On translating British ingredients to American (and back again).
Four food writers discuss what we call the things we cook and bake with on both sides of the Atlantic.
As a study abroad student at the University of California, Los Angeles, I had to attend a seminar on how I was about to suffer a massive culture shock a few weeks after arriving in the US, ignoring how much American cultural output we consume in the UK (and vice versa) which I hoped would give me a good starting point for life in Los Angeles. It was made out to be this massive thing that would make us feel depressed and homesick, unable to cope with the world around us, but for me it never happened.
Perhaps the seminar was helpful for foreign students who did not have English as their first language, I don’t know? But what I did find myself doing for months after arriving - and sitting at my desk researching recipes I still do it today - is Googling different food words to try and figure out what on earth my American friends are talking about.
So, for a little bit of fun I figured I’d bring together some of my fellow (American) Substack Food Writers: Anne Byrn who writes Between The Layers, Jolene Handy from Time Travel Kitchen, and Kate McDermott to chew over some of the biggest differences that sometimes still baffle and amuse me.
Now, this newsletter is called ingredient, so we’ve stuck just to ingredients for this list, which, to be honest, is most likely safest. I probably don’t need to get into it with three frankly brilliant American bakers about what is wrong with those things they call scones, and try to figure out why they insist on calling a scone a biscuit!
Apple Juice - Apple Cider
Rachel: Okay, so this one really threw me when fall arrived. Because to me apple cider, or just ‘cider’ is an alcoholic drink I really don’t like because I think it tastes like gone off apple juice. But when I looked it up, I found that ‘apple cider’ is what I call apple juice. But then people post recipes for it online with a load of spices in it (which sound delicious, by the way) and when people offered it to me I never knew if what I was being given was going to be spiced or not?
Anne: I think of apple juice as thinner and filtered compared to cider, which has more flavor and is opaque. You can’t see through it. We have apple cider, which is not boozy, and something we call “cider” which is alcoholic.
Kate: I grew up drinking clear apple juice which I always found to be too sweet. I switched to the more opaque unfiltered apple juice when it started showing up in the 60s on natural food stores shelves. Regionally in the US, cideries are now popping up making artisan hard cider which is what we call the alcoholic apple cider you mention. And yes, hot spiced cider, whether alcoholic or non, is delicious.
Is boiled cider, reducing apple juice slowly until near to syrup with intensified flavour, popular in the UK? I use it in baking and on my yogurt.
Rachel: This is a thing that does not happen here. I think I’ve heard of it from the internet, but apples are apples. You eat them, bake them, juice them, or juice and ferment them. No boiling here!
But following on from all of this, the clear thin apple juice you guys are talking about sounds like the shelf stable UHT carton stuff we get. You can also get cloudy apple juice either fresh in the fridge section or from farm shops (big where I live as we’re big apple producers in this county) - that sounds more like your cider.
Kate: Even though it is called “boiled cider” there is no boiling involved at all. It’s a long slow simmer to reduce a gallon of cider or apple juice down about 80%. It takes hours but it’s worth the wait.
Aubergine - Eggplant
Anne: Near and dear to my heart. After living a year in England and my then three-year-old daughter eating “aubergine,” we return to the U.S. and one night at dinner my husband refers to it as eggplant. And my daughter got this awful look on her face, pushed back her plate, and never trusted us again…
Kate: It wasn’t until I moved to NYC to attend music school that I had my first taste of eggplant at a Greek restaurant. Now I grow it and our US seed catalogs list it as “eggplant,” although “aubergine” sounds so exotic and artistic.
Rachel: The shape sort of is like an egg. I was confused for years before I discovered food internet as the only place I’d encountered ‘eggplant’ was a scene in the Princess Diaries books (my only exposure to American culture as a pre-teen) where they drop it from a high rise apartment building window. I can’t remember why, but I can remember being so, so confused as to what an eggplant was. But this was in the days of dial up internet, so I had no way of finding the answer quickly!
Bicarbonate Soda - Baking Soda
Anne: We’re both correct. I remember old relatives referring to it as “bicarbonate.” And there were all sorts of ways to use it. Clean your teeth, some people added a pinch to vegetables to soften them (yes, it is true!) But mostly in the kitchen, so methinks American marketing dubbed it baking soda.
