Is it Time for Metrics in US Recipes? A Q&A with Ten Speed's Melissa Moore

Mar 262013
 

Let’s say you want to write a cookbook, and you live in the USA. Should you write recipes that include metric measurements (liters and grams) in additional to imperial (cups and pounds)? That’s a good question, and one that’s being asked more often these days.

First, let’s admit that the US is way behind in the metrics arena. It should not come as a surprise that, to quote Dave Barry: “The metric system is not going to catch on in the States, unless you count the increasing popularity of the nine-millimeter bullet.” We are one of only three countries that have not yet embraced the metric system, along with Burma and Liberia.

Second, many bakers are adamant about measuring dry ingredients by weight for accuracy, and more baking books sold in the US list them.

And third, a daily US newspaper has taken to including metric measurements in some recipes, as some kind of experient.

To get some clarity on the issue, I turned to Melissa Moore, an editor at Ten Speed Press specializing in cookbooks, about the state of metric measurements today:

Q. Is metric measurement in cookbooks getting more popular in the US?

A. There has been somewhat of a shift. More people have a digital scale in their homes than a few years ago, which makes a difference. And as we’re seeing more books travelling internationally and sold online, metric has come into the mix more, in terms of what people in the US are encountering.

Q. Is it true that cookbook authors are expected to use metric ingredients in their recipes now?

Melissa Moore, a cookbook editor at Ten Speed Press.

A. We usually take it on a case-by-case basis. For the Blue Bottle coffee book, we used metric as the primary measurement with imperial units following, because it makes a lot more sense to work in metric when people are brewing using a scale. One milliliter of water equals one gram of weight, so it’s easy to brew pour-over coffee when you can use the weight to gauge the volume of the water you’re using. You’re able to be more precise .

Q. Is it better to write both sets of measurements so that publishers can sell books outside of the US?

A. We don’t have that as a hard and fast rule. If we feel it’s a strong contender for overseas sales, we’ll add the conversions. We also have a standard back-of-the-book measurement conversion chart that converts from imperial to metric.

Q. I thought the way it worked is that someone in another country did the conversion when the publisher sold the rights.

A. Yes, but it makes it a lot easier for the foreign publisher if the metric is already in there.

Recently we converted an ice cream sandwich book from the UK that led with metric and had ounces in parenthesis. We still had to Americanize it by transposing the measures so that ounces would lead, and we needed to adjust the language of the book, but it was a smooth process.

Q. Is there a standard conversion chart that all recipe writers should use, or does each publisher have their own?

A. To my knowledge there isn’t a standard conversion. We developed one specific to baking over many years of working with Peter Reinhart, and honed it based on other baking books.

The conversion does get tricky when there are multiple aspects — there’s the transition from volume to weight, and then the difference between imperial and metric weights. It’s important to keep track of how you’re rounding, so it isn’t cumbersome to measure out a bit of salt.

Q. Tell me more about this rounding issue.

A. As you’re translating from cups to ounces or grams of flour, the weight depends on the type of flour you’re using and how hydrated it is, based on the ambient humidity. You can come up with a benchmark conversion, but it also has to be accurate for the flour in other locations — with varying humidity — and usable for cooks at home.

Some publishers want the number to be cleaner, so they round the figure. We use 1 ounce of flour equals 28 grams in most baking conversions, but our general chart lists the conversion for 1 ounce at 30 grams, for example. If you plug it into a conversion calculator, it’s actually 28.3495 grams per ounce.

It’s a matter of being consistent within the same book and ingredient by ingredient. The conversion used also depends on the type of project. A baking book typically requires more precise measurements than a general cookbook.

Q. I’ve read that some authors have created their own conversion charts.

A. When we decide to include both measurements we ask our authors to provide the conversion chart they were working from so we maintain consistency. Some chefs work only in metric but we don’t have any books that are solely metric, so we need to use volume in ingredients lists as well. In those cases, we want to ensure we’re using the same conversion throughout the editorial process.

Q. Should baking books always include metric now?

A. Ours almost always include a weight measure, because the baking realm relies so much more on precise ingredient amounts. Recently our books have used both imperial and metric units for weight, but I wouldn’t say across the board that every publisher should do this–it depends on the expected audience for the book.

Q. Is it a lot more work for authors to include metric?

A. Not if they’re already using it when developing recipes, which many are. If that isn’t the case, then we’d evaluate whether including the metric measures would add to the project.

Q. What if they’ve never used metric but you want them to?

A. Usually it’s the author who’s leading the charge to use metric. We make a decision in house about whether it makes sense, including whether there’s room on the page or whether it’s enough to include the conversation chart, given who we think the audience will be.

Q. Do you think the US will transition to metric in your lifetime?

A. I hope so! As we’re seeing so much more information flow globally, it would make sense for us to use the same system as the rest of the world.

