Delia goes metric

Delia Smith’s new book, “How to cheat at cooking”, was published on 15 February, and it is ALL METRIC! Not an ounce, pint, cup or Fahrenheit is to be found between the covers of this latest volume, targeted as it is at busy people who like cooking but don’t have time for elaborate preparation.

It is 5 years since the doyenne of tv cooks last published, and in the intervening period, Delia (or more probably her publisher) appears to have accepted that imperial conversions of every metric ingredient are no longer necessary or desirable. The only arguably non-metric measures given are teaspoons and tablespoons, but as these are now standardised at 5 ml and 15 ml respectively, this is perhaps forgivable. So, well done, Delia! (Examples of her recipes can be seen at this link).

Whether to give recipes in dual metric/imperial units (and if so, which should be primary) has been a difficult issue for publishers for many years. The argument used to be that older cooks would not understand grams and millilitres (obviously, anybody over 50 is unable to learn anything new) and in any case their kitchen scales would be imperial. Then it was argued that even younger people, despite doing “home economics” exclusively in metric at school, really prefer to use the same traditional units as their parents and grandparents. Neither argument proved to be valid – but there was a potentially more weighty argument: the American market.

As the British and the Americans (not to mention Australians, Irish and others) share a common language, it is convenient for publishers if they can produce a single edition of a book for sale in all English-speaking markets. Thus even though publishers find it economic to produce cookery books in minority languages like Danish or Slovak (population ca. 5 million in each case), they have used this argument to resist producing metric-only editions for the British/Australian market and US customary editions for the American market. (This is rather like the threadbare arguments used in the recent controversy about separate metric and US customary packaging for the EU and USA markets).

In reality the argument was always somewhat shaky. Leaving aside the separate culinary tastes and traditions of the national populations, European recipes tend to measure liquid ingredients by volume (in ml) but dry ingredients by weight (in grams) whereas American recipes tend to measure both liquid and dry ingredients by volume (hence “cups” of flour). The American pint (473 ml) is of course smaller than the imperial pint (568 ml).
Problems also arise over how to convert. If the starting point is a traditional imperial recipe, do you convert 1 lb to 450 g or round it up to 500 g? Similarly, should a pint be converted to 570 ml, or rounded up to 600 ml – or down to 500 ml? Note that too much rounding can throw out the relative proportions of ingredients – e.g. if you round dry ingredients up and liquid ingredients down, your cake may dry out and burn.

Undoubtedly, the best answer is to forget about imperial/US customary units, re-measure your recipe in the correct proportions and publish it exclusively in metric units. This appears to be what Delia has done. Congratulations!

Many celebrity cooks, women’s magazines and cookery sections of newspapers have actually preceded Delia in going metric-only. Let us hope that, with Delia’s splendid example in mind, the remaining imperial holdouts will also soon fall into line.

4 thoughts on “Delia goes metric”

  1. I have a metric cook book dated 1973. It is published by the University of Surrey, which did pioneering work in metrication of cookery. Although it has never been compulsory by law for private individuals to cook in metric, most people have adopted it, probably led by the sale of ingredients in metric quantities. It is good that a famous name like Delia has established metric cookery as the bandwagon. Nowadays practically all recipes in books, magazines, etc., are in metric – usually without imperial equivalent. It goes to show that people will readily adopt the metric system if given a suitable lead and environment.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think one reason recipes went metric only is that arbitrary rounding up and down quite simply does not work properly, (as in the article), but also that the government has had no hand in the matter.
    Unlike clothing where conversions were (I guess just recommended?) and as always created a mess of confusion. Specifically for me, collar sizes in half inch steps, rounded to the nearest 5 mm was never going to work!
    Only yesterday (28 July 2022) I received an email in response to an imperial only web site complaint with this phrase in it: – “Most UK clothing retailers and stores size using inches for menswear,
    However we do offer centre metres as a measurement on our size guide …” (sic).
    A very creative cm shows just how little understanding there still is (or is not). A total disregard to 50 -60- whatever years of metric education totally irrelevant to them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brian,

    One has to wonder where the person who responded with the use of the term “centre metres” was during his school years when measurements were taught. I would think by now that anyone who is not yet retired has been exposed to metric, either during school, in the work environment, through the media or in the market place. There is no way they can pretend not to know what a centimetre is. Misrepresenting it like he/she did has to be on purpose.

    The clothing industry has to be a complete muddle. The design and manufacture is metric behind the scenes but becomes a huge cost to both the manufacturer, the seller and the buyer when somewhere along the way when all the metric values used in production are converted over to inches and national sizing systems. There has to be a huge amount of error in the sizing and is only discovered after the product is taken home and the buyer finds it doesn’t fit right and needs to be returned.

    Years and years of having to pretend to the buying public that the product they are buying is really FFU and hiding the real metric units from the masses has had to cost everyone billions by now. Yet, no one seems to care.


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