Liquid Measuring Cups

From America's Test Kitchen Season 12: Summertime Supper

Overview:

Update September 2012:

The tempered-glass Pyrex Liquid Measuring Cup is an American classic; Julia Child’s own Pyrex 1- and 2-cup measures are in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. For straightforward simplicity and durability, it’s hard to beat—years of use in the test kitchen have demonstrated that it is nearly unbreakable, with minimalistic, red-painted markings that resist fading. Last year, Pyrex came out with a new cup that was oversize and cone-shaped, with busy, hard-to-decipher markings that can only be read from the inside. When we tested it against competitors (May/June 2011), it came in last place. What was worse, Pyrex planned to stop making the old cup. Fortunately, since that time, World Kitchen, the U.S. manufacturer of Pyrex, has decided to keep producing the old version. The Pyrex 2-Cup Measuring Cup ($5.99) is our “new” favorite liquid measuring cup.

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What has happened to the simple liquid measuring cup? When we began shopping for… read more

Update September 2012:

The tempered-glass Pyrex Liquid Measuring Cup is an American classic; Julia Child’s own Pyrex 1- and 2-cup measures are in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. For straightforward simplicity and durability, it’s hard to beat—years of use in the test kitchen have demonstrated that it is nearly unbreakable, with minimalistic, red-painted markings that resist fading. Last year, Pyrex came out with a new cup that was oversize and cone-shaped, with busy, hard-to-decipher markings that can only be read from the inside. When we tested it against competitors (May/June 2011), it came in last place. What was worse, Pyrex planned to stop making the old cup. Fortunately, since that time, World Kitchen, the U.S. manufacturer of Pyrex