I’d also like to take this opportunity to tell you that, with apologies to Fannie Farmer, we should be driving the last nail into the coffin of the dry measuring cup. Volume-measuring dry ingredients is inaccurate and faux-scientific. If you’re a serious baker or you care about precision, get a food scale. But until we can convince American recipe writers to abandon the archaic, imprecise convention of the cup, these picks will do.
Over fourteen hours of research, I talked to chefs, cookbook authors and measurement experts about what to look for; ran the top nine cups and sets through a battery of tests; and drew on my own 8 years of experience as a food writer and editor, including work for Saveur, NYMag.com, LadiesHomeJournal.com and Garden Design.
What’s wrong with cups?
Measuring cups are a fairly new and fairly flawed invention. Many American recipes prior to the 1800s were based on weight, which gives consistently replicable results because a pound of flour will always be a pound of flour (assuming you stay on Earth).
But there’s a problem with measuring dry materials in cups—cups don’t take density into account. When you measure something like flour, a cup can mean anywhere between four and six ounces, depending on how tightly you’ve packed the flour in, whether or not you’ve sifted, whether you’ve dipped the cup into your canister or spooned the flour in before sweeping off the top. When we compared the spoon method to the scoop method using the same 1-cup measuring cup in the pics below, we wound up with an astounding 36.5% difference in weight. You could see how this could really screw with a recipe.
While the scale is making a comeback in American cooking, our recipes still mostly rely on the dry measuring cup. Those who want to rely on a scale alone will have to be sure to convert cup-based recipes keeping the different densities of ingredients in mind. And unfortunately, conversion tools on popular recipe sites can only help so much, as this Metric Maven post on a chocolate chip cookie recipe illustrates.
So cups are still a convenience for anyone who cooks from American recipes.
For more on why I think we should chuck the dry measuring cup, read the not-so-brief history of the measuring cup in the footnotes.
So back to the cups
Measuring cups can range in price from $5 to $55. On the higher end, you often get thicker stainless steel, single-piece-of-metal construction, and multiple odd sizes like ⅛, ⅔, and ¾ of a cup.
Liquid cups come in glass, plastic and silicone, while dry come in plastic, silicone, ceramics and stainless steel. While flexible silicone can be handy for clean-up and high-heat fats, our experts almost across the board prefer the sturdiness and rigidity of stainless steel.
But you do need both a liquid measuring cup and dry measuring cups. Joanne Chang, author of Flour and Flour, Too (and chef-owner of Boston’s renowned Flour Bakery) told us why. “If you try to measure liquids in a dry cup, they will spill over the edge if you fill up up correctly. And then you will lose liquid. If you try to measure dry in a liquid cup, it’s very difficult to level the dry ingredient (unless it’s something like sugar which you can tamp the measuring cup so that it levels off). And when you try to level off the dry you will pack in more than you probably want or get an uneven level leaving you with a mismeasured item.”
There are dozens of measuring cups to choose from these days, with shapes that range from laboratorial beakers to push-up plunger cylinders to whimsical Matryoshka nesting cups. It seems as though every TV food personality has their own set on store shelves alongside many well-known kitchen brands such as AMCO, the Culinary Institute of America, RSVP Endurance, OXO, Pyrex, Zyliss and pretty much everyone else in the kitchen business.
We talked to six recipe writers and editors about what makes a good measuring cup. While some used plastic dry measuring cups, most expressed a preference for stainless steel. Leah Koenig, author of The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook, told us she preferred the metal because “they feel sturdier and are less likely to knock over if I’m pouring lentils, rice or whatever into them.” For lifetime usage, etched measurements are preferable to printed, as printed ink may wear off after many rounds in the dishwasher. Half-measurements etched on the cups are helpful for people who might need to halve a recipe (or for those who want to wash fewer cups). Milliliter markings are useful for recipe writers, like Leah Koenig, who need to convert their ingredient amounts for multinational publishers; they’re likely more of a nice-to-have for the general public. Digging up ingredients from canisters can be rough on cups, so Lynn Blanchard, Test Kitchen Director for Better Homes and Gardens, told us that she prefers stainless steel with “sturdy handles.” Some expressed interest in extra cups with odd measures like ⅔ and ⅛ of a cup, but others were neutral.
