measures down to 1mg and when I used the 10 gram calibration weight on both of my kitchen scales (and not expensive ones, mind you), they were both spot on. So now you know.

A spoon and digital scale in one!

A spoon and digital scale in one!

It’s not too soon to start playing around with digital scales and the holidays are just around the corner. Add one to your wish list and help bring others along with you! I’ve includes some really cool ones in this post for you to consider.

And here’s a handy idea of what you can do with your old measuring cups once you no longer need them (reduce, reuse, recycle after all). More on this topic later but I’m keeping a previous promise.

One idea of what to do with old measuring cups once we go metric.

One idea of what to do with old measuring cups once we go metric: an organizer!

I’ll have another post in a week, I promise.

Till then, have fun,

Linda

Notes: Scale images from: http://www.crookedbrains.net/2012/04/creative-and-cool-kitchen-scale-designs.html

5 thoughts on “Someone’s in the Kitchen with the Metric System

  1. A couple of resources for your readers:
    There’s a forum on Reddit devoted to metric cooking: http://www.reddit.com/r/MetricCooking

    The Metric Maven (www.themetricmaven.com) has a metric cookbook available for downloading at: http://themetricmaven.com/?page_id=2372 (Fahrenheit temperatures as well as Celsius are included in the recipes, as very few American ovens have Celsius markings)

    Australian metrication educator Pat Naughtin has an information sheet about metric cooking you can download at: http://www.metricationmatters.com/docs/MetricCookingWithConfidence.pdf

  2. Is that 12 % variation in cups meant to include the various interpretations of what a cup means? Depending on who you talk to, it can be 236 mL, 240 mL, 250 mL, etc and even as much as 284 mL, even though 284 mL is outside the 12 % tolerance.

  3. It always astounds me that the US measures things by volume in the kitchen.

    I have a recent recipe book that has metric and, annoyingly, US measures side by side for each recipe (a recipe for confusion, if you’ll pardon the pun). In one recipe it says 220 g / 15 tablespoons of butter – 15 tablespoons! How long would that take to measure out, assuming you had to level off each spoon?

    Metric recipes are quicker, more accurate and give more consistent results – and there’s less washing up 🙂

  4. Pingback: Alton Brown and the Metric System | More Than A Mile Behind: America and the Metric System

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