Whether you're an American expat in the UK or just interested in different ingredients in different countries, this post will help you with your US to UK baking conversion. Suggestions for some basic ingredient substitutes to translate your recipes across the Atlantic and a quick reference guide to dealing with a few different common conventions in baking.
Expat Recipe Conversion
So converting recipes between two countries can be a bit of a minefield. Between the US and UK, there are some major differences to cope with, starting simply with ingredient names! Not to mention measurement conventions and the nature of appliances varying across the Atlantic.
When I first arrived in Britain in 2006, I had no idea how different the grocery store would be! It didn't help that I moved to a tiny Scottish town, which only had a small convenience store at the time.
While access to American (or at least American-style) products has become much more widespread over the years, the notes I've compiled are helpful for converting your recipes between the two and coming to grips with some key differences.
This post will cover the four main ingredients in baking: butter, sugar, eggs and flour, plus offer my staple conversions in a table for reference.
UK Butter versus US Butter
You might think that butter is butter. Yes, that is essentially true for our present purposes.
Both the US and UK have two main types of butter - salted and unsalted. Bakers will know that unsalted is often the preferred ingredient for a recipe and this is broadly available either side of the pond.
But, if you're an American baker, particularly using family recipes, you'll usually encounter recipes calling for measurements of butter in tablespoon increments or in sticks. This is because American butter comes in sticks. Each stick is 8 tablespoons, wrapped with handy little markers indicating the tablespoons.
In Britain, butter comes in blocks. These are usually 250 grams and marked off in 25 gram increments.
When I first moved to the UK, I assumed that 1 block of British butter equalled 2 sticks of American - they looked like similar sizes. This was not an entirely accurate equivalence and, while many recipes will work out, I did notice that certain baking didn't quite translate the way I expected. Cookies spread more, cakes took longer to bake and pastry crusts often didn't want to hold shape.
I soon realised that 1 cup (16 tablespoons, or 2 sticks) of American butter = 220 grams of British butter. This is slightly less than the full block.
UK Sugar versus US Sugar
For the most part differences in sugar between the two countries is mainly down to the terminology used and understanding what you are looking for in the product.
Standard White Sugar
In the US, I was used to using superfine granulated sugar for my baking. It was just the standard type to buy. When I came to the UK, I quickly discovered significantly more sugar options than I was accustomed to in my local grocery store!
Granulated sugar in Britain is actually a larger granule than the American superfine, which made for interestingly gritty first bakes in the UK...
The lesson learned: for standard baking sugar, in Britain you want caster sugar to equal American superfine granulated.
Packable Brown Sugar
Many of my favourite American recipes call for brown sugar. Growing up in the Baltimore area, brown sugar meant Domino brand, which has a refinery in the Inner Harbour area. It was packable and molasses-y and probably my favourite part of any baking (because my mom let me have a spoonful whenever we used it!).
When I first got to the UK, I couldn't find a replacement. Buying conventional brown sugar was a loose sugar, that couldn't be packed. This was more reminiscent of the texture of the caster or granulated sugar than what I was looking for.
It took a couple of years and a few care packages of Dominos before I realised that there was a readily available British equivalent.
If you are looking for a replacement for packable brown sugar (especially for recipes such as crisp toppings or chocolate chip cookies) the British equivalent is brown muscovado, which is available in light or dark varieties.
Of sugar products, the third most commonly used in my baking is without a doubt powdered sugar. It is absolutely vital to most of my cakes, since American buttercream frosting is by far my favourite dessert. Did I just say frosting was a dessert alone...oops!
In the US, we would refer to this sugar as either powdered or confectioners sugar. This is one of the terminology divides where I completely agree with the British. Here in the UK, it is simply called icing sugar. Given that I basically only use it for icing, it suits me perfectly!
UK Eggs versus US Eggs
Eggs are one of those things, a bit like butter, where its not really a difference in the product and certainly not a difference in the terms. But, there is certainly a major bridge to cross in expectations between the two countries.
If you're in the US, you're likely used to eggs being widely available in white or brown. These are found in the chilled section of a supermarket.
In Britain, many Americans find it a culture shock to see eggs on the shelf in the baking aisle. These are unchilled and most likely only available in brown. I've been in the UK many years and have occasionally found white eggs. They are rare in the supermarket and best found from local farmshops.
British and most European eggs are not chilled because of the way these are farmed and processed to the shelf. In the US, eggs are generally sprayed with a chemical for sanitising these against salmonella. Eggs in Europe (including the UK) are unwashed.
European egg production favours free range egg laying. This means that the washing process is in fact a risk to salmonella contamination. The British Lion Egg scheme is a food safety protocol ensuring safe processing of eggs to avoid salmonella, without the chemical wash. These therefore don't need refrigeration, though keeping them chilled at home may extend their shelf life.
UK Flour versus US Flour
So, I'm sticking to the basics of my baking repertoire in this post. There is a lot to unpack in terms of flour - white flour, wheat flour, rice flour. I'll only focus on two types of conventional baking flour and their general substitutions: American all-purpose and cake flour.
All Purpose Flour in the UK
In the US, most baking recipes will call for all purpose flour. Handily the clue is in the name - it can suit most purposes well!
Usually in the UK, you can simply substitute what the British refer to as plain flour, but technically speaking these are not the same products.
If you are translating a US recipe for pastry or bread to UK ingredients, you will often want to incorporate a bit of strong white bread flour. This is because the gluten in all-purpose flour is stronger than in British plain flour. Recipes that do well with more gluten benefit from the extra help of using some bread flour.
I usually accomplish this in a simple ratio - using three quarters plain flour and one quarter strong bread flour when substituting American all-purpose. This can vary dependent on outcomes desired, but this works well when making breads or crusts.
Cake Flour in the UK
Cake flour simply isn't a thing in Britain. You can occasionally find it in specialty stores or import markets.
Generally this isn't an issue, since most American recipes calling for cake flour will work fine substituting plain flour. If you want to make cake flour specifically - which you may find you need for particularly light cakes (such as Angel food cake or a Jelly Roll recipe) this is easily made by a combination of plain flour and cornflour (also known as cornstarch).
This conversion is 1 cup of cake flour = ¾ cup plain flour + 2 tablespoons cornflour/cornstarch.
Table of Common US to UK Baking Conversion for Reference
|US Measurement||UK Substitution (and weight)|
|1 cup (16 tablespoons or 2 sticks) butter||220 grams butter|
|1 cup caster sugar (or superfine granulated sugar)||200 grams caster sugar|
|1 cup all purpose flour (levelled)||145 grams plain flour|
|1 teaspoon baking soda||5 grams bicarbonate soda|
|1 teaspoon baking powder||3 grams baking powder|
|1 teaspoon salt||7 grams salt|
|1 cup brown sugar (firmly packed)||235 grams brown muscovado sugar (firmly packed)|
|1 tablespoon cocoa powder (levelled)||6 grams cocoa powder|
|1 teaspoon vanilla extract||5 mL vanilla extract|
Other Helpful Baking Tips:
- Easy Stabilized Whipped Cream
- Homemade Buttermilk Substitutions
- All-Butter Pie Crust Plus Tips on UK to UK Ovens
- Weights versus Cup Measures