Tina Ujlaki, Executive Food Editor of Food & Wine, prefers short handles and lighter materials. She told us, “It’s nice to have them when they’re not so heavy, when they’re easy to hold, and when they have a comfortable handle. Some of them are really cute and have a long, artisanal, artistic handle. They’re not so great when you’re measuring wildly all day long.”
There are some alternative measuring cups out there that are marketed specifically for use with sticky ingredients like honey or peanut butter. Our experts generally relied on standard dry or liquid measuring cups for this purpose. Leah Koenig said, “My basic rule of thumb is, if you can pour it, then use a liquid measure. So, oil, maple syrup and honey I use a liquid measuring cup. For thicker, scoopable ingredients like peanut butter, yogurt, ricotta, etc. I use a dry measure.” Joanne Chang gave us a protip: “I use a liquid cup that I spray with pan spray!” Tina Ujlaki also suggested oiling the cup before hand. (We tried it—it works!)
There weren’t many in-depth editorial reviews of measuring cups out there, but Cook’s Illustrated (subscription required) did a great roundup of the best liquid and dry measuring cups. In addition to our expert interviews, we decided to look at piecemeal reviews and discussions on home cook forums to pick out the key attributes.
Based on editorial recommendations, user reviews and our criteria, we started with a list of 22 dry measuring cups to consider. We narrowed it down to 7 after eliminating those that were too expensive, not made of stainless steel or missing etched, permanent markings on their handles. We ended up with the Lee Valley Lifetime measuring cups, the AMCO Professional measuring cups, the AMCO Advanced Performance measuring cups, the All-Clad measuring cups, the King Arthur Flour measuring cups (also sold as Endurance nesting measuring cups), the CIA Masters Collection measuring cup set and the RSVP measuring cups.
We also started with 12 liquid measuring cups. We narrowed it down by choosing only glass or plastic non-plunger models and eliminating those without strong editorial support or Amazon buyer enthusiasm. People overwhelmingly favored two models—the classic Pyrex 2-cup measuring cup and the OXO Good Grips 2-cup angled measuring cup.
How we tested
For liquid measuring cups, there were two clear frontrunners that people are passionate about—Pyrex’s classic design and the OXO angled measuring cup. We eyeballed a cup of water and weighed the results on a digital scale for accuracy, following Cook’s Illustrated’s lead. We poured hot tomato sauce in and let it sit for ten minutes to check for stains and smells. We heated a pot and set it against the lip of the measuring cup to make sure nothing melted. We poured a tablespoon of oil into the cups, swished it around and tried to handwash them in the sink. And we poured viscous honey in and scraped it out with a rubber spatula to see how hard each was to clean out.
For dry measuring cups, we made note of pro reviews and civilian discussions on the best measuring cups. Our experts’ preference for stainless steel helped us winnow the pool down to seven contenders in a wide range of prices. We measured for accuracy using the same eyeball water weight test we used for liquid. We checked the smallest cup to see if it could sit balanced on its own. We scooped oats from a large canister to see how the it fared in a narrow space. We also swept flour to make sure that no dry ingredients got stuck in crevices that would throw off the measure. And finally, we tried to bend the handle with a reasonable amount of pressure against a glass container to see if the handles would bend with use.
In order to define the weight of 1 cup of water at room temperature, I reached out to the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Office of Weights and Measures. I gave the NIST the final word:
“As far as how much a cup (8 fl oz) of water should weigh:
According to our metrologist, one fluid ounce of water at 20 ° C (68 ° F) will weigh approximately 0.065081506 lb.
- 8 fluid ounces will be about 0.520652 lb”
On my scale, whose most granular unit is the gram, that comes out to 236.164, or 236 grams.
Note: I did not calibrate my OXO scale with NIST-traced test weights as recommended, but Christine Cyr Clisset found accuracy within 1 or 2 grams for all of the scales she calibrated in her Sweethome scale tests.