What’s your take on metric? Does your website do conversions? If you’re a cookbook author, does a copy editor add metric measurements, or do you have to include them yourself?

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For more on metric, see:

(Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

  50 Responses to “Is it Time for Metrics in US Recipes? A Q&A with Ten Speed's Melissa Moore”

  1. So glad to see this topic addressed! I’m just wrapping up my second cookbookM. I naturally included both metric and Imperial because that’s how I bake, and that’s how all the recipes appear on my blog. As for the rounding issue, here in Canada, we always round to the nearest 0 or 5 gram measurment (ie, 28 grams becomes 30; 22 grams becomes 20, etc.). I do agree it’s cleaner, and with the variations in weight that you get using volume measures, 2 grams this way or that is not going to make a difference in a recipe’s results.

    The best part about this, for me, was finding out that the book can be released internationally without the usual delay having to convert from one measurement to another–so everyone gets to see the book at the same time. :)

    • Yes, I liked Melissa’s point about making the book easier for international publishing, Ricki. I’d have to agree with you about the 2 grams this way or that, but I rarely measure in metric, and so far I haven’t been asked to do conversions. Not being a math person, it scares me.

      Congrats on your second cookbook!

      • Oh, Dianne, it’s so easy to do! Once you’ve measured dry ingredients with a scale, you really won’t want to go back. No extra vessel in which to put your flour–just put a bowl on the scale and dump in each dry ingredient one at a time. And i don’t convert each item individually after the first time–just re-use same numbers (ie, 1/3 cup is always 80 ml–so once you know that, it never changes). :)

  2. I will no longer buy a baking cookbook that doesn’t include metric weights for ingredients. I’m less fussy about non baking books, but even there, it’s nice to see weights (metric or not).

    • Okay, good to know, Celeste. I don’t think most American home cooks agree, but for more serious cooks, it makes sense.

  3. As a scientist, I have used metric measurements in my day to day profession for years. It was only natural for me to convert to metric for cooking, especially doing recipe conversions to gluten free and living in Europe. Switching to metric has made me a better cook because I could analyze ingredient ratios and thus modify/tweak recipes accordingly, and it has taken a lot of the guesswork out of my otherwise less than stellar baking experiences. I really hope this is a trend that catches on in US cookbooks!

  4. I have to say, as a European reader, I would rarely attempt recipes that use cup measures because I find them so imprecise when it comes to baking. With regards to imperial & metric I’m comfortable with both but it needs to be all of 1 or the other. Uniformity is key.

  5. My publisher asked me to add the metrics, since it is sold in Canada. I had my assistant do it for me. With only five months to write the book, it was just one more task to do. The
    They’re copyeditor double checked my work.

    Now I have my assistant add metrics to my blog recipes, too.

    Volume measures are easy, but looking up grams can be tedious.

  6. My late German mother-in-law gave me a measuring glass that had both metric and U.S. measurements on it. It got chipped and I’ve never been able to find another one.

    • I have one of those! But I can’t say I’ve started using the metric side. I look at it from time to time with interest.

  7. I applaud the shift to metric! As the world shrinks and we become more knowledgeable about other cultures and cuisines, a standard form of measurement is a must! Nice work!

    • Thanks. Yes, Shawna, the world is getting smaller, at least online. It’s a small shift, but it’s something.

  8. As good and as precise that it may be, I still think it will be a hard sell. It’s really hard to reverse what has become ingrained into a culture for such a long time. Sadly, that would mean dealing with two forms of measurement… Just my thoughts. :-)

    • Yes, we Americans are stubborn about it. I like Michelle’s idea of hiring an assistant for those types of tasks. Some publishers have their copy editors enter the amounts.

  9. As an American expat, I grew up using cups rather than weight measures but I have lived in so many places and bought so many internationally published cookbooks that it became easier to use my scale for most recipes. My blog readership is just as international as I am so I put both, although I have encouraged my readers to buy a scale on occasion. Weighing really is much easier and more accurate than measuring by volume. I use this website for making my conversions http://www.traditionaloven.com/conversions_of_measures/cooking_ingredients.html and round up or down in grams or milliliters for simplicity’s sake.

  10. I’m rather dreading the re-hash of the metric thing. I was very much in favor of the switch, way back when. I still am; so much simpler!

    • I don’t know that the government considers it a pressing issue, but going metric is a subject that comes up more often for publishing houses these days. If you have a blog with international readers, it’s definitely an issue too.

  11. I worked at Del Monte Foods test kitchens for many years. The products were sold internationally, so we were always using both — depending on the end-usage of the recipes. Howard, have someone ship you measuring cups from abroad!

