When a Tablespoon is Something Else

Recipes are wonderful things.  A step by step guide that, when followed to a T, allows you to reach the desired outcome.

It never fails to amaze me that by following those instructions and combining specific amounts of listed ingredients, suddenly, as if one is possessed of a magic wand, those plain (and often boring ingredients) miraculously turn into culinary delights our family and friends oohing and ahhing over.

Yes, I love cooking and I grew up following recipes my mother inherited from her mother as well as recipes my father’s mother passed on to me.

Where my grandmothers got their recipes from I’ll never know, and it’s too late to ask either of them now – it’s also too late to ask my mother – but I suspect those treasured kitchen essentials were handed down from their mothers, from other relatives or friends, or perhaps they were sparkling gems found in that iconic Australian must have – the Country Women’s Association Cookbook.

And each and every one of those beloved recipes, like all recipes, call for specific measurements of the listed ingredients.

Just as you wouldn’t use plain flour instead of self-raising flour in a cake recipe, you wouldn’t add 25% less than the required quantity of butter to a recipe for puff pastry.  As for the cake, it won’t rise to the occasion no matter how long you leave it in the oven and when it comes to the pastry, there’s a huge difference between puff pastry and shortcrust pastry and it has everything to do with the amount of butter used.

I wouldn’t like sausage rolls made with shortcrust pastry.  Would you?

Lately, I have pondered long and hard over the printed information on the spoons I use to measure ingredients.

WHAT is this and who uses a 15 ml tablespoon?

When did a tablespoon equal 15 ml?

Here in Australia, the size of a tablespoon has always been 20 ml (ml = millilitre, one-thousandth of a litre).  I remember my mother teaching me the difference between a level tablespoon and a heaped tablespoon, and that unless a recipe states otherwise, a tablespoon of any dry ingredient, is always a level tablespoon.  You fill the spoon and scrape it level, removing the excess.  (This also applies to a not so dry ingredient such as butter.)

By contrast, if a recipe calls for a heaped (or rounded) tablespoon, there is no levelling required, and therefore the recipe needs the ‘heap’ of the ingredient that the spoon can hold.

These principles are called into play for the tablespoon’s humble little cousins as well – the dessert spoon and the teaspoon and either can be used to measure ingredients if a tablespoon isn’t available because one dessert spoon is 10 ml, and one teaspoon is 5 ml.

These measurements are indelibly etched in my mind.  I hardly need to think about them at all.  They were taught to me by all the women in my family who shared my kitchen or theirs as we crafted culinary delights for our families.  It’s what each one of my home economics teachers drummed into me and the measurements printed on my colourful measuring spoons contradict those lessons causing me to become so confused.

But it’s not just those spoons that have been increasing the depth of the furrows in my brow.  I love the overgrown spoons I use for measuring ingredients by the cup.  Just like the little ones, only bigger, and I was drawn to both of them in some kitchen gadget store several years ago and thought, “Oh, how lovely! Just what I need to brighten up my kitchen!”

Sadly though, by Australian standards, they aren’t correct either.

My jumbo measuring spoons

See what’s written on the handles!  When did one cup become equal to 236.64 ml?  Isn’t one cup 250 ml?

The funny thing is, I’ve been using these spoons, both large and small, since I bought them, but only recently begun to question why.

Why?  Because as I work my way through various beloved recipes, I’m noticing that sometimes something’s not quite right.  I’ve been required to add extra flour to biscuits, or throw in an extra teaspoon (or two) of butter, or that using heaped tablespoons instead of level ones produces a better end result.

And all the while, I’ve been telling myself that next time I’ll be more careful when measuring the ingredients so I ‘get it right’.

Yes, I have been so confused.  How did this happen?  Am I losing my mind, failing to remember things correctly?  Is a tablespoon in fact equal to 15 ml and not 20 ml?  Is a cup less than what I remember being taught by all those accomplished cooks?

I had to get to the bottom of this and the easiest way to do that was to I let my fingers do the walking all over Google.  I quickly discovered I wasn’t losing my mind (Phew!) and that I had remembered those lessons correctly – according to Australian standard metric measurements.

1 Australian tablespoon = 20 ml
= 2 dessert spoons
= 4 teaspoons
1 Australian cup = 250 ml

But I also discovered that New Zealand, Canada, the USA and the United Kingdom all use a 15 ml tablespoon and that cup measurements vary greatly from country to country. (Click here to read about those differences.)

I’ve not had a lot of success with various recipes I’ve found online and quite often thought the end result was terrible.

Now I know why.  Having recently found another set of colourful measuring spoons with a 20 ml tablespoon, I’ve been using this larger spoon when perhaps those recipes call for the smaller measurement.  Perhaps those recipes require a tablespoon that’s something other than what my mind believes it to be.  This is when a tablespoon literally is something else.

All my worrying and googling has made me rethink how I identify the quantity of the ingredients I list for my recipes, so from now on I’ll indicate 3 x 20 ml tablespoons, or 2½ x 250 ml cups.

At least across the world, we all agree that one teaspoon is 5 ml.

7 Replies to “When a Tablespoon is Something Else”

  1. Hashtag confusing! When in doubt i resort to scales or look for cup conversion tables in cook books – good to get to the bottom of it – thanks Clare!

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    1. I prefer using my scales also, Lucy, it is the most accurate way to measure ingredients, however, a lot of recipes don’t provide the weight measurements. All in all though, these confusing nonstandard measurements do give me food for thought. 😊

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  2. Love opening up your email’s and know I’m about to read another awesome story from Clare 🙂
    I have my old Tupperware​ measuring cups for my Australian recipe books and I have measuring cups I bought in the States for my American cookbooks so I get the measurements right 🙂 it does make a difference.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It absolutely does, and I’m about to shout myself some (new) Tupperware measuring cups if I can’t find some at an op shop soon.

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