Our liquid pick
Honey was scooped out cleanly (even more so when we oiled the cup beforehand), unlike the many-cornered angles of OXO’s cup. Otherwise, both cups performed well on the other tests. Hot tomato-butter sauce left no stains, grease slicks or smells after 10 minutes. A hot pot we rested on its lip didn’t melt a thing. However, the glass Pyrex had the edge when it came to washing by hand. It was a breeze to wipe clean unlike the OXO, which still felt a little greasy after a scrub under hot tap water. The Pyrex is also cheaper at $6, and by most accounts the glass and markings last a lifetime. Pyrex is dishwasher and microwave-safe and the cups are made in the U.S.A.
The cup was only slightly less accurate than the OXO liquid cup we tested, coming in at 3% off the NIST weight for 1 cup of water (243 g instead of 236 g). By comparison, the OXO was accurate to less than 1% off of NIST weight.
As far as flaws go, there simply aren’t many and the ones that do exist are easy to look past. The Pyrex is relatively heavy, weighing about 1¼ pounds (586 g). It also had more troubles drizzling slowly without dribbling than the plastic OXO. But the spout performed well at a steady pour.
The Pyrex liquid measuring cup was the top pick for Cook’s Illustrated (subscription required) who said, “For straightforward simplicity and durability, it’s hard to beat—years of use in the test kitchen have demonstrated that it is nearly unbreakable, with minimalistic, red-painted markings that resist fading.”
Not Without Salt blogger and upcoming cookbook author Ashley Rodriguez uses a standard Pyrex liquid measuring cup, too. “Love it,” she told us.
Bee Wilson, British author of Consider the Fork, says in her book, “It is ease (or user-friendliness): an ability to measure a liter of milk without any great ceremony, resources, or skill. Judged by this final criterion, one of the greatest measuring tools is the modest Pyrex measuring cup. As well as having nice clear graphics, showing both metric and imperial measures, the Pyrex cup, made from heatproof glass first patented in 1915, has a pourable spout, can withstand both freezers and microwaves, and has an invaluable ability to bounce when dropped, so long as the kitchen floor is not too hard.”
It is the best-selling measuring cup on Amazon, with 4.5 stars average of 519 reviews.
Readers of the Epicurious blog chimed in with their love for the Pyrex. Commenter bavaria said, “Pyrex is a nearly bulletproof, longterm solution.“
Sharon Franke of Good Housekeeping says, “I bet there’s barely a kitchen in the country that doesn’t have at least a couple of battered old Pyrex measuring cups in the cupboard. There’s certainly a passel in my home kitchen as well as in the Kitchen Appliances Lab and test kitchens at the Institute. They’ve been used countless times for measuring liquids, mixing up batters, and microwaving everything from soup to nuts. I confess that as a very young housewife, I was even known to use one at the table as a gravy boat.”
The Pyrex measuring cup was a pick in the readers’ favorites Saveur 100 issue, curated by the editors of SAVEUR. Linda M. Yardley said, “They are the little black dresses of the kitchen…In a kitchen full of faddy tools, this one lasts forever and never goes out of style.”
The OXO 2-cup measuring cup is a light, comfortable, accurate tool. Made of Tritan plastic, the cup is light (about ¼ lb. or 122 g) and easy on the hand, with a textured thumb rest above the rubberized handle. The thin, straight lip pours elegantly and precisely, especially when drizzling very slowly. The read-above measure is a great innovation which allows you to pour liquid in without having to lean over and check at eye level. We found this to be pretty accurate, if a little hard to read because of how thin the lines are.
Not everyone loves the overhead read. JJ Goode, co-author of Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok cookbook and April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig, said, “I don’t trust it, because whenever it reads, say, 2 cups from overhead, I end up bending over anyway to check the lines it also has on the sides and it reads that it’s just under 2 cups.”
Also, because of the plastic, the OXO rep told us that you can’t microwave fats in it or pour hot fats into the cup—a dealbreaker for us. Amazon reviewer The Bee Bee “BB” warned, “This is a clever, well designed measuring cup, but since it is made of plastic, do NOT use it with fats (oils, creams, yolks, etc.). Any substance that includes fat will chemically attract to the plastic in the measuring cup (and vice versa), making it VERY difficult to get completely clean.” We found this to be true in our own testing—the film of oil clung to the cup despite the thorough hot soapy scrub we gave it. Other reviewers complained of cracking when the cup met with hot liquids.