  12. Great interview, Diane, and an important topic.
    I, too, see the writing on the wall.Yet, feel so set in my ways I can’t even imagine converting all of my recipes. The idea of having an “assistant” (my husband?) do the conversions seems so much less intimidating.
    I bought a digital scale a few months ago and am loving using it and how much more precise weights are–though I still mainly use cups and teaspoons, etc. along with weights for vegetables and fruits.
    Even without using metric equivalents, I still get a number of international visitors. I wonder if they just go elsewhere when they see only American weights and measures, or if they take the time to make the conversions?

    • Why not start posting new recipes that include converted metric amounts, just to keep your international visitors? It seems unfair that they should have to do the work to translate your recipes.

  13. I think it’s good to include both volume measurements and weight measurements in recipes. I do both in my book and on my blog. That way, readers from around the world are covered.

    I seem to be in the minority in asserting that, in my experience, volume is just fine for US home bakers. Home baking does not need the extreme precision that professional baking does. And so many of my readers are home bakers who use volume measuring–I don’t feel the need to push them to change. I actually use volume measuring in my home baking and am happy with it.

    There has been a push recently to convince everyone that metric is the best for home cooking (especially for baking), but I have found that volume is fine in the non-professional realm.

    • I suppose there are ambitious bakers and bakers who want precision, so for those people, let’s give them metric. Everyone else seems to be fine making muffins with imperial measurements. But that doesn’t mean that at a nation, we shouldn’t switch over. I’m all for that.

  14. I have been wrestling with conversions for years. At the Toronto Star, where I was food editor for several years, we used Imperial measurements and added metric conversions. I have since written three cookbooks, which include both types of measurements. My publisher is a Canadian company but sells a lot of books to the U.S. and U.K. The problem is that I test recipes in Imperial (which is what I grew up with) and the standard metric conversions aren’t exactly equal. I hate the idea of a recipe failing because the reader used metric (especially for baking) or if her or she unwittingly cherry-picked between the Imperial and metric measurements. I give weight equivalents whenever possible, but that’s not much of a solution since most home cooks apparently do not own scales.

    • Oh that does sound like a dilemma, Susan. I never thought of that. Of course, it would be difficult to test both sets of measurements. I hope that for most recipes, the equivalent amounts are accurate enough.

  15. I’d be thrilled to see metric measurement embraced in the US. Here in Australia we went metric years ago, but I thought that cup/spoon sizes were similar. I had no idea there was so much difference until I visited the US and saw how huge your teaspoons are compared to ours.. I often use US cookbooks and the switch would make my life much easier – although Dianne’s gift of a set of US spoons has helped a lot too.

    • Amanda, I bought them on a lark, thinking that they looked sturdy, and who doesn’t like an extra set of measuring spoons? But now I know that the sizes are different. How frustrating for Australians to try recipes from US sources! But apparently US measuring spoons vary widely as well. I saw a story once that measured several of them and found discrepancies.

  16. Anything is better than the old French method of using half an eggshell, and a”pot de Danone.” I never travel without cups and tablespoons, especially when I go to Morocco. However, I do think that since cookbooks are distributed throughout the English-speaking world, it is always good to convert US measures to the metric system.

    • Half an eggshell? Wow. And what the heck is a “pot de Danone?” I guess we have progressed since those days. It sounds like you work in imperial and then convert to metric, Kitty.

  17. Great interview & comments. I am an ex-pat American living in the UK & I must say that metric has made my baking much more accurate, & probably better too. Consistent results rather than ‘hmm, did I tap the cup last time?’. Imperial measures aren’t so bad – if a bit imprecise for my pedantic liking – but the variability of cups and how we as individuals use them, is a bit of bugbear for me. Don’t even get me started on measuring vegetables and fruits with cups! I use my brilliant digital scale to provide instant conversions for my blogged recipes (metric, with imperial or cups in parentheses). Tend to favour cups over imperial for baking as I think most Americans opt for the former. Doubters should just try metric for a month. You won’t go back!

    • I will make a point of measuring using the metric recipes in the next new recipe I try out. I do feel nostalgic for the imperial measures, though, as that’s what I grew up with, in the kitchen with my mum.

      • Me too. Certain recipes of my Mother’s I measure in tatty old hand-me-down cups. Doing so provides comfort, and makes me smile when I use them. They will never be completely replaced by digital scales.

        • Aww, now I’m feeling all nostalgic. I do have a scale in my kitchen too, but I can’t get rid of utensils from my mother and grandmother’s kitchen.

  18. A very timely topic, Dianne, as least for me. My blog is a year old and only 15 or 20 of my posts have recipes in them. Someone just suggested to me the other day that I should consider adding metric conversions to my recipes in consideration of international readers. The idea of going backwards to correct all the recipes isn’t very appealing, but I suppose now is the time! And, if I get in the habit soon, it will be easier going forward because I’ll just write all the recipes that way from the start. I so appreciate reading everyone’s input on the subject.

