How to Bake Like an American: 10 Tips for Brits

(AP Images)

You can have a lot of fun playing around with cupcake combinations. (AP Images)

Perhaps you were known as the Muffin Queen back at your old British job. But when you pry open your Tupperware in your new American office, are your colleagues noticeably unimpressed? Maybe you need to start baking like a native.

Stock up on vanilla
Virtually every U.S. recipe for sweet baked goods calls for what cautious British bakers would consider way too much vanilla flavoring. An average batch of 12 cupcakes, for instance, might contain up to two teaspoons of the brown, sickly-smelling essence. But leave it out and your end product, while edible, will be lacking a certain American authenticity.

Cupcakes are just fairy cakes without wings
Remember the sweet little spongy mounds you used to bake in paper cases then sell for 10p a pop at school? You’d slice off the little peak, blob on some icing and then reattach the halved cake cap as wings. An American-style cupcake is very similar, so not something you should fear baking up. However, they’re usually a bit bigger and more professional-looking than a fairy cake. And the feel is slightly different: velvety soft sponge, as compared to the more rubble-textured, crumbly British version. Okay, maybe you need to be a little bit scared.

There are secret ingredients (usually applesauce or buttermilk)
A lot of American bakers keep the finished product, from pancakes and muffins to this ridiculously good pear and chocolate tea bread, moist and soft with these magic ingredients.

More is more
British baking is lo-fi compared to how it is in the U.S. Our scones and Victoria sponge, if done properly, are wonderful beacons of British baking simplicity. Here, things are a little more imaginative, with the triple chocolate, fruit, vanilla, the frosting and whatever it is that makes a red velvet cake blood red. (Hint: not blood. Probably.) Ramming every delicious ingredient you can find into the same cake is not considered unusual or weird in the U.S.

Making and applying frosting is its own art form
Back in the motherland, icing a cake involves little more than beating some of what Americans call powdered sugar into butter. Or—even simpler—adding icing sugar to water with perhaps a dash of food coloring. Not so in the U.S. There are all kinds of frosting methods, and as many recipes for this delicious gloop as there are for the cakes whose layers it’ll eventually sandwich together. And when you’ve mixed a bowl of, say, double chocolate, butter and vanilla bean frosting, you can’t just slap it on with a butter knife. Oh no. At the very least, it needs to be piped through a jagged nozzle to form a pleated swirl.

Baked goods aren’t necessarily made from scratch
As elaborate and over-the-top as American bakers can be, they’re also not shy to buy pre-made pie shells, cake mix and pureed pumpkin. They’re actually not too bad and can save a rushed cook literally minutes of bother.

Get some cups
Most American recipes will give measurements in cups. Instead of fighting it and faffing around with conversion charts, just buy a cheap set from the supermarket. I’ve heard a lot of Brits complain about the inaccuracy of this method, and they probably have a point. Here’s how to minimize the problem: unless otherwise specified, lightly spoon or scoop your ingredient into your cup, then run a knife across the top to level it off. A good recipe will specify if you’re supposed to compact it down.

Learn the different types of flour
Flour, unfortunately, is not the same in every country—neither in name or composition. Protein content, for instance, varies depending on where the wheat was grown and how it was processed. That said, American all-purpose flour is, loosely speaking, the same as British plain flour. Cake flour is the one that really flummoxes Brits who assume (at least, I assumed…) it’s self-raising flour. It’s not. If that’s what you’re after, look for self-RISING flour. Cake flour is just a finer milled plain (all-purpose) flour. Also, you will not, however hard you look, find whole-wheat (i.e. wholemeal) self-raising flour in the U.S. For this, you’ll need to make your own by adding in the appropriate amount of baking powder.

Don’t mistake Fahrenheit for Celsius
Confusingly, Americans still use Fahrenheit whereas Europe has gone over to centigrade. Bake cookies on 325 degrees Celsius, and you’ll know you’ve made a mistake when the smoke alarm goes off mere seconds after your dough went in the oven. (Click here for conversions.)