It’s important to note that Pyrex came out with an ill-conceived read from above measuring cup in 2010, probably in response to OXO’s design innovation. Avoid this one! Its design has been widely panned. Cook’s Illustrated said, “This redesigned cup was a disaster. Testers struggled to tell if they’d hit the mark and couldn’t double-check from the outside (for one thing, markings appear backward); their uncertainty showed up in poor measuring results.” Sharon Franke of Good Housekeeping met news of the new design with “great consternation” and said, “But just maybe the manufacturer has underestimated the value of the familiar (remember New Coke?).”
The Good Cook 2-cup measuring cup ($8) was recommended by Cook’s Illustrated. Its design is basic, but as a plastic cup, it can’t be heated, and it’s actually more expensive than our glass pick.
The iSi Basics Flex-it 2-cup measuring cup is made of heat-resistant silicone. However, only one of our experts expressed preference for silicone over plastic for dealing with hot stocks and fats. Most preferred glass, especially for heating in the microwave.
The Taylor Digital measuring cup and scale seems like a nifty idea—it’s a measuring cup with a built-in scale. However, the cup can’t go into the refrigerator or microwave, and it can’t be immersed in water. Seems like a hybrid product that does neither function very well.
Some forum users have mentioned the Wonder Cup adjustable measuring cup. It is sometimes a featured tool on Alton Brown’s Good Eats. However, many Amazon reviewers complain about leaks and difficult assembly. Ultimately, we dismissed this and other plungers because our experts found them unnecessary as long as you have both a dry and wet measuring cup already.
Our dry pick
For dry measurements, we love the Lee Valley 6-cup Lifetime measuring cups set, available in Lee Valley stores and on their site. Lee Valley is a family-owned woodworking and hardware chain based in Canada that offers good prices on woodworking, gardening and kitchen tools. Each cup in the Lifetime measuring cups set is composed of a single piece of 18/8 stainless steel, so there are no crevices for food to get stuck in. They strike the right balance between lightness and sturdiness.
There are holes in the short, wide handles for the optional chain to keep them together. We also liked the tiny metal ear on the opposite end of the cup, which allows all six to nest in a very tidy, parallel way. In addition to the 4 standard sizes, there are also a ⅔ cup and a ¾ cup. (Bonus – if you lose your rice cooker cup, you can use the ¾ cup measure instead.)
We liked the taller, thinner cup design, which makes it easy to scoop out of small-mouthed canisters. Even the smallest cup was counterbalanced, so you can set it on the counter and pour ingredients directly in without holding on to it.
There are some extraneous spouts on both sides of the cup for lefty or righty pouring, but you’re hopefully using a liquid measuring cup for liquids, anyway. They aren’t the most ergonomic handles, but the width can accommodate big fingers or little ones, and they feel sufficiently sturdy—our attempt to bend one backwards against glass didn’t work.
In terms of accuracy, the Lee Valley cups ranked in the middle—-the 1 cup was off of the NIST weight by only 2%, while the ¼ cup was off by almost 7% (a difference of about 4 grams, though that’s reduced to 3 grams if you’re using the FDA standard). But considering all of the other features that come with it, along with its excellent price of $20, we felt that the slight inaccuracy of the smallest cup was forgivable.
Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn (same parent company) were the source that turned us on to these Lifetime Measuring Cups. Faith Durand says, “They are by far the best measuring cups I’ve ever owned.”
That said, don’t forget that measuring dry ingredients by volume can be inaccurate by nature. If you really want to produce consistent recipes, a scale is the only way to go; here’s our top pick.