Jolene: Also marketed to put a fresh, open box of baking soda into refrigerators to reduce unwanted odors.
Kate: I’ve always referred to it as baking soda but have heard “bicarbonate soda” shortened to just “bicarb.” It can be used for a myriad of things in and out of the kitchen including cleaning, laundry, and apparently pool maintenance.
Rachel: In what context do you want to soften vegetables? I swear I spend half my time wanting to keep the bite in! Or are we talking things like breaking down cabbage for a savoury strudel or…?
Anne: Very old school, like early 20th Century. No one wants to do that anymore.
Back Bacon - Canadian Bacon
Rachel: I buy bacon as back or streaky, unsmoked or smoked. There are four types of bacon in my shops (sorry, stores!), so why is back bacon called Canadian Bacon? And while we’re at it, is all the bacon in America sold smoked? Because I seriously missed unsmoked bacon living there… was I just not looking in the right places?
Anne: You are right, Rachel, most American bacon is smoked, and it is what you call streaky bacon? I missed American bacon when I lived in England, to be honest. But I am from the South, and we smoke everything down here…
Rachel: Yes, so the cut of streaky bacon is the same. But as I said, you can buy it unsmoked or smoked, and the amount of smoke in it varies WILDLY if you don’t just shop at the grocery store. Supermarket smoke levels are pretty standard, but some of the stronger smoked bacon butchers sell is like American bacon.
Kate: I have absolutely no idea why back bacon is called Canadian in the US.
Black Treacle - Molasses
Jolene: Molasses is my go to, but I’ve also used Golden Syrup on occasion.
Anne: Molasses is the word, and I checked the derivation, which says Portuguese. I would think these syrups were once one in the same as the sugar plantations in the West Indes were supplying England and the Colonies with cane, which was boiled down into syrups. The lightest was what we called cane syrup, then again for what we call molasses and again for the darkest known as blackstrap molasses. It was used in gingerbread, but also to make beer! To further complicate things, sorghum was grown in the South after the Civil War as a cane substitute because the domestic sugar industry had been destroyed. Many Southerners mean sorghum syrup when they say “molasses.” Sorghum is more amber in color and really delicious.
Jolene: Anne, I love hearing this history and I love baking with Blackstrap!
Rachel: I second this! But I’ve never cooked with it - so when an American recipe says just molasses I should… use what? And can I sub in Golden Syrup instead? I do in my gingerbread men recipe?
Anne: The darkest treacle you’ve got, and if you use Golden syrup, that’s fine but they won’t be as dark in color or deep in flavor.
Kate: I’ve substituted with good results but Golden Syrup changes the flavor.
Caster Sugar - Superfine Sugar
Rachel: Is caster sugar / superfine sugar even used in American baking? I can’t remember seeing it in the grocery store or in a recipe, but again, I’m not a massive baker unlike you guys…
Jolene: Superfine sugar is available here, but I usually just make my own by putting granulated sugar in a food processor and pulsing it till it’s finer.
Anne: Ditto Jolene on the placing sugar in a food processor to pulse it until super-fine. It’s mostly used in meringues when you don’t want any sugar grit or texture. Not easy to find.
Kate: Ditto that.
Chillies - Peppers
Rachel: This one has always baffled me a little, because chillies are a type of pepper that packs a chilli heat, and bell peppers are regular cooking peppers, so why confuse things by just calling chillies peppers? Or is this me being weird and British?
Anne: Maybe it’s oversimplifying. Depending on the region of America, the recipe might call for “chilies” to go into making “chili,” note the different spelling. The latter means chili con carne, or chili with meat. Or it might call for peppers, a more generic term any type of pepper. I assume that chilies mean the peppers come with heat, versus bell peppers, which are mild.
Kate: Mild bell peppers are also called red pepper, yellow pepper, green pepper.
Rachel: Yeah, I think it is just unfamiliarity here that is making this so confusing!
Coriander - Cilantro
Jolene: Same herb! Different name!
Rachel: But, but… you don’t call them cilantro seeds, you call them coriander seeds!
Kate: Both names are on the seed packet for planting.
Corn Flour - Corn Starch
Jolene: Both are available here, but mostly I use cornstarch to thicken dishes, also to make pastry flour in a pinch if I need it. If you add two teaspoons cornstarch to a cup measure and fill the rest with flour, then sift, you can have pastry flour when you need it.
