Measure for Measure


A quarter-century after the 1975 Metric Conversion Act, our recipes are still given exclusively in pounds, ounces, tablespoons and cups. We are the odd country out in a global effort to harmonize weights and measures.

Having refused to change, we congratulate ourselves on having seen off a meddlesome government intrusion.

“It’s like New Coke!” a colleague said. “Nobody wanted it.”

But should we celebrate our refusal of metric as a triumph of popular taste?

No. We’re fools. Metric is far and away the better system. While we fumble around with cups and tablespoons and multiples of 16, those who have made the jump to metric are effortlessly acing variations of 10.


And that’s not the worst of it: When making the distinction between weight and volume, metric cooks have two distinct words: kilograms and liters. Meanwhile, we in the U.S. are stuck sweating ounces--are they fluid? Or dry? Is there a difference? Should we cram the butter in a cup? Ouch! It’s hard. Or melt it? Whoops. No matter, cookies taste so much better with separated butter.

As for those folksy cups, these nesting vessels are not a handy substitute for a scale. Nope, they are gremlins sent to bedevil us. We scarcely know solids from liquids by the time they’ve finished with us. In these very pages, we might publish a recipe calling for strawberries by the cup. How many might that be? This very much depends on the size of your strawberries and shape of your cup. We might also publish a recipe calling for butter by the cup but cheese by the ounce. Why? Because one tends to come in packets with cups marked on them and one doesn’t.

We are hardly alone in our eccentricities. Every last food section, magazine and cookbook in the country is equally guilty of recommending unnatural acts with cups. A recent issue of Gourmet has a recipe calling for “1/4 cup packed small fresh basil leaves.” Won’t those baby leaves be bruised? By the time any of us has packed them in one by one, we might as well have counted them. Giving a recipe by the gram, or even the handful, would have been more scientific and far less fiddly.

It is no better with liquids. Elsewhere in Gourmet, a single recipe calls for 1/4 cup of white wine in one breath and 6 tablespoons of olive oil in the next. Though the latter, amounting to more than a generous 1/3 cup, is the larger measure, it is given the smaller vessel. More time wasted; more stuff for the dishwasher.

More perverse: How are we supposed to connect the measures on the bottles from which we pour with the markings on the cups that we fill? The bottles will have been metric. We’ll never get our shopping straight. Nervous, we’ll over-shop. More wine to oxidize, more olive oil to go rancid.

Though we cooks rejected metric, science embraced it. So our nutritional labeling to do with fat and salt content comes in metric. How are we to relate this to the weights of the foods themselves, given in pounds and ounces in recipes? Presumably with a calculator. More unnecessary steps. More time wasted.


The worst part of our mixed measures is that they blind us to the proportional logic of recipes. We may make bread. Good bread. We may get the right amount of stuff in the bowl. But we will always be recipe-bound. We will never glimpse the first truth that hits even the youngest apprentice of French bakers: the ratio of flour to water. While struggling with 2.7 pounds of flour and 2 1/2 cups water, we will never see the classic 2-to-1 weight ratio of 1,200 grams to 600 grams.

Moreover, we’ll never recognize that exactly the same sorts of ratios exist throughout cooking, be they between meat and vegetables in a stew, between flour and butter in pastry, between oil and vinegar in a dressing. We seem to prefer permanent Dark Ages to the simple act of weighing in metric and pulling these proportions into sharp focus.

New Coke is nothing like metric. If it was, then 95% of the world’s population would be drinking it. Having refused metric, we are now unable to use cookbooks from France, Italy, China or any number of homes of great cuisines. Unless, of course, the book has been intercepted and mined with a system of weights and measures that wastes our time, widens our margin for error and sabotages our understanding.