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Ever since my first book, The Baker’s Appendix, was published in late March, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the path I have taken as a home baker—particularly, a self-taught one. I did not grow up at the hem of an apron, nor did I attend culinary school.
When I first started worshipping at the altar of the oven in earnest over a decade ago, it was with an armload of cookbooks and bare-bones tools purchased at the dollar store. Those tools served me well in the early days of tinkering and learning, failing and succeeding. Though I’ve added and replaced significantly to that collection over the years, no other tool or gadget has made such a staggeringly large impact on how I bake and ultimately, I believe, the outcome of my baked goods, than the digital scale I was gifted by my older sister for Christmas a few years after the baking flame was ignited.
Within the entry for “Measurement” in The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, Dara Goldstein calls the “drive for precision” a “soft tyranny.” (Uncomfortable cough.) I don’t like to think that I am tyrannical, however softly so, but won’t deny that I am now that person who preaches about metric baking, brings her own scale on trips where baking might happen, and scowls when she hears the clink-clink of metal measuring cups being pulled from a drawer (sorry, Mom).
For centuries, each country—and even some individual cities—had their own unique systems of measurement. Philosophers and mathematicians attempted to define a metric system back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it wasn’t until the dawn of the French Revolution in 1789 that the system we know today started to take shape.
That same year, Thomas Jefferson (representing the United States) and John Riggs Miller (representing the United Kingdom), convened in France with Maurice de Talleyrand to work on getting the metric system established in their respective countries, but acceptance by the people was slow going.
France was quickest to acclimate, adopting the system officially in 1839. Discussion and tweaking ensued until 1875, when the Treaty of the Meter (Convention of the Metre) was signed in Paris, establishing the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) whose purpose was to aid in the standardization and advancement of the metric system worldwide. By 1900, thirty-five countries (including the US) had signed the treaty, thereby joining the BIPM. But joining was not the same as implementing metric as law. Rather, the US had acknowledged (and agreed to) what it was.
And we liked it enough to use it—somewhat. Since signing, we have always employed metric for science and medicine, yet the US is one of only three countries in the world (Myanmar and Libya being the other two) that does not recognize the metric system as the official standard of measurement across the board. There have been repeated attempts by the government since the BIPM was established to pull metric back into the spotlight, including the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, which made the system favored, albeit voluntary, for trade and commerce. But the American people continue to steadfastly resist the implementation of it as our national standard.
So what happened and why? This is a complicated question, the answers to which include such weighty (ha!) subjects as globalization, democracy, and capitalism. But as far as its use in the kitchen and recipe writing are concerned, I believe it’s a matter of both tradition and freedom of choice.
When the treaty was signed, little more than a century had passed since the War for Independence, and the American people—especially those in business—maintained their desire for national systems separate from those of the UK or Europe. Being a country of creators and innovators, we took the agreed-upon system and made one of our own: US customary units. Similar to, but not the same as, the British imperial system (developed in 1824 and used until 1965, when metric became law there), it’s what we still use for mass and length in everyday life, including cooking. Fannie Farmer, a.k.a. “The Mother of Level Measurements,” can be credited with setting these units as standard for the kitchen with her 1896 edition of The Boston Cooking School Cook Book.
So, since the late nineteenth century, we have done all of our cooking and baking using cups and ounces and pounds. And even those of us who do employ the metric system for baking rarely use it beyond the kitchen (among those I know, at least). I can tell you the exact weight in grams of one cup all-purpose flour, a half-cup of sugar, one cup milk, but ask me to convert Celcius to Farenheit and you’ll need to wait for me to Google it. The US system is comfortable and understood, it is what we are taught in school, and it is tradition. We love tradition.
Because of the above-mentioned reasons, use of only the metric system in a recipe can elicit anger—even outright hostility—from some. In our Internet-connected age, commenters to recipes posted online can be downright brutal, even going so far as to be personally offended, when a writer says “125 grams all-purpose flour” instead of "1 cup.”
But the opposite is true for the rest of the metric world around us. A favorite example of measurement disapproval comes from one of the gods of the kitchen, J. Kenzi López-Alt, who wrote the article, "Ounces and Grams: Why Mass is Not the Best Way to List Ingredients," in answer to all of the outrage he received from international audiences because the recipes in his book, The Food Lab, were only written in American units. But even in that piece, he states that metric is best for baking.
Many American cookbooks—particularly baking-focused—are now being published with both metric and US units. This is a very good development, considering that the metric system and baking are best friends. Their relationship encourages precision, leaves fewer dishes in the sink, reduces the margin of error, opens you up to the global food world, and can make you feel like a scientist or a witch or an alchemist, all of which can liven up a dreary day.
And, frankly, I find it plain easier—especially for novice bakers or those who long to bake but are wary of it. When you are just starting out, baking can seem daunting and overwhelming. There is an assurance that comes with the certainty of numbers on a scale, and a comforting consistency that’s lacking when, say, scooping and leveling 1 cup of flour. Each person has their own way, and even something like mood can affect the weight of the scoop. (Seriously, I tested this when working on the book! I average an angry scoop and level weight of 160 grams per cup of all-purpose flour, and a happy scoop and level weight around 130 grams. For the record, it’s 125 grams in the book.)
The most common questions I get from friends—and strangers, now that the book has come out—involve either getting over baking fears or correcting common baking failures, like cakes that sink in the middle or cookies that are dry. And my answer is always the same: Read the recipe twice; follow as written; and get yourself an oven thermometer and a digital scale that can tare (go back to zero over and over allowing you to use one container to measure many ingredients) and that toggles between grams and ounces. Seems like a lot more written out rather than spoken, but those four things can make the biggest difference in the end result of your baked goods and bring an end to common grievances.
I’m not advocating for a metric-only America by any means, nor do I promise that baking metrically will make you the next Dorie Greenspan or Jim Lahey, but I do wholeheartedly encourage you to give a scale a try—especially if you are new to baking. Good scales can be had for under $30, they hold up well with kind treatment, and can always be used to weigh mail and figure out postage. So there’s that.
And while you’re at it, pick up a copy of The Baker’s Appendix! It’s chock-full of all sorts of baking info, recipes, tips, and tricks, but the section that I am most proud of is the Common Ingredients chapter, which gives the things us bakers use most often in both US customary units and metric, making it easy to convert any recipe and streamline the process.
Baking needn't be overwhelming or complicated. As with anything in life, just having the right tools gets you halfway.
Metric measurements or cups and tablespoons? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.