Friday, February 10, 2012

The Non-Metric Units vs. Metric System

The non-metric system a system from hell?

For whom is this article for? Well on the one hand for all readers who aren’t common with the imperial/customary units and for all who use it everyday on the other. The first get the opportunity to learn it an easy way, the second can see which problems the rest of the World might have trying to cook/bake something from an American recipe.

Let’s go!

My dear readers grown into the metric system, have you ever seen an American recipe? Or maybe you’ve tried to cook something out of it and gave up, starting swearing? You are not the first and not the last. I did it as well. The Internet gives us the great chance to look a little bit outside the borders, there are a lot of great websites with recipes, with colourful pictures and there’s still this little problem with the volumes and masses: pounds, ounces, pints, cups… If you see it for the first time, you just think “what the hell?”. I did it as well. But then I tried to think inside the imperial World and not giving up like I did before. And believe me or not: I learned it. It is not difficult just different. You might say: I can use a calculator and convert the units. It’s okay but it’s easier to learn it once to get the feeling of how big a dish or cake might be. If you learn some of the units you will be able to convert it ad-hoc in your head right when you are reading a recipe or cooking out of it. It's a common custom that Americans use cups instead of using mass units in their recipes. I always check and convert it for myself using the great instructions from King Arthur Flour (you can find it on "Websites I like" in the links section under "Common Ingredient Weights (Cups to lbs/oz conversion)". There are a lot of other websites who offer you an automatic conversion also into the metric system. I wouldn't use it, it never works the right way and the guys from King Arthur Flour seem to understand the "cup-instead-of-ounce/pound"-problem. They even wrote a great article about it: Read it here!

Now to you my American readers: imagine a European Internet user who finds a great recipe on your websites and tries to use it. You’re not making it easy to us. I would say it’s really diabolic. The problem I see is that you are not using kitchen scales for masses in your recipes. You tell us to take “a cup of flour”. Well a cup of flour could be three, four, or even ounces… You are not very precise defining the ingredients. Why don’t you just write “take 5 oz of flour”? We would be able to convert it an easy way into our system. Fife ounces are always fife ounces and a cup… Well. And believe me it would be really easier for us because the most of our European kitchen scales can switch easily between grams and ounces/pounds. Please, think about it buy kitchen scales and stop using cups for flour, sugar or other dry ingredients. Thank you.

Let’s get back to our course in reading American recipes. Dear metric Europeans, don’t think that the metric system is the only one and truly best one. Units of measurements are only a deal someone told us. Yes, the metric system is easy to use, 10 gram make 1 dekagram, 1000 grams or 100 dekagrams make 1 kilogram. 1.5 kilogram is 1500 gram or 150 dekagram. 1000 millilitres make 1 litre etc pp. For masses we use the grams or kilograms, for measuring liquids we use millilitres and litres. The conversion between the units is something a 10 years old child can easily do.

The U.S. Customary Units sometimes also called the Imperial System (and no, it’s not connected to politics, it’s because the Americans took the Imperial System from the United Kingdom) works a different way. First of all you should learn the units and how to convert them. I am not going to teach you all of the units, only the most important in my opinion you should know. If you want to learn all of them, you can easily find a lot of websites asking uncle Google a question.

Units of Mass

For our culinary needs, you should learn what an ounce (oz) and what a pound (lb) is. Start without converting to grams; just try to understand the system itself. If you will understand it, you can start converting it.

1) 1 pound is equal 16 ounces or let’s say it an other way, there are 16 ounces in 1 pound. 2 lb = (2x16 oz) = 32 oz, 3 lb (3x16 oz) = 48 oz. Easy? Yeah. 18 oz will be 1 lb and (18-16=2) 2 oz, or 1 2/16 lb which is 1 1/8 lb. You have to remember fractions. There’s no other way. But in general, remember that there are 16 ounces in 1 pound and the world will be okay.

2) So what is 1 ounce and what is 1 pound in grams? 1 ounce is 28,35 g, and 1 pound is 453,59 g. As we know, there are 16 oz in a 1 pound, so 16 oz x 28,35 g is exactly 453,6 gram which is 1 pound. Easy? Yeah! There’s no magic just mathematics.

For your purposes you can remember that an ounce is around 30 g and a pound around 450 g. If you have a recipe where someone tells you to take 7 ounces of something, you just multiply 7 oz with 30g and you know you need around 210 g. You really do not need a calculator in the kitchen.

Units of Liquid

The U.S. American Customary Units do not measure liquids in millilitres or litres they use fluid ounces, gallons, quarts, pints and so on. In recipes you’ll find fluid ounces (sometimes just called “ounces”), pints, sometimes quarts or gallons. I would say, you should remember the following ones:

Fluid ounce (fl oz) – cup (c) – pint (pt) – quart (qt) – gallon (gal). The fl oz is the smallest one here, the gallon the biggest.

Wikipedia teaches us that “The United States liquid pint is equal to one eighth of a United States liquid gallon. It is used commonly in the United States.“

1 U.S. liquid pint 
U.S. liquid gallon

U.S. liquid quart

U.S. cups

U.S. fluid gills

U.S. fluid ounces

U.S. customary fluid ounce is 1/128 of an U.S. liquid gallon.

    1 US fluid ounce 
US gallon

US quart

US pint

US cup

US gill



US fluid drams

For American recipes you just need to know what one fluid ounce and what one pint are. So 1 fluid ounce is something about 30 ml (exactly: 29.6 ml) and 1 pint is around 475 ml (exactly 473,18 ml). Two pints are around 50-60 ml less than one litre.

Pay attention that there is a difference between the Imperial System (UK, former British Empire) and the U.S. Customary Units of Fluid Volume. One U.S. pint consists of 16 fluid ounces (473 ml - American recipes) and one Imperial pint consists of 20 fluid ounces (568 ml). If you have an American recipe, remember that one pint is 473 ml and one fluid ounce is around 30 ml and if you use a recipe outside of the United States, one pint is 568 ml and one fluid ounce is 28,4 ml, so a little bit less than the easy to remember 30 ml in the U.S. Customary Units. 

If you use a measuring cup which uses both systems (widely in use in Europe), check if the pint consist of 16 or 20 fluid ounces. If of 16 (it's the American fluid ounce) and if of 20 (99% of the European measuring cups), it's the Imperial/British fluid ounce.

Good luck!

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