We really wanted to like the AMCO Advanced Performance set ($20). These are also sold by Crate and Barrel and (we believe) under the Martha Stewart brand at Macy’s. Chowhounder Chemicalkinetics praised them: “They are heavy, solid, low profile, and made from a single metal, so the handle cannot break off and the fact that they are very thick make them nearly impossible to bend.” They’re easy to clean, with mL markings and convenient half-measures impressed inside each cup. However, their accuracy left much to be desired (with the 1 cup measuring about 5% under weight) and the wide cups might be hard to use inside skinny containers. There’s a slight angle to the lip, which causes spillage on one side of the cup and an empty gap at the top of the other side. Its smallest cup, the ¼ cup, could not sit counterbalanced on its own. (And though reports of the Crate and Barrel set being heavier are true, the ¼ cup in our Crate and Barrel set didn’t sit up on its own, either.)
People who love the All Clad measuring cups ($50) really adore them. The set includes five cups—the four standard plus a ⅔-cup measure. And they are beautiful, like tiny saucepans for the smallest hot cocoas in the world. They were the most accurate of all of the dry measuring cups and feel indestructible, with a sharp lip that’s easy to sweep off accurately. They also come with a lifetime warranty. The long, sturdy handles have a deep groove which makes them very comfortable for digging into deep containers. Like the saucepans, the handles are affixed to the cup with rivets that can get in the way of your spatula, a plus for some who’ve had bad luck with soldered handles. But the cost feels excessive, especially given reports that the stainless steel rusts after time.
The 6-cup RSVP Endurance cups ($30) look almost exactly like our top pick from Lee Valley. We wouldn’t be surprised if they were manufactured at the same factory. The difference is that the RSVP cups were a little more accurate but lack the pouring spouts and the impressed half-measurements inside the cups. They are also $10 more expensive.
The King Arthur Flour measuring cups ($37) are actually sold under the name Endurance on Amazon. We liked the sharp lip and the long handles, engraved with cup and mL amounts. This set includes extra oddball sizes for ⅛ of a cup, ⅔ of a cup, and ¾ of a cup. But the ⅛-cup and ¼-cup measures don’t sit balanced while empty, and the soldered handle was fairly easily bent against a glass container.
The macho-looking CIA Masters Collection set ($33) was praised for its indestructible construction from 18/10 stainless steel. But the flared lip could cause over-measuring—a clean sweep of fine particles like flour would throw the measurements off. For some reason, the mL and oz. markings are inconveniently hidden on the underside of the handle.
We really strongly disliked the AMCO Professional measuring cups ($15). Though they were a top pick for Cook’s Illustrated, we found that the flimsy metal handles bent easily, as many reviewers testified. They were also the least accurate of the cups we tested, with the ¼ cup underweight by almost 10%; strangely, Cook’s Illustrated found them to be the most accurate of the cups they tested.
Every cup we tested, with the exception of the Pyrex glass measuring cup, was made in China.
The Sur La Table measuring cups ($55) come in a set of 8, including an unusual 2-cup measure. Each cup is made of a single piece of heavy, brushed stainless steel with long, sweep-friendly handles, etched measurements and mL markings. Beautiful, yes, but we couldn’t stomach the price tag.
The Cuisipro Stainless Steel Oval measuring cups ($35) seem to be popular with many food bloggers, but Cook’s Illustrated dismissed these for being unreasonably heavy at 1½ lbs. (Our winning set, which contains two additional cups, weighs less than 1 lb.)
The OXO stainless steel measuring cups ($20) have rubberized handles with color-coded markings for measurement. The new design is a major improvement on the bendy handles of the previous design. The set is beautifully simple, but we dismissed it for its lack of half-measurements, odd-sized cups, and mL markings some of our experts wanted.
The Norpro 5-piece measuring cup set ($21) has a long, narrower cup with spouts on either side and soldered handles. Most of Cook’s Illustrated’s testers disliked the shape, and several Amazon reviewers have complained of incorrect measurement markings on the cups.
The Zyliss Perfect Pour measuring cups ($8) are made of translucent red plastic with a diamond shape that is supposed to help with pouring precisely. These were recommended by Cook’s Illustrated, but we dismissed these for being made of plastic which could warp after many trips to the dishwasher.