A scone is not a scone, and biscuits aren’t biscuits
Americans may use some of our words to refer to their baked goods, but don’t be fooled. Over here, scones are delicious—usually fruity—triangles and will not benefit in any sense from the addition of jam and clotted cream. Biscuits, meanwhile, are more like what we know as scones. So be careful when you’re trawling the internet for recipes.

Join @MindtheGap_BBCA on Twitter Wednesday, March 19 at 2 pm ET for a #MindTheChat on your favorite BRITISH recipes. Tweet links to your favorite dishes using the hashtag #MindTheChat.

Are you a domestic god/goddess in the kitchen? 

See More: 
5 British Food Items You Won’t Find in Major U.S. Grocery Stores
7 British Food Habits Americans Will Never Understand
6 American Food Habits Brits Will Never Understand

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.

See more posts by Ruth Margolis
  • kasey413

    I have never had a recipe for 12 cupcakes that called for 2 teaspoons of vanilla. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever made a cake (the equivalent of 24 cupcakes/muffins) with more than 1 teaspoon. And no imitation vanilla, please. It’s made from wood. The real stuff will be beans steeped in alcohol. Yum.

    The red color for the red velvet cake is red food coloring. A whole tiny bottle of it. Basically it’s just a chocolate cake (with 1 teaspoon of vanilla) with cream cheese icing. It just happens to look red on the inside. Lots of fun if you want to make, say, an armadillo shaped cake. Cutting into a dark red cake in the shape of an animal = loads of fun.

    Fruit in cakes? I think there are plenty of those on the isles, too, aren’t there? That raisin/date/dried fruit thing served at weddings comes to mind.

  • Andi

    I have never heard of anyone objecting to the use of vanilla in baked goods. If the author’s vanilla has a “sickly-smelling essence” then she must be using very cheap, or worse yet, imitation vanilla which no decent baker would ever consider touching. Pure vanilla extract has a very pleasant aroma.

    • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

      It is purely a matter of conditioning. If you’re not used to a lot of very strong curry in your food, you are going to think it’s a “strong” curry where someone who’s been eating it a lot, thinks of it as “mild”.
      Similarly, in countries that don’t use a lot of extra smell and flavoring (like vanilla and cinnamon) such as the UK,then yes, people (like the audience of this site – Brits in America) are going to find the scent and the flavor rather unfamiliar.
      There is no judgement so please don’t be so defensive, it’s just a fact.

    • Deidre Jordan Padrona

      Or do as I do and make your own! 3 vanilla pods, carved and scraped into a large bottle of Captain Morgans Spiced Rum, wait 30 days in a cool, dark place and VOILA! Extract!

  • MontanaRed

    I second kasey413′s and Andi’s comments regarding vanilla flavoring.

    Now, about the canned pumpkin purée saving “literally minutes of bother”: Last Thanksgiving, I decided to make the obligatory pumpkin pie completely from scratch, including the purée made from (organic, no less) pie pumpkins (which are small and sweet). WHAT a hassle and waste of time! Didn’t improve the flavor noticeably and added hours to the process. Won’t do that again anytime soon!

    All the other cautions of which Ruth writes are very good to keep in mind. The British/American variations on the vocabulary of baked goods is particularly tricky to navigate, I think.

    • Karen Frenchy

      haha! I made my first pumpkin pie from scratch this last Thanksgiving to “impress” my husband (American)… it was such a pain to make but I loved the whole process (thank God my husband took care of the children whilst I spent the whole morning preparing it) However, do not ask me to make another one anytime soon… once a year in perfect (and enough) for me.

      For me, the ingredient that kills every baked goods is cinnamon. It is every pastries, cakes, desserts and even candied sweet potatoes (in my husband family)

      • MontanaRed

        Try nutmeg instead of cinnamon in the sweet potatoes. It’s my favorite addition for that dish.

        • Karen Frenchy

          Thanks! I indeed use nutmeg instead of cinnamon :) (cakes, biscuits – European ones, crepes, purees etc…). Good, now I am hungy!

      • maggie

        I made mine from scratch when we lived in Alabama and I grew my own pumpkins. Wasn’t too much of a pain except I had so many pumpkins I was giving them away to neighbours.

  • dw

    Congratulations in finding time to bake with a one-year-old child!

  • Tracy Palma

    Yeah hi, American pastry student here. You don’t HAVE to make your scones in a triangle shape, you know. Just plop them on your baking sheet and then you can cut them open when they’re done and put whatever you want on them. And red velvet cake is more than just “chocolate cake with food coloring.” Actually, the amount of cocoa in a red velvet cake is considerably less than in a traditional chocolate cake. It also contains buttermilk and a small amount of white vinegar. It really isn’t that chocolatey at all. And while you can use a 1 oz bottle of red food coloring, most major craft stores now carry LorAnn Oil’s Red Velvet Emulsion. It gives the cake its red color and enhances the flavor. Also, if you’re really interested in doing some baking in the States, investing in a good baking book is a good idea. It should offer the recipes in metric as well as imperial measurements and offer techniques for making specific things. King Arthur Flour has some great books out there. Two more things–don’t try and look for caster sugar, because you probably won’t find it. Superfine sugar, sold in small boxes, makes for a good substitute. And if you’re into using “sugar paste”, then you’re going to want look for fondant, because that’s what it’s called here lol.

    • EscapeZeppelin

      Oddly enough I’m American and I don’t think I’ve ever seen scones cut into triangles.

      • maggie

        that is how Starbucks serves them, or at least they used to and at my church they do.

  • maggie

    What is wrong with continuing to bake like a Brit. I use my Bero recipe books and handme downs from my mum and grand mother. The latter’s recipes I am tring to update as it is a pinch of this etc. But I’ve promised to do it for my daughter and my nieces back home.

    • Karen Frenchy

      Nothing wrong with continuing to bake like a Brit (or a French in my case) but I had the feeling the author was giving tips to cook/bake like an American, or American dishes.

      • Deidre Jordan Padrona

        I desperately wish that they wouldn’t offer such suggestions. Baking as a Brit, French or any of our classic heritage is FAR more important in my thinking … I’ve my Grans Bero and my Mum’s Joy of Cooking from the 50s …

        • B J Brickhouse

          The Joy of Cooking is an American cookbook.

        • Karen Frenchy

          Whilst keeping our heritage through cooking is important, I think trying to cook as an American is also important for me, especially since my children have 2 cultures (and my husband might cook 4 times a year haha). Actually any American dish I make end up with a French twist ;)

          • maggie

            When our daughter was in elementary school I was asked to take British scones/cakes to school for parties. At church I introduced them to our fruit cakes (Christmas) at first people said ugh fruit cake but once they tried them they loved them the plates were soon empty and I had been hoping for leftovers to take back home :)

          • BlueCanaryInTheOutlet

            Your family is lucky! ;)

  • scootergirl

    It’s like anything else a woman does… she creates and designs and imagines stuff in her happy little home… at the same time.. you keep your family tradition… Thing is… as a woman you don’t give up once you get married or shack up or just move on your own… you try to improve on stuff… isn’t that cute?…

  • Lee Greene

    Can I recommend everyone try my Heirloom Fruit Curds – they are the best of both worlds! The classic British recipe (real organic eggs & butter, not water & pectin!), but instead of lemon juice we use native American, wild foraged fruits! We have Lingonberry (from Alaska), Huckleberry (from WA) and the Paw Paw (a tropical tasting fruit that grows from MI to VA). You can find them in the jam section of every Whole Foods Market and online! Oh, and did I mention we are a very small business and we thank you for your support! http://scrumptiouspantry.com/heirloom-fruit-curds-preserves/

  • luigie

    If you ask for a biscuit in England, won’t you get what in America is called a cookie?