Kate: Same but I am asked about it in many classes.
Rachel: Wait… Jolene… they’re not the same thing?!
Jolene: I should have said I mostly ‘buy’ cornstarch.
Anne: There is corn flour and there is cornstarch here in US. It’s the texture that’s different and I think the milling process is different. The flour is more coarse and used as a flour in baking gluten-free but also in coatings before frying foods. Cornstarch is a starch extracted from the dried corn and finely milled. It is used in making cake flour and also in coating foods in Chinese cooking and also as a thickener.
Rachel: Okay, thanks Anne. So Cornstarch in the US is what I buy as cornflour, and corn flour is, well, different.
Courgette - Zucchini
Rachel: I find it hilarious that zucchini as a name for courgette has made it over here almost exclusively used on menus to describe zucchini fries.
Anne: What I think is funny is that as much as the Brits poke fun of the French, they have adopted their names for eggplant and zucchini!
Rachel: To be fair I think there is a lot to be said for proximity. If I pop down to my fishmongers on the beach I can literally see Calais on a clear day!
Jolene: How wonderful!
Double Cream - Heavy Cream
Anne: Don’t get me started on cream. Different cookbook editors of mine have asked me to call it heavy cream or whipping cream, and bottom line, it’s not as good as yours.
Jolene: I’m nodding in agreement, not as good as yours.
Rachel: Also worth noting double cream and whipping cream for me are different products. Though I use double cream in place of whipping cream if it is what I’ve got, so while they do have a different fat content, I don’t think the difference is worth splitting hairs over.
Kate: I’m definitely in the use-what-you-have camp.
Gherkin - Pickles
Jolene: Here I think of gherkins as the tiny cucumber pickles.
Rachel: Those we call cornichons. The ones that sometimes come from France in the same jar as little cocktail onions, right?
[Editors note: taking a few photos of the things from my kitchen to illustrate this piece I’ve found local brand Opies who I work with sells what looks and tastes like the same baby cucumber as a cornichon with onions, pickled in spirit vinegar and mustard seeds, and gherkins done with distilled malt vinegar. Google seems to give conflicting answers as to the difference in a mixture of English and American on the front page of results, so who really knows at this point?]
Jolene: Cornichons are dilled gherkins. There are sweet gherkins, I just read: “All cornichons are gherkins, but not all gherkins are cornichons 😂
And, yes, in the little glass jars.
Rachel: Though (at risk of adding another country in here) the ones you buy in the French supermarket never contain dill, just yellow mustard seeds. Maille make good ones that I can only get over there.
Granulated Sugar - Sugar
Anne: We do call it granulated if it’s used in a recipe along with powdered, which is also known as confectioners’ sugar, to differentiate. If no powdered sugar present, then editors want us to write it as simply “sugar.”
Rachel: This is making me feel very privileged that the worst ingredient related debate I’ve had with an editor was when I decided the difference between capers and nonpareille capers was the hill I was willing to die on…
Hundreds and Thousands - Sprinkles
Rachel: Sprinkles are terrible over here now as they’ve removed all the artificial colours like they’ve done with Smarties (a candy similar to M&M’s filled with chocolate but the shape of flying saucers) so they look all sad (and importing them from the US is illegal!) but even though they’re slightly less fun, Hundreds and Thousands are still really sweet as a type of sprinkle. Do you guys have them in the US? Do you even have a clue what I’m talking about?
Anne: No clue but I am willing to do a sprinkle for hundreds and thousands swap if you are. I’ll add that right now in American baking, people are talking out of both sides of their mouth. Yes, there is huge interest in natural, antique strains of flours, heritage grains that were erased and now are being brought back by farmers and millers. However, just look on Instagram and you will see sprinkles galore. You tell me?
Jolene: I’ll throw in one more term: Jimmies. I went to school in New England and that’s what they called sprinkles. Are hundreds and thousands round? Sprinkles are tiny rectangles here.
Rachel: They’re tiny and round, and have always been pale pastel colours. Like this.
Icing - Frosting
Rachel: Why are all the different types of icing just called frosting? Because I feel that frosting a cake and icing a cake are very different things to do. Or is this me being British and not a baker, therefore not spending enough time on the American baking internet?