What to look forward to
Chef Joanne Chang relies on the scale for her baking. Leah Koenig tells us, “The cookbook I’m working on now is being published by Chronicle, which has a reciprocal working relationship with publishers in England and so requires that all recipes be given in metric measures as well.” And Smitten Kitchen, a digital food scale advocate, often includes weights for recipes and encourages her readers to “ditch your measuring cups forever!” Washington state-based Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, whose blog specializes in cooking with flours of varying densities, doesn’t use cups at all. She says in one post, “I want your baked goods to work. Baking by weight means the measurements will be accurate. Each gluten-free flour has a different weight to the other. If you bake by weight, you can replace the potato starch in the recipe with the accurate amount of tapioca flour if you run out of potato starch. If you did it with cups, your cookies might not bake well.” The fact that so many American readers now follow recipe writers on other countries like Donna Hay, Nigella Lawson, David Lebovitz, and Clotilde Dusoulier means people are familiarizing themselves with the metric system. This paradigm shift by trendsetters bodes well.
Lynn Blanchard, Test Kitchen Director for Better Homes and Gardens, told us, “We have yet to convert our recipes to using a scale to weigh out ingredients for baking — this is mostly based on what our readers have in their kitchens — our editors haven’t been ready to make the switch to weighing our ingredients, but we are beginning to speak to this in our editorial.”
See? Your recipe editors are already using their digital food scales. Why not urge them to include those metric amounts in all of your recipes?
Wrapping it up
The Pyrex 2-cup measuring cup is a buy-for-life classic that every home should have. The Lee Valley 6-cup Lifetime measuring cups set is affordable and durable enough to last you until American cooks finally make the inevitable switch to scales and grams.
The French quatre-quarts cake, known in English as pound cake, is a classic example of a weighed recipe—quatre quarts means “four fourths”, and the recipe calls for equal parts flour, butter, eggs and sugar by weight. According to the King Arthur Flour website, volume measuring became more prevalent in America as scales were hard to come by, especially in “the trail west.” But the capacity for cups varied from household to household.
Before the standardization of the cup measure, people would use eyeball measures like “butter the size of a walnut” or “fists” of flour. Tina Ujlaki, Executive Food Editor of Food & Wine, told us, “Cup recipes made it easier to understand proportions; they were a modification from using coffee cups or tea cups to measure.”
Fannie Farmer, author of 1896′s The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, popularized them at the end of the 19th century. In her book, she said, “Correct measurements are absolutely necessary to insure the best results,” and advocated for every home to have measurement cups divided into quarters or thirds, as well as measuring spoons.
But there’s a problem with dry measuring material in cups—cups don’t take density into account. When you measure something like flour, a cup can mean anywhere between four and six ounces, depending on how tightly you’ve packed the flour in, whether or not you’ve sifted, whether you’ve dipped the cup into your canister or spooned the flour in before sweeping off the top.
In fact, take a look at Fannie Farmer’s own Table of Measures and Weights. While a cup of pastry flour today is generally accepted as 4 ¼ oz., making two cups 8 ½ oz., she lists 2 cups of flour as equal to 1 pound of flour (16 oz.). Huh?
What about brown sugar? Or chopped cilantro? How packed is “packed”? The difference between a roughly chopped and lightly packed vs. minced and stuffed down cup can spell kitchen disaster.
I would argue that all of those people who fuss over the dip and sweep vs. scoop and sweep flour debate are missing the point. The cup itself is a measurement that lacks clear definition. Here’s what was defined for me by the National Institute of Standards and Technology:
· 1 measuring cup equals exactly 8 fluid ounces
· 1 fluid ounce equals 29.57353 mL
· 8 fluid ounces equals 236.58824 mL
However, for some reason, the FDA defines a cup as 240 mL for nutritional label purposes. Bewilderingly, the NIST also lists 1 cup as equivalent to 240 mL on their “Approximate Conversions from U.S. Customary Measures to Metric.”