    • Well, think of it this way. You’re not correcting your recipes but just making them more enticing to a larger audience. And once you get used to offering both measurements, it won’t seem so bad.

  19. Dianne, a great question–thank you for raising it. Twenty years ago I moved to the UK, and complained bitterly that there were no cookbooks written in volumetrics. But I had to get over myself, and learned to read and translate into metric–and now international recipes are easy, and I metricate American recipes as a matter of course. The time it takes to learn this system is worth it, in terms of how much international food literature opens up for you when you do get comfortable with it. As I gear up to start my own blog, I will definitely be using metric measurements (with imperial conversions): for me now, it’s the only way to go.

    • Donna, I’m learning new terms: volumetrics and metricate. I’ve never heard these before. Sounds like a necessary learning curve, and now you have the chops to include both in your blog.

  20. The recipes in my first two books (and monthly magazine cooking column) were in metric measures. Along with the conversion tables, I advised Americans to “just get a scales” rather than convert. But, when I tested recipes for next two books in the US, was I happy to again use standardized volume measuring cups! By the way, did you know that British fluid ounces are different from US fluid ounces? In my fifth book, I gave all three measurements –British imperial, metric, and American volume. Good point, about blogs that use metrics more accessible to international readers. I’ll think about it—

    • Three measurements! That seems crazy to me, to have to appeal to so many different audiences measuring different ways. We need a standard. Apparently metric is not standard either.

      I did not know that British fluid ounces are different from American ones. That makes no sense either.

  21. The country referred to as Burma officially changed its name to Myanmar in 1989.

  22. Great article Dianne. I wrote my cookbook “Silk & Spice” based on the Silk Road and my agent sold it to an Asian publisher. In other words they are based in Asia but have their office in the northeast. They asked me to rewrite all the measurements in metric. Since I was done with all the recipe testing I had to resort to the publishers suggested PDF document that has many ingredients converted. Many of the ingredients I needed were not in that PDF. I had to look it up online and make sure I was consistent with measurements through out the book. Very challenging because there are conflicting measurements for the same ingredients. I do feel a bit insecure about the conversions I made. Seems like the trend is to have metric all the cookbooks today because we live in a flat world. All the electronic format of books neccesatate the cookbook world to follow uniformity. Not only did my publisher want metric in the book but also the British version of ingredients and chopped names. Going forward I suggest everyone writing a cookbook/blog include metrics. It will give you more sell ability and expand your market. What I would like to see is this as an impetus for the U.S to teach metrics in school from the beginning. I know when I was in elementary school they tried but it never caught on and there was no consistency.

    • Great story, Dahlia. Yes, I think I would have a very similar experience if I had to do it. I would find it very challenging as I am not a very good math person. But now the steep learning curve is over and you will use metric going forward, so in the end, you are doing a better job by expanding your market.

  23. As an American living in Europe and baking from French, British and American cookbooks, I definitely say yes. I have several American cookbooks that give quantities in both cups and grams and one can immediately see that the weight of flour, for instance, varies greatly. So just comparing those cookbooks that offer both weights and measures, one can see the necessity of including metric. I always (unless I am particularly lazy or rushed) give both on my blog, obviously so both my American and my non-American readers can use the recipe. Before I began adding all the weights in grams, I had readers message me asking what the heck cups were. There isn’t really even a problem since no one has to memorize conversions or do tricky multiplication or division in one’s head – just measure flour or sugar or whatever into a cup then dump it into a bowl on a metric scale before adding it to the mixing bowl. American liquid measuring cups already have metric on one side so it is simple. And really it does make a book more saleable around the world. And don’t forget pan size and casserole volume! (and the worst is when a cookbook or magazine has butter in sticks, yeast in packets/packages, etc.)

    • Sounds very sensible, Jamie. That’s funny that people asked you what cups are! I hadn’t thought about the butter in sticks and yeast in packages, but I’m pretty sure responsible cookbook publishers state how much it is in ounces, in addition to the package size.

    • I live in New Zealand, and I find myself constantly frustrated by US recipes. The measurements I can convert, but ‘a package’ or ‘half a stick’ are confusing! More often than not, if a recipe has that in it, I won’t use it. Don’t get me started about using cups for things like bananas – what am I supposed to do, squish it all into a cup? No thanks, I’ll use my scales – which are ubiquitous in NZ homes. As are electric kettles, for that matter – another thing which the US bizarrely doesn’t seem to have as a kitchen staple.

      • Yes, I hear you. No recipe should call for just a “stick” of butter. It should say how many ounces or tablespoons. Regarding electric kettles, I am seeing them more and more. I grew up with them in Canada. Recently a colleague told me, though, “who wants to drink water that’s been constantly reboiled?”

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