Anne: Because the writer is lazy and doesn’t know the difference? In truth, I know the difference. An icing does just that—it “ices” the cake so that the top of the cake glistens and looks shiny. Frosting is buttercream. You spread it and can keep spreading it vs icing, which hardens. I think also there is a nostalgic quality to the word “icing,” maybe because their grandmother said it this way, so it feels good to ice a cake.
Icing Sugar - Powdered Sugar / Confectioners Sugar
Rachel: Why are there two words for this? Is it regional, or are they actually subtly different products?
Anne: No difference that I know of. Some editors will let you get away with just saying “powdered” and others will not.
Jolene: I’ve usually seen it as confectioners in recipes and ‘powdered’ when we talk about coating donuts with it.
Kate: Interchangeable. I use “confectioners'' when writing or teaching.
Jam - Jelly
Rachel: Am I right that you have both jams and jellies? Where I call any fruit preserve with a set jam, jams have seeds and bits, while jellies are clear?
Anne: Jelly is strained so it’s just the liquid that sets. Jams are mashed fruit. Preserves are pieces of fruit intentionally left whole. And then there are conserves with nuts and other oddities tossed in!
Kate: And some conserves have no oddities in them, but only fruit and sugar.
Rachel: So, Bonne Maman strawberry. The jam in an American grocery store that tastes like homemade jam to me. Is that a jam or a conserve?
Anne: It is a jam if it says jam. Preserves if there are pieces of fruit. Conserves mean something not fruit has been added, like nuts or spices. It sounds very posh, too.
Kate: Bonne Maman labels them as conserves, preserves, or spreads the later of which were in their Advent calendar but they seem rather jam-like to me. And one more thing, Bonne Maman does call it Red Currant Jelly.
Rachel: Wait, the advent calendars in the US were in English? The Bonne Maman calendar in the UK is in French and I had to translate J’s for him every morning! And Redcurrant Jelly is called Redcurrant Jelly - it’s not sold as a jam to go on toast, it’s a sweet condiment to go with lamb and venison etc. here. I’m not sure I’d enjoy it on toast… (okay maybe the one I buy would be good as it also has ruby port in it!)
Kate: Yes, they were!
Mangetout - Snow Peas
Rachel: I wish we sold mangetout as snow peas.
Anne: I don’t think Americans would have a clue about mangetout!
Jolene: Snow peas, for sure.
Natural Yogurt - Unflavoured Yogurt
Anne: I think we call it plain? Or plain, unsweetened yogurt. And cookbook writers have to mention if it’s Greek-style or not.
Jolene: Plain yogurt.
Rachel: Yeah your recipes use Greek-style yogurt way more than we do. Luckily it’s usually Fage so it is very interchangeable as we get that too (though it is sold as Total in identical tubs).
Pilchards - Sardines
Rachel: Funnily, I think here we use both. Sardines are sardines, unless they’re canned in tomato sauce then they’re pilchards in tomato sauce (which are delicious by the way spread onto toast and lightly grilled, or ‘broiled’ for my American friends - again, don’t get me start on the differences between grilling and broiling!)
Plain Flour - All Purpose Flour
Anne: Plain flour is used, more often by smaller mills. I like it. It differentiates between what you mention below…
Prawns - Shrimp
Rachel: Massively confusing because shrimp are a certain variety of tiny prawn which are brown and delicious. Hence the dish potted shrimps. And what you call Dublin Bay Prawns are langoustines. Not prawns.
Anne: Terribly confusing. Americans will pay more for anything called a “prawn.”
Rocket - Arugula
Jolene: I have a friend in Australia who every time I say I had an arugula salad, counters with : “oh, you mean rocket?”
Anne: Def arugula, although I grow “rocket” in my garden. Those seeds are usually wild arugula and pointy and very nice and sharp in flavor. (Note the no “u” in flavor.)
Rachel: I don’t know why but up there with aubergine / eggplant, rocket / arugula is one of the main ones that always comes up in ‘why Americans are wrong’ arguments.
Self Raising Flour - Self Rising Flour
Rachel: So not much of a difference here, but why does America not use self raising / self rising flour in everyday bakes? I’ve literally never seen it used in an American recipe before.
