A British Expat’s Guide to Cooking in the U.S.


Measuring cups come in different sizes in the U.S. (Anthropologie.com)

I quite often tell Brits in America to keep a dictionary handy, and never more so than when cooking. Seriously, a recipe that tells you to grill something means stick it on the backyard BBQ, and an instruction to broil means to place it in the oven under what we would call the grill. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg (which fortunately, is the name of the lettuce on either side of the Pond).

Ingredients often have different names here. Although the list is never-ending, some of the more common differences are:
Cooking in US There are also some food names that are specific to different regions such as catsup, which is often used in the south instead of ketchup. Some southern recipe books, particularly those of old family recipes, will also call for oleo; this is an older term for an oil-based butter substitute such as margarine.

Some British food terms will leave Americans baffled: asking how many rashers (of bacon) someone wants for breakfast for example, will leave no clue to your meaning. Other words are almost the same and, after a few years, you may not remember which is which. British toffee is often called taffy, fish fingers are fish sticks, and cornflour is cornstarch. And then there are the words that just sound plain silly, caramel is often pronounced carmel, like this.

Once you’ve got your ingredients sorted out, you’ll need to measure them. The U.S. continues to eschew all things metric so you’ll find most recipes in pounds and ounces. (I know.) If you have hauled British recipe books over here, all is not lost, there are many conversion web sites out there to help avoid culinary disasters. (Just adapt that old carpentry adage – “Measure twice, cut once.”) One of the biggest conundrums for Brits is the ubiquitous cup measurement. This doesn’t mean any old cup from your cabinet; it’s a specific measurement of volume rather than weight, meaning that a cup of flour and a cup of milk will fill the same measuring vessel. You can buy cup measures anywhere that sells cookery or houseware items. Butter is often listed in sticks (weighing a quarter of a pound), and in most cases, that’s how it’s sold. Fortunately, on the side of the sticks of butter are smaller measurements, broken down into 8 tablespoonfuls and their cup equivalency.

When you’re ready to put anything in the oven, you won’t find a Gas Mark number, even if you’re cooking with gas. Most ovens and recipes use degrees Fahrenheit, and again, you’ll find quick converters on the Internet. If you’re cooking on top of the stove you might find yourself looking for a skillet, which is another term for a frying pan. A cookie sheet is simply a flat baking tray and can be used even if you’re not baking cookies, I mean biscuits. Once cooked, you could be told to cover something in Saran Wrap, which might sound like something you’d wear on the beach but is in fact, cling film.

Oh, and prepare to be sorely disappointed with the aforementioned Saran Wrap. It doesn’t cling very well, the proof of this being that they’ve had to come out with a version that is sticky on one side, and elasticated bowl covers that look like hotel shower caps.

Little quiz for older Expat Brits, who was the rather beautiful and sophisticated actress who advertised the qualities of cling film by covering a jug of liquid and turning it upside down above her head? Answers on a postcard please.


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • http://davidmcdougall.org/ Dave McDougall

    I think you mean “aubergine” for eggplant!

    • expatmum

      Ha ha ha ha. American spellcheck!

  • gn

    Cooking aborigines? That’s not kosher!

    • expatmum

      Phew – editor to the rescue. Funny though.

  • http://christinascucina.com/ Christina’s Cucina

    I rocked the boat a bit with my “British Apple Pie” post. Many Americans said, “There’s a British Apple Pie?” Seriously. http://www.christinascucina.com/2013/05/my-favorite-british-apple-pie.html

  • Kevin Mc

    Coriander is a spice made from the seeds of cilantro, they are not interchangable.

    • John Tebbutt

      In the UK the leaves/plant are sold as coriander. “Cilantro” originates from the plant’s use in S.America while “coriander” comes from its use in S.Asia.

  • Mort

    Cilantro is the leaf while Coriander is the seed.

    • Megadeal

      In the US. Not in the UK.
      As John Tebbutt stated, “In the UK the leaves/plant are sold as coriander. “Cilantro” originates from the plant’s use in S.America while “coriander” comes from its use in S.Asia.”

  • Julie

    Actually, technically, a cup of flour and a cup of milk are not the same. One uses a dry measure for the flour and a liquid measure for the milk. Most of us don’t really bother differentiating, however.

  • John Tebbutt

    Granola and muesli are really NOT the same. Granola is cheap grains and a few raisins glued into irregular lumps with masses of high fructose corn syrup.
    Muesli, on the other hand, is a loose mix of oats, nuts, various dried fruits and maybe a little sugar with some crunchy elements similar to corn flakes.

    Secret: on a cold winter’s day, pour out your muesli, cover it with milk and heat it in the microwave for a delicious, rich winter porridge!

  • Chris

    Actually, muesli is still muesli here, it’s just that most people eat granola, which is a toasted muesli.

  • jb

    The elasticated bowl covers are nothing new they are just making a comeback. I am 68 y.o. and that is what my mother used to cover things to put in the fridge before the advent of saran wrap (or cling wrap, if you will).

  • comics360

    FINALLY! I’ve been trying to find out for YEARS what this “Rocket” stuff that Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver keep talking about…! (I always thought it was microgreens or some other mix…)

  • Patty123

    You missed out swede, known in the US as rutabaga or wax turnip.

    • Merry Bond

      I wondered what swede was…

  • Roberta

    We were in London for my husband’s professional society meeting. Every where on the menus was “rocket” so one of our friends asked what was it. The waiter kindly brought us a small bowl with some in it. She looked at it and “Shucks, that’s dandelion greens. I didn’t come to London to eat Southern weeds!” I did have a small salad at the National Museum of Art that had what looked like dandelions including the flowers. Just couldn’t eat it.

  • jh

    Toffee and taffy are not really different names for the same thing. Taffy is similar to soft toffee in that it’s chewy, but it’s usually fruit flavored and has a stringier and lighter consistency.