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.
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?
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:
- Cooking with the Metric System
- Metric Conversions, a site that does calculations
- Kitchen Calculator PRO, an app that converts ingredients.