I lived and cooked in the States, in Palo Alto, for a little over a year. Many things about it frustrated me to tears – although that was partly my fault for being determined to make mince pies and Christmas cake in a fit of homesickness. But that was where I learned to really cook over six months at Tante Marie’s cooking school in San Francisco. It gave me a huge affection for American food writers, restaurants and recipes.
There are many differences in the ingredients and equipment available in the UK compared to the US. Although we share a language (just), many aspects of American life are completely foreign to us. US food bloggers had a head start on us Brits, and many of the very best blogs are by American writers, so it’s a shame to avoid them because the recipes are hard to tackle. With a few tips, its very easy to adapt US recipes to make in the UK – and some bloggers, such as Smitten Kitchen, have become such converts to using a scale, they provide gram measures as well as cups.
The first thing to know about American baking is that almost no publisher or blogger can assume that a home baker owns a scale – a very small proportion of homes own them, so most will only provide cup measures. Where they do provide weights, it is likely to be in ounces (the US being almost the only country on the planet still sticking to the Imperial system of weights).
I have put together a list of the key differences to be aware of when using American recipes, particularly in baking, with suggestions on how to convert and appropriate substitutions. I hope you find this helpful, and try to tackle a few more recipes from the huge array of inspiring American bloggers.
- A stick of butter weighs 4 ounces (110g) and is the same as half a cup. American butter has more water than European butter – it’s usually around 80 per cent fat, compared to 85% or more in the UK. This won’t make a difference for most recipes, but is worth bearing in mind if something turns out overly heavy or greasy.
- While we’re at it, 1 cup = 8 fluid ounces and 1 fluid ounce = 2 tablespoons. You will sometimes see references to tablespoons of butter – you can assume that 1 tablespoon of butter weighs half an ounce.
- American granulated sugar is somewhere between caster sugar and UK granulated sugar in the size of the grains. Superfine sugar means something similar to caster sugar and confectioners sugar refers to icing sugar.
- A cup of all-purpose flour is somewhere between 4oz and 5oz – there is no standard weight, it all depends on the cook. I generally start with 130g per cup and adjust if the texture seems wrong.
- All-purpose flour is slightly higher in protein than British plain flour, but most of the time you can substitute without any problems. If the recipe is particularly delicate, you can reproduce a similar protein content by using half plain flour and half strong white flour. Cake flour in the US is very low in protein, and usually bleached, a process which is outlawed in Europe. This makes it very hard to reproduce the superfine sponge used for American layer cakes.
- Golden raisins are the same as sultanas. When it comes to other dried fruit, you almost never see currants, candied peel or glace cherries in America, so you won’t often find them in recipes.
- Molasses is a dark syrup, much like black treacle, but usually more liquid. I will usually substitute about two-thirds black treacle and one-third golden syrup if molasses is called for.
- Kosher salt is not Jewish salt – it simply means a flaky salt, used for koshering meat. Kosher salt is widely available in the US, and isn’t as expensive as sea salt here. It is best approximated with a fine sea salt, or with about half the volume of fine-grained table salt.
- American baking often makes use of buttermilk, which can be bought in any grocery store in quart cartons like the milk. I usually substitute a mixture of two-thirds plain yoghurt and one-third semi-skimmed milk, which works well.
- American cream is a sad thing, and their heavy cream (the thickest) never gets past the fat content of our whipping cream. So feel sorry for them, but bear in mind that when using cream, they are dealing with much less fat. Half and half is more or less what it says: half (whole) milk and half cream – single cream let down with a little milk would be about right.
Ha, I had similar issues when I moved from the US to the UK – ruined at least a couple of cookie recipes because of poor guessing at quantities of butter!
Molasses in the US, is it different to the molasses we know here?
I just bought a jar online for baking but molasses here is pure sugar stuff, from cane, not process syrup stuff you buy in US which can come in different colour grades…usually from processed corn…even maple-style syrup can be processed corn syrup.
this is the molasses from cane I bought http://www.healthysupplies.co.uk/blackstrap-molasses-organic-740g.html
and as you know we commonly see black treacle & golden syrup here in supermarkets…but molasses has a complete different scent-richness-depth to that of black treacle, it’s better and more complex. Until someone showed me the difference between black treacle & molasses I didn’t realise how different they were.
Why I wonder if in the US their molasses is more like our black treacle here?
Azelia – I haven’t really experimented with molasses at all. I tend to use black treacle with some golden syrup as well, and mostly it seems to work OK.
Good thought though – I must order some real molasses and have a play.
Can you suggest a uk equivalent for pastry flour, the recipe I am using calls for wholewheat pastry flour?
Thanks in advance!
Pastry flour is just finely ground, relatively low protein flour. A wholewheat plain flour would be a good substitute, or a half-and-half mix of plain flour and wholewheat plain. You can also sometimes find a ‘light brown’ plain flour, which would also be a good substitute.
Thank you so much for this!
I’ve been a big smitten kitchen and not without salt fan for a while but my bakes from a whole range of US blogs never turn out quite right..
I’ve never quite managed to figure out how Americans measure out tablespoons of butter in the first place – especially when the butter is supposed to be hard and cold…?
Thanks Eleanor. I couldn’t work out the butter either until we lived in the States. The trick is that butter is sold wrapped in individual sticks, and each is marked into 8 tablespoons on the wrapper, so it’s easy to slice off the amount you need.
If you watch American cooking shows like Barefoot Contessa, you might see them do this.
This is very useful. I’m just about to launch into trying David Leite’s Pateis de Nata recipe. I’ve done what I hope are correct conversions from cups etc, but there are so many disasters in his comments section, that it’s rather daunting to be honest. I had no idea about the different water content in butter, and I suspect I will use half plain and half strong flour to up the protein content for the pastry. I found it totally bizarre that butter should be measured in tablespoons, but having read this, it all becomes clear.
Thanks, Gill! Hope the pasteis de nata turned out well. They are so delicious when you get a good one!