Anne: Linguistics most likely. Bread rises. You raise your hand. The bread will not raise from the leavening it the flour. It will rise.
Spaghetti - Noodles
Rachel: Noodles are noodles. As in, Asian-style noodles. Why is spaghetti pasta which is Italian sometimes called ‘spaghetti noodles’? I get why big fat Eastern European-style egg noodles which in my mind is actually pasta are called noodles, hence chicken noodle soup though you can use any pasta in that, but spaghetti? Why??
Anne: I’d say Americans today use the word “pasta” to describe spaghetti more than noodles. Or they say spaghetti when they mean that shape of pasta.
Jolene: My brother owns an Italian restaurant and pasta bar and as Anne says, ‘pasta’ is used now, and spaghetti is the shape.
Rachel: This pleases me to hear. Because the referral to Italian-style pasta as noodles is one of those things that cause me stress in an internet exclusive, non real life kind of way.
Spring Onions - Scallion / Spring Onion
Rachel: I thought these were the same thing for so long, but it was only once I’d read Kate Winslow and Guy Ambrosino’s brilliant book Onions Etcetera (I have a spare as-new copy of this and it is out of print so if anyone wants to buy it email me!) did I realise it is a matter of size, and when they’re harvested, and therefore can have subtly different uses. I think they’re actually all the same across countries, and we just all often label them wrong. Or am I still confused?
Anne: I’m confused too. We call them green onions. But I had an editor who rewrote all my green onions as scallions. They’re labeled green onions at the grocery, fyi.
Rachel: Putting my kitchen gardeners hat on for a moment, they’ve got to be different as my spring onion seeds are onion seeds but what grows is a bit different from the young ‘green onions; I pull and thin from my regular onion and shallot rows. I’ll consult the book again…
Jolene: Spring onions have a bulb at the base but I’ve used all interchangeably.
Kate: My gardener's hat is on now, too. At the nursery, spring onions for planting are called sets. I don’t use them in the kitchen but only for planting. I will thin my plantings (especially if done by seed) and use the thinnings as scallions… or green onions. The response to a reader’s question here may be useful. And this from a seed company.
Rachel: That seed company page introduces yet another name - bunching onions!
I’m going to include photos from Onions Etcetera (an American cookbook, we must note) because I think they’re going to be helpful. Apparently green onions are scallions, also called Welsh onions and they look like what I call spring onions. And spring onions look ‘like scallions on steroids.’ So that’s the American answer. Because I have both the thin ones and the fat ones in my fridge right now, I just checked as they both came from the store not the market (look at me using the American words for things), and they have identical labels that both say spring onions…!
Kate: I’ve added this one here as I’m asked about it. My understanding is that it is bread flour with a higher protein %. When I was guest teaching in a baking program in the UK, strong and plain were the flours available to me for American style pie making. I chose the plain.
Anne: I love the British! Strong flour. Why can’t plain flour be called soft flour then? There’s nothing really plain about a flour that goes into your scones or sponge.
Rachel: A baking topic as a bread maker not a cake maker I can tackle! Strong and bread are pretty interchangeable at a regular grocery store / popular cookbook level called for when making bread, pizza bases etc. It is only when you get down to specialist flours this matters in the way it would matter pretty much anywhere, for example the T55 I use for my baguettes is a strong bread flour but makes a really dry pizza, though if you asked a supermarket to sell it they’d stick a strong not plain label on it. Plain was the right call, strong makes tough pastry so I assume also a pie crust.
Stock - Broth
Rachel: To me broth is soup, and stock is either bouillon or homemade stock. But I actually never purchased grocery store cartons of broth, and they look a bit heavier and cloudier than store bought stocks over here. What makes a broth a broth not a stock?
Anne: I think we use those words interchangeably. And most people don’t know the difference and have never made a homemade stock. The word “brothy” is having such a moment that perhaps writers are calling for broth to make us feel good. Your assessment is correct.
Jolene: Stock is made with bones and used for cooking, but you can sip broth as a soup.
Streaky Bacon - Bacon
Rachel: Again, who decided that only one type of bacon got to be called ‘bacon’ in the US?!
