On being ... measured

On being … measured

By Ingrid Sapona

I grew up non-metric -- you know: inches, feet, yards, ounces, pounds, Fahrenheit, etc. A year working in Europe in my late 20s introduced me to grams, kilos, and kilometres, which made my eventual move to Canada easier. And now, 20+ years here, I feel completely fluent in metric. (Well, there are a few things I’ll always think of strictly in non-metric terms, like my height, bra size, and good old 98.6F.)

Canada started going metric in the 1970s and set a target of converting everything by 1980. For the most part, today things here are metric, but not always solely metric. The other day, for example, I was buying cheese at the market and when I asked the price, the salesperson asked me if I wanted to know in pounds or kilos -- so I guess you could say we’re bi-lingual in more ways than just English and French.

Given my simple life, pretty much the only activity I do regularly where weights and measures even come into play is cooking. I love cooking and baking and one of my biggest pleasures in life is pouring over new recipes, whether in magazines, newspapers, cookbooks, or on-line. Over the years I’ve noticed that more and more recipes list ingredients in both metric and so-called “imperial” measures (cups, ounces, etc.).

Despite the fact that we’re officially metric, not all Canadian recipes even use metric measures. For example, recipes in Chatelaine, a popular Canadian women’s magazine, still only use imperial measures. But, I’ve got Canadian Living magazine recipes from as long ago as 1990 that give both measures. The inconsistency even happens in Canadian cookbooks published by the same company. I’ve got a Random House of Canada cookbook from1993 in which all the recipes are in imperial measures and another one by the same publisher from 1990 with recipes that give both measures.

The other day I chose some recipes -- all from Canadian sources -- for a small dinner party: potato pancakes with shrimp and dill; a spinach, herb and cheese rolled soufflé; and a chocolate biscuit cake (it’s the “groom’s cake” that William and Kate are having at their wedding – it sounded fun to try).

In preparing my shopping list, I noticed that the potato pancake recipe called for “3 potatoes”. For better or worse, many recipes are like that when it comes to certain fruits and vegetables (recipes often call for things like: “two leeks”, “4 cloves garlic”, “three ripe bananas”, etc.). Though such imprecise amounts are annoying, most people who cook and grocery shop can tell what is mean by “a medium onion”, for example, and so they cope.

Thankfully, in the case of the potato pancake recipe, in parentheses next to the “3 potatoes” it clarified that you need 1-1/4 pounds (625 grams). The recipe also called for: 1 cup (250 mL) cooked baby shrimp. Why they measured the shrimp by volume is beyond me. When you buy shrimp, whether from a fish monger or frozen, you buy them by the pound or kilo -- not by the cup or litre.

Lately I’ve noticed more and more recipes are giving amounts in millilitres for all sorts of ingredients. The soufflé recipe, for example, called for: ½ cup (125 mL) of flour. If the imperial measurement wasn’t given, I’d have no idea how you measure 125 mL of flour, or 2 mL of cream of tartar, or 25 mL of butter (all of which the recipe called for). I own a LOT of kitchen utensils, but the only things I have that measure in litres are meant for liquid measures, not dry measures. (You know the ones I’m talking about: glass measuring cups -- Pyrex, to name the brand -- that show fluid ounces on one side and litres on the other.)

The soufflé also called for: ¾ cup (175 mL) crumbled feta and 2 cups (500 mL) shredded Swiss cheese. Again, why is it the quantity of cheese they specified was based on the volume of shredded or crumbled cheese rather than by weight? I understand the weight of cheese shredded or crumbled can be very different from the weight of that same cheese as a block, but why are they telling me the shredded or crumbled amount at all?

Why don’t they just shred the darned cheese and measure the amount that they want you to use (in this case, 2 cups of shredded Swiss) and then dump the shredded cheese on a scale and tell you how much it weighs. That way you’d know how much to buy and then you just shred the cheese before using it in the recipe. And, if the convenience of knowing how much to buy isn’t a compelling enough reason to list the amount in ounces or grams, what about accuracy? Surely calling for 4 ounces (or 110 grams) of a particular type of cheese and then telling you to shred it is more accurate than measuring the cheese after shredding, since there are all sorts of variables with shredding -- from how fine you shred to how tightly you tamp it into the measuring cup.

Thankfully, we’ve come a long way from measuring things in bushels, pecks, and stones. (For those of you not familiar with it, a stone is a sometimes-used measure of weight: 1 stone = 14 pounds. I first heard reference to this unit when a British-born friend commented on how well her diet was going and that she’d already dropped a stone. Before you ask, yes, she brought with her from the UK her scale that showed weight in stones. But I digress…) Despite how far we’ve come in terms of the application of measurement standards, the question is have we come far enough? I think the answer is no.

Honestly, until you can walk into William Sonoma -- or better yet, Wal-Mart -- and find spoons and utensils that allow you to measure non-liquid ingredients in millilitres, or until you can go to the market and ask for a litre of crab meat, is it too much to ask that recipe writers use units of measure that correspond to how normal cooks purchase or measure ingredients?

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


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