In recipes and cooking, how big is a cup?

How big is a cup? (Photo by aka*kirara - CC-BY)

Most modern recipes measure liquids in milliliters (ml) and solids in grams (g), apart from in the United States where ounces (oz) and fluid ounces (fl. oz) are still used. But many traditional recipes measure solids and liquids in cups. Presumably not 65 milliliter espresso cups, nor those 44-oz monsters used by Texan truck drivers. So how big is a culinary cup?

The standard US cup has a volume of half a US pint. That’s eight fluid ounces, or 237 ml. For convenience, this is often regarded as being 240 ml, and indeed the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) deems these approximate measures to be the true ones:

For nutrition labeling purposes, a teaspoon means 5 milliliters (mL), a tablespoon means 15 mL, a cup means 240 mL, 1 fl oz means 30 mL, and 1 oz in weight means 28 g

A British pint is 20 fluid ounces, and a British cup was occasionally used to mean half a British pint, or 10 fluid ounces. That would be 296 ml (or 300 ml for convenience).

The Australian government obviously didn’t receive the FDA memo, for they have defined the “metric cup” to be 250 ml. Nor did the Japanese, who use a 200 ml cup. The Canadians, New Zealanders and South Africans have sided with the Australians and use a 250 ml cup (although Australia sides with the Americans by using a 15ml tablespoon rather than the 20ml Australian tablespoon, but that’s another story).

As for those espresso cups and Texan cups, Wikipedia has nailed it when they warn that “cup sizes in recipes are not necessarily the same as customary serving sizes for beverages”. Can’t argue with that!

Finally, Greg Lehey has looked into all aspects of cooking measurements and felt compelled to include this warning from Deuteronomy 25:14: “you must not keep in your house two different measures, one large and one small”. So find the cup you like, and stick with it.

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