It depends on how you measure it

I always thought that cooking is simple as long as you have a reliable recipe. Over the years I learned to trust some of the newspaper food columnists, while taking with a grain of salt my kids’ class cookbooks because some words fade during the kids’ mail transit and Xeroxing.

Once you have a good recipe there is usually no one to blame for a bad outcome other than yourself. Well, occasionally you can tell that the eggs were too big or the stove is new. My eccentric grandaunt used to prohibit us from entering the kitchen during baking and blame us for disturbing the cake’s gestation period if it didn’t rise. But there is really not much more. One cup of flour is one cup of flour anywhere in the world, one tablespoon of butter is one tablespoon of butter. Or is it?

This week’s article in the New York Times surprises us by suggesting that it is not. It refers to an experiment when ten different people were asked to scoop 1 cup of flour and pour it into a bowl. The weight of flour in the individual bowls varied between 4 and 6 ounces depending on the strength and technique of scooping used by each participant. This meant that some of these people may be making a cake with 1.5 times as much flour as others.

What else can we use instead of the traditional and universal cup and spoon volume measures? The weight (mass), says the article advocating for simple kitchen scales. Note that weight is equal mass as long as we cook on earth.

Image by jamieanne, distributed under CCL.

Let’s recollect some math and physics:

Mass = Volume x Density

If the mass of 1 cup of flour in the bowls varied from 4 to 6 ounces, it means that the density is to blame. Faster scooping, scooping up vs down techniques, different storage, type of flour, shape of the cup – all of them can influence the density of the flour. To get the same amount in your recipe rely on mass.

The difference may be even more drastic when dealing with grated cheese. According to the article “the heavier shavings of a box grater can fill a cup with twice as much cheese as” “billowy ribbons of machine-shaved cheese.”

So, get yourself a kitchen scale for the next holidays. Use mass-based recipe source and you will:

  1. Get consistent recipe-matching results every time.
  2. Easily double or halve the recipe.
  3. Have less stuff to clean. You can use only one mixing bowl by slowly adding ingredients into it directly from the containers and zeroing weight on the scale after each addition.

What about your old favorite volume-based recipes? One cup of oil in mom's sweet corn bread, one cup of honey in the Rosh haShana cake. Should you just convert them to mass?  This Pyrex measuring cup clearly marks 1 cup volume as 8 oz mass.

Remember the formula:
Mass = Volume x Density

For water measurements: 8 oz = 1 cup x Water Density
Oil, melted chocolate and honey are obviously denser than water. Higher density gives higher mass: around 10 oz for one cup of oil, and 12 oz for one cup of honey. So, beware of the Pyrex' cup.

It is just you now in the kitchen with your scale and math.

Amazon links to buy kitchen scale:


  1. I don't think oil is denser than water since it floats on water…

  2. I discovered this a few years ago, and seek out baking recipes that use weight, rather than volume for my measurements. For some reason it is not popular in the US, but it is often used in English recipes I get off the Guardian's food web site.


  3. Kimberly Rose via email:

    There are two different measures with the name "ounce," and everyone confuses them. (maybe they taught the difference in cooking class, but I don't remember, and in any case, not many kids take cooking in school these days.)

    There is the fluid ounce, which is a measure of volume. Two tablespoons = one fluid ounce, eight fluid ounces = one cup. That is what is marked on the glass measuring cup.

    There is the avoirdupois ounce, which is a measure of weight. Sixteen avoirdupois ounces = one pound.

    Adding to the confusion, which the NYT article mentions, one fluid ounce of water weighs roughly one avoirdupois ounce. When I was in college, my friends called the large 16-ounce bottles of beer "pounders," as sixteen fluid ounces of beer weigh roughly one pound. That's one way to help remember the density of water (though drinking one or more "pounders" doesn't really help one's memory).

    Thanks for the article; it was very informative. I've been thinking about getting a scale for the kitchen for some time, and this article may finally motivate me to do so. I know that for flour, the amount you measure out varies according to your technique. Our Panasonic breadmaker came with a cookbook, and it says you should weigh the flour (but, in a reluctant nod to those of us who don't have scales in our kitchens, it also gives volume measurements).

    The King Arthur Flour website has many recipes on it, and you may choose to have the recipes displayed by weight (metric or US standard measure) or volume.

    This recipe gives different volumes for the flour, depending on the technique you use to measure it:

    As far as which technique is preferable, both KAF and Cook's Illustrated say it is best to weigh the flour. If a scale is unavailable, KAF says to fluff up the flour, then spoon it into the measuring cup, then level off (that's how I do it) (and our breadmaker cookbook agrees). Cook's Illustrated says to dip the measuring cup into the flour, then level off (that's how my husband and my kids do it). I think this really only matters if you are making an unfamiliar recipe. For example, my husband frequently makes honey whole wheat bread in the bread maker. He tweaked a recipe from the bread maker cookbook, and now just makes it from memory. I don't care how he measures the flour; he's learned from experience how many scoops of flour to put in and it comes out great every time.


  4. TyYann - you are absolutely right. Most of the types of oil are less dense than the water leading to the oil floating on top. My mistake.

    For those interested in demonstrating volume, weight and density through mixing experiments here is a link to the PBS Kids website.

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