Some of the cup measures we picked up equate 1 cup with 240 mL; one of them had 239 mL etched on the handle; and when I talked to OXO, they told me they measure their cup to 237 mL. Why so much difference? When I reached out to the NIST Office of Weights and Measures, I was referred to the NIST Handbook’s stance on rounding: “In all conversions for the purpose of showing an equivalent SI or inch-pound quantity to a rounded inch-pound or SI quantity, or in calculated values to be declared in the net quantity statement, the number of significant digits retained must be such that accuracy is neither sacrificed nor exaggerated.” NIST representative David Sefcik told me, “So rounding up from 236.5 mL to 240mL is not especially significant.”
“Well, welcome to the US land of the barleycorn inch, and medieval wine gallon,” the author of the Metric Maven blog told me. “First, you must understand that a cup is vessel from which you drink, a liter is a unit of measurement. The metric system was created so that any person of mild intellectual means could check for accuracy. Olde English — not so much.” The Metric Maven, an electrical engineer by profession, is referring to the U.S. volume measuring system, one based on the volume of a gallon of wine (also known as the Queen Anne gallon) and subsequently divided into the non-decimal units of quarts, pints, cups, and fluid ounces.
According to food historian Bee Wilson who writes about measurements in her awesome book, Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, in 1795, the French adopted the brilliant metric system which based its unit, the kilogram, on the mass of 1 cubic meter of water at 4 degrees Celsius. This makes 1 mL of water = 1 g of water. (Temperature will change the density slightly.) Rather than acknowledge the brilliance of the French, the patriotic English redefined their gallon as an Imperial gallon, based on the volume of ten pounds of water, but slightly adjusting the oddball quarts, pints and ounces. And rather than follow the English, George Washington asked Thomas Jefferson to devise an American system, but his proposals were rejected by Congress, and the Americans wound up keeping England’s old wine gallon, now obsolete in its homeland. This splintering of measurement systems is the reason that there are so many different cup measurements listed on the Wikipedia entry.
The US fluid ounce (29.5735 mL) is larger than the imperial fluid ounce (28.4131 mL). But the imperial pint (20 imperial fl. oz.) is significantly larger than the U.S. pint (16 US fl. oz.). The imperial cup (284mL) is not really used anywhere in the world anymore. And the metric cup, pretty much only used in Australia and New Zealand, is a bizarro hybrid concept that measures 250 mL. (Abandon all hope, ye who enter here! For more about the completely convoluted volume measurement system, I highly recommend the “Measure” chapter from Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork; be prepared for some pretty harsh burns against Fannie Farmer.)
Once you start digging into the history of the measuring cup, it’s hard to believe we still use them today. Recipes for almost every other country (perhaps excluding our fellow metric holdouts Liberia and Myanmar) list ingredients in grams and deciliters or milliliters instead of cups.
Liquid measuring cups with both milliliters and US cups will still be useful when we switch over to metrics, though right-handed folks may find them less convenient than southpaws given that metric measurements are almost always on the back of the cup.
“Yet the frontier mentality cannot entirely account for America’s wholesale adoption of the measuring cup. The evidence from cookbooks is that the measuring cups were being viewed not as an inferior substitute for scales, but as better than them.”
Tipping the Balance for Kitchen Scales, The New York Times, September 13, 2011,“Ms. Perelman and other cooks who’ve taken to using scales say that over time, they begin to pick up the weight-volume conversions of common ingredients whose weight barely varies. This lets you use a scale even for recipes that don’t specify weights. If you know that a cup of sugar is about 200 grams, why bother reaching for the cup?"
Measuring, King Arthur Flour
100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time (page 162-164),“One Saturday, Fannie Farmer attended a lecture by famed female intellectual Catherine Beecher, who talked about the need to ‘professionalize work in the home; and to ‘make it scientific’ just as men had professionalized work in the factory and made it scientific. Fannie felt that Beecher spoke directly to her.”
Lifetime Measuring Cups, The Kitchn,
Design Alert: Classic Glass Measuring Cup Makeover, Good Housekeeping, April 11, 2010,
Pyrex Glass Measuring Cups, Saveur, December 21, 2009,
Lifetime Measuring Cups, Apartment Therapy, November 25, 2011
100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time, 2006,"Remarkably, no one has altered or improved upon any of Fannie Farmer's units of measure in over 125 years. They are still the basis for all of our cooking and for our calculation of serving sizes and nutritional content."