Interpreting Measures

One has to be careful about deciphering the old recipes when it comes to measuring ingredients. It’s often not as easy as pulling the calculator out of the bill drawer and doing some simple arithmetic. It’s a common mistake to assume that the kitchen nomenclature of the 18th century is the same we use today.

If you’ve earnestly searched through some of the old cookbooks, you’ve probably concluded the typical recipe presents more of a general idea or concept than it does a formula. In contrast, modern cookbooks are usually written to guarantee consistent results. The more fastidious TV chefs (and I’m not knocking any of them — I happen to be an Alton Brown fan) will weigh ingredients, e.g., flour, rather than use a measuring cup. The goal is reliability and consistency.

Speaking in general of our western society, we’ve come to expect consistency in our foods. This is not a bad thing necessarily. Large multi-billion dollar food corporations, however, lead the way as they built their brands around the idea that you can expect to eat the same burger whether you live in Old Town, Maine, or Eureka, California.

In many 18th century recipes, measurements were typically less than exacting: “a bit of this,” “two spoons of that,” “as much as will lie on the head of a groat,” “a piece of butter the size of an egg.” Is that a small, medium, large, extra large, or jumbo-size egg?

How big exactly is a turkey egg?

But even when quantities of ingredients were recorded by the old masters, if you endeavour to translate their formulas into modern equivalents, you’re likely going to need more than that calculator to figure out what the recipes actually mean.

We noticed this recently while working through some of the old bread recipes. Making bread was apparently not a casual affair in the 18th century. Some of the original recipes called for a peck or so of flour. Now, I don’t have my calculator handy at the moment, but running the numbers in my head, that’s over 30 cups. That would make close to a dozen loaves of bread. This makes sense, given the amount of work and firewood required to heat an earthen oven. Home bakers of the 18th century apparently baked enough bread for the entire week.

In other recipes, the word “gallon” was used as a measurement. Now this is a good example of how nomenclature has changed through the years. If you live in the United States, you expect a gallon to hold 128 ounces of liquid. It’s a measure that was officially adopted in the early 19th century from the old “wine” or “Queen Anne” gallon. It’s volume capacity precisely holds 231 cubic inches.

But the term “gallon” in the 18th century was likely the “ale gallon,” which had a capacity of approximately 277-1/4 cubic inches — approximately 20% larger than the wine gallon. The ale gallon held precisely 10-pounds of water at 62 degree (F). This measure later morphed into the “Imperial Gallon” that is still used in Great Britain and Canada.

In addition to the wine and ale gallon, there is the corn gallon. This measure is still occasionally used today to measure grain. In the 18th century, it was also used to measure flour and bread. It’s capacity is 268.8 cubic inches, or 16% greater than the wine gallon.

Now on one hand, such precise distinctions may seem to fly in the face of the more casual, less fussbudgety recipes of old. On the other hand, if you are looking for consistency and reliability, using nearly a fifth again of flour in a bread recipe, for instance, can make a big difference in the results.

It all goes to show that there are many considerations to be taken when interpreting the past, some of which we may be completely unaware.

A book we highly recommend is Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, “with historical notes and copious annotations,” transcribed by Karen Hess. Be sure to get Hess’s version.  She does an excellent job of sorting through many of these interpretive issues. In addition, she shares her observations and opinions culled from her apparent countless hours of experimentation.

Jas. Townsend & Son offers a beautiful Copper Measuring Cup, handcrafted by our redsmith here in the U.S. It holds approximately 2 cups and is marked with dimples in 1/4-cup increments. We also frequently use our Blackjack Half-Pint Mug for measuring in our cooking videos. These are hand thrown by Master Potter Gary Nieter. Because they are handmade, they can vary slightly, but generally come close to holding 8 ounces (1 cup).

5 thoughts on “Interpreting Measures”

  1. I realize this is an old post, but I just found the blog and have a relevant question – how much is a penny pot? I made a really tasty yeasted apple fritter recipe from Gervase Markham’s The Well-Kept Kitchen, and I had to guess at how much a penny pot was – it called for that much sack to be added to the dough. My dough was really thick, so it was hard to use it to cover the apples, but it turned out fantastic. I’d love to know what the consistency should have been, though, based on how much liquid should have been added. (Great blog, by the way! I have no idea how it took me so long to find it!)

    1. Thank you for your kind words!

      A penny pot was a under-sized non-lidded tankard used by some drinking establishments in the 17th and 18th centuries for serving wines and ales. According to John Dunkin, in his 1823 book, “Oxfordshire,” a penny pot was equivalent to approximately 3/4 of a pint. The Country Life Collector’s Pocketbook, by G. Bernard Hughes, claims it was equivalent to 13 oz.

      Unfortunately, the challenge you face in determining an exact duplication in fritter batter consistency is a bit more complicated than determining the amount of liquid to be used. There are differences between modern wheat flours from those used in the 17th and 18th centuries. A good English wheat flour of the time would have held its shape when squeezed tightly in the palm of the hand. I have also found one 18th or early 19th century reference that explained that American wheat was more absorbent than English wheat and thus required additional liquid. Modern American flours are likewise very absorbent. Unless you are using heritage wheat strains, ground and bolted in a period fashion, it will be difficult to get a close duplication. To complicate the matter even more, even flours of that time period varied greatly. Occasionally, flour was made from “grown wheat” — a condition resulting from a wet harvest when the grain would actually sprout on the stalk. Many flours had adjunct ingredients. Common adulterations included chalk, lime, and burnt bones. Millers would covertly add such ingredients to increase the weight of the flour. It’s suspected that the worst offenders even added white lead. This was their way of maximizing profits that were otherwise restricted by the bread assizes established by the government. It’s good to keep in mind that most recipes from this time period were never really intended to be formulaic like modern recipes. I believe the 17th and 18th century cook would have assumed that, being quite familiar with the inconsistencies in ingredients. Modern recipes are usually written and tested to ensure optimal consistency. Recipes back then seemed to serve more as guidelines.

    2. Thank you so much for the quick and incredibly informative reply! I used far less than 12-13 oz of sherry, because I thought a penny pot might be closer to the size of what one would hold pennies in (not at all the right interpretation, I now realize), so I added a few tablespoons at first and then timidly added more until it was a consistency that could possibly be used to cover apple slices. I’ll be making the recipe again at some point, and when I do, I’ll be sure to fearlessly add at least a cup at first and guess from there. Since I’m already familiar with how good they tasted with a big misinterpretation of the recipe quantities, I’ll fearlessly proceed with the other uncertain aspects, like the flour (although I’ll happily take my flour sans lead, even if it means forgoing historical accuracy).

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