A British cookbook primer

Nigella, Jamie, Gordon, and to some degree, Delia — these British celebrity chefs and cooks all have books that dominate shelf-space in American bookstores. Their recipes look no different from those you’d find in one of Ina’s or Martha’s cookbooks. You measure out ingredients in cups, add a tablespoon of this or that, and bake your creation at 350 degrees Fahrenheit and voila! A sticky toffee pudding fit for the Queen herself.

But say you can’t wait for Nigella’s new cookbook to show up in Des Moines, so you go order it from amazon.co.uk. You might be confused the first time you start cooking from it. There are lists of strange ingredients like aubergines, cornflour, courgettes, and what the heck is sheet gelatin? And nothing’s measured in cups! You’ll need to drag out your postal scale to measure out five ounces of “strong flour,” whatever that is. Why can’t they just tell you what it is in cups? Then it comes time to bake … if you’re lucky and were good in math in school, you can figure out what 200 degrees Celsius is in Fahrenheit, but sometimes these cookbooks will tell you to bake a cake at Gas Mark 4. Or worse, in a “moderate oven.”

A British cookbook can be slightly puzzling to an American, so here’s a primer for you. I own about 50 cookbooks from the UK and Ireland alone, and I have to say, I prefer them to American cookbooks … and not because I’m an incorrigible Anglophile. I always try to buy the original printing of a British cookbook, not the version that’s been translated for American cooks. Here’s why.

British cooks (all Europeans as well) are not as dependent on measuring utensils as Americans are. Measuring dry ingredients like flour and sugar by volume can lead to disaster, especially when you’re baking, because volume measurements aren’t as accurate as weight. Instead, Brits weigh out most everything because everyone’s got a scale tucked away in the kitchen. Indeed, they’re confused when they pick up an American cookbook and see all this “half-cup” and “two cups” business. If you buy an inexpensive digital scale that gives you weights in grams as well as ounces (most Brit cookery books give weights in grams), you’ll be 75 percent of the way to cooking nirvana — and I suspect your recipe success rate will improve dramatically. You’ll actually save time cooking with a scale because you weigh one ingredient, tare the scale, weigh the next ingredient into the same bowl, and so on. Here’s the scale I reach for most often in my kitchen, a MyWeigh 3001P.

British teaspoons and tablespoons are also different from American ones and are slightly bigger. Here’s a chart to make the conversion:

1 Brit teaspoon = 1 American teaspoon (too close to matter)
1 Brit tablespoon = 1 American tablespoon (too close to matter)
2 Brit tablespoons = 3 American tablespoons
3.5 Brit tablespoons = 4 American tablespoons (or 1/4 cup volume measure)
4 Brit tablespoons = 5 American tablespoons

There’s also some difference between British and American liquid measures, especially within older British cookbooks like Jane Grigson’s or Elizabeth David’s. You might have a recipe that tells you to add a “pint of water” to a soup, but a British Imperial pint is 20 fl. ounces while an American pint is 16 fl. oz. so adjust accordingly.

Brit recipes will include ingredients like aubergines, courgettes, swedes, and marrow. Rather than provide a long list of translations (they’re eggplant, zucchini, turnip/rutabaga, and extra-large zucchini, by the way), here’s a link with some of the most common ingredients you’ll come across. Others you can figure out with a Google search. That “strong flour”? It means bread flour, which has a higher protein content than all purpose flour (called “plain flour” in the UK). Still others are easy enough to figure out by context. For example, bicarbonate of soda = baking soda, a “knob” of butter = a pat of butter, and gelatine = gelatin.

Now this gas mark business. Many European gas stoves have a knob with numbers instead of degree markings. You want to bake a cake? You turn the knob to gas mark 4, which is about 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Older British cookbooks might not even give you a degree setting or a gas mark number, but simply tell you to bake the pudding in a “slow oven.”

Here’s a handy chart so you’ll never be puzzled about oven settings again:

225° F = 100° C or Gas Mark ¼ (Very cool)
250° F = 130° C or Gas Mark ½ (Very cool)
275° F = 140° C or Gas Mark 1 (Cool or slow)
300° F = 150° C or Gas Mark 2 (Cool or slow)
325° F = 170° C or Gas Mark 3 (Warm)
350° F = 180° C or Gas Mark 4 (Moderate)
375° F = 190° C or Gas Mark 5 (Medium hot)
400° F = 200° C or Gas Mark 6 (Fairly hot)
425° F = 220° C or Gas Mark 7 (Hot)
450° F = 230° C or Gas Mark 8 (Very hot)
475° F = 240° C or Gas Mark 9 (Very hot)

Thanks to a great exchange rate right now, you can get some awesome deals on British cookbooks you can’t buy stateside.* Nigella Christmas: Food, Family, Friends, Festivities, for example, won’t be available in Ameri-speak until November 2009, but you can have the British version for £12.50 ($18.92) from amazon.co.uk right now (plus shipping, which I find is quick and reasonably priced). Or Jamie’s Ministry of Food, which doesn’t seem to have an American publishing date, for a mere £9.75 ($14.75).

* A few dealers do import a selection of current British cookery books. Try Kitchen Arts & Letters in New York City and Rabelais Books in Portland, Maine, both shops where I’ve personally purchased British imports — they ship, too. If you stop by Kitchen Arts & Letters, purchase a copy of All You Need to Know About the British Kitchen: Names, Terms, & Measures for the American Cook by Jane Garmey. They published this slim, helpful pamphlet; I keep my dogearred copy tucked next to my English cookery books.

8 thoughts on “A British cookbook primer

  1. Pingback: Anglophile Links: Weekly Roundup | Anglotopia

  2. Carol

    Thank you so much for this helpful guide! It was just what I was looking for. I am a New Yorker visiting London, and was planning to buy a few cookbooks to bring home. At first I was intimidated by the Celsius, gas mark, and gram measurements in the books. Now I realize that I can easily convert them to units I’m used to. The link to the food translations is also useful!

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  4. Aliyah Levestam

    I hope it is ok, but I have posted a link to this on an Amazon discussion re what it means to have a British cookbook ‘Americanised.’ Because sometimes the weights and measures are left as is, even if there has been some work on the ingredient lists!
    By the way a swede (Brassica napus var. napobrassica) is only a turnip in some parts of Britian. Elsewhere turnips (Brassica rapa subsp. rapa) and swedes are distinguished. Where swedes are known as turnips, turnips are called white turnips!

  5. Louise Fair

    As a Brit (now living in America) Ican tell you our tablespoons are your dessert spoons, there is a difference between baking powder and baking soda and not knowing this can result in grossness and a turnip and swedeare very different vegetables


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