Anne: I’m learning more every day that people use what they have. That might have been the only bacon we had access to, so it’s the one we know. Some clever pork processor figured out they could remove the lean loin part and sell it for more money. Maybe there is really is a Canadian connection - or, since the Canadians cook a lot like the Brits, and they are forever comparing themselves to Americans, maybe they wanted their own bacon?
Sweetcorn - Corn
Anne: There has been a bit of a corn renaissance here, thanks to farmers and gardeners. Corn that is freshly harvested and also bred for sweetness will be labeled “sweet corn.” I think of white Silver Queen corn when I think of sweet corn.
Toffee - Taffy
Rachel: This ‘translation’ is one I found on Google. Is it correct? So is the ‘salt water taffy’ they sell by the waterfront in San Francisco is basically salted caramel-style toffees?
Anne: Two different animals. Toffee is crunchy, and we often call it English Toffee. It is the recipe we make every Christmas. Taffy, on the other hand, is the dreadful pulled candy you find at state fairs and tourist towns. And yes, it was popularized by the water, thus in San Francisco and also Atlantic City.
Jolene: We used to eat it as kids, it was always popular at Coney Island and Jones Beach in New York.
Kate: I loved watching salt water taffy pulled when I was a little girl. I think we tried making it once at home… it may have turned out to be a mess.
Tomato Puree - Tomato Paste
Rachel: I’m still not sure about the rights and wrongs of this one. I’m used to tubes of tomato puree which come from Italy which are either double or triple concentrate, but then I arrived in America and it was suddenly in tiny cans. And some American recipes call for tomato puree, and some for tomato paste. Is there actually a difference here? And if not, what do you do with a half opened can when you only want a tablespoon? Surely only Penne alla Vodka uses that much, and only when feeding a massive crowd! Why does it not come in a tube?
Kate: Tomato puree is cooked, but not as long as tomato paste, and then puree to a liquid. Tomato paste has no seeds (they are strained out) and then cooked down until smooth and thick. When I only need a tablespoon from the can, I freeze the rest of the paste in an ice cube tray, pop the cubes when frozen into a lidded container or freezer bag, and back they go into the freezer. When I need another tablespoon I pop out just what I need. Tubes would be nice.
Jolene: I’m lucky my local supermarket sells tomato paste in tubes (Cento brand) so I use it regularly to add body to dishes.
Anne: Good tomato paste is in a tube. I buy the Italian Mutti brand (at World Market, a treasure trove of international flavors!), which I really like. I think Trader Joe’s also carries it? It says double concentrated on the label. Our tomato puree might be more like our crushed tomatoes? We use those to make a homemade marinara. I think Americans use tomato paste in infinite ways, like we do anchovy paste or Dijon mustard. It’s not like a sauce because it’s thick and unseasoned.
Rachel: Okay my puree is your paste (and have you seen pictures of it being made in Italy?) - I use Mutti brand too! Tomato puree sounds like passata (like sieved tomatoes). I remember going to the French deli at The Original Farmers Market in West Hollywood to buy Italian passata because I could not cope without! And I clearly did not know tomato puree in the store was similar!
Unsalted Butter - Sweet Butter
Rachel: When I was Googling other lists like this to see if there were any really obvious entries I missed I found that in America unsalted butter can sometimes be called sweet butter? Is this a regional thing because I’ve never seen this before? I assume it is because unsalted butter is typically used in baking, but can someone please help me out here? (If it helps I’ve never purchased American butter in my life, I only ever bought European butter!)
Anne: It might be regional. But not common today. You will see old cookbooks (mostly from the South, but I’ll let Jolene and Kate weigh in on that) call for “sweet” milk when they mean whole milk vs what we call buttermilk, which is the liquid left from churning milk into butter. If it’s being called “sweet” butter it smacks of marketing. I will note that American butter as an 80 percent butterfat and European butters 82 percent.
Kate: I bake with both salted and unsalted but I don’t use the word “sweet” when describing them or in ingredient lists. I agree with you Anne that “sweet” is marketing. I prefer European style butters as well.
Jolene: Yes to all of the above.
We certainly had fun putting this together, and I hope you had as much fun reading it! There were only so many we could cover, so I’d love to hear some more British to American ingredient names you find amusing, or confusing in the comments!
And again, I want to give Anne, Jolene and Kate a massive thank you for taking part - do go and check out and subscribe to all their brilliant newsletters here on Substack!