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.

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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