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Why Do American Recipes Use Cups?

From spoons to cups: learn the story of the origins of America’s measuring system.

So you want to know why recipes from American authors measure everything in cups and spoons, while elsewhere they use grams and milliliters?

You’re certainly not alone! It’s a question that cooks from all around the world have asked at one point or another, whose answer we’ll be exploring today.

Keep reading to find out why American recipes use cups and spoons—and why that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

Cups And Spoons Are US Customary Units

Cups and spoons are familiar terms in the United States, but did you know that their origins can be traced back to Ancient Rome?

The story of the US measurement system, known as United States customary units, is a fascinating journey through history.

The modern pound, for example, has its roots in the Roman pound, or “libra.” The libra was divided into 12 “uncia,” which is where we get the word “ounce.” However, the division of the pound into 16 ounces didn’t come from the Romans. Instead, it was established in 14th-century England.

The Saxons and Normans, early settlers of modern-day Germany and France, adopted these Roman units. Over time, these units made their way to Great Britain and the American Colonies, evolving into the United States customary units we use today.

The UK began the shift to the metric system in 1965, but it’s been a gradual process, and some imperial units are still in use there. Meanwhile, the US primarily uses its own system of measurements, the United States customary units.

Liberia and Myanmar are often cited as the only other countries that haven’t officially adopted the metric system, but the reality is more complex—with non-metric units still in use in various parts of the world.

Cups And Spoons Are Also More Convenient

Even though the rest of the world uses grams and milliliters, one could argue that cups and spoons are better for home cooking in more than one way.

Firstly, cups and spoons are units of measurement that anyone can use. While not every cook has a kitchen scale for measuring things out in grams or milliliters, everyone has cups or spoons they can use instead!

United States customary units are also efficient. Simply pour water or flour into a cup or scoop up some salt or sugar, and you can get cooking. Prepping ingredients is much quicker than with kitchen scales.

Last but not least, spoons and cups are convenient. You can easily scale up a recipe without a calculator, and, with 1 cup this and 1 cup that, following proportions is a cinch.

Do Professional Chefs Use Cups and Spoons?

But the biggest strength of the imperial system—being accurate enough while also forgiving—is also its biggest weakness. There are certain situations where cups and spoons just aren’t as precise as they need to be.

That’s why professional chefs in the United States know and use the metric system, because measuring ingredients in grams, kilograms (1,000 grams equal 1 kilogram), milliliters, and liters (1,000 milliliters equal 1 liter) is simply more precise.

So, typically, cooks in commercial kitchens and chefs in restaurants across the country tend to use the metric system, even though the US officially uses the imperial system.

How Much Is a Cup in Metric Units?

Cups are a unit of volume, and the correct units for measuring volume in the metrics system are milliliters and liters.

According to the Office of Weights and Measures at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)’s Physical Measurement Laboratory, 1 U.S. cup equals 240 milliliters, or 0.24 liters.

To convert this to grams, a measurement unit for weight, you need to know the density. Different liquids have different densities, so to get the volume in grams, you must multiply by its density (the density of water is 1, and that of other liquids can be higher or lower than 1).

How Much Is a Spoon in Metric Units?

Here’s what the Office of Weights and Measures’ conversion charts have to say about equating teaspoons and tablespoons to milliliters:

Teaspoons to millileters: 1 teaspoon (tsp) equals 4.93 milliliters (ml) of liquid. For most recipes, you can probably round that number up to 5 ml.

Tablespoons to milliliters: 1 tablespoon (tbsp) equals 14.79 milliliters (ml) of liquid. You can round that number up to 14.8 ml. Or if less precision is acceptable, simply use 15 ml.

Bottom Line

American recipes use cups and spoons because these are the measurement units commonly used in the United States.

While cups and spoons may be less precise, especially for bakers and line cooks, it’s hard to deny that they’re the most convenient measurement units for home cooking.

Now, you know the story behind their origins!

Know your author

Written by

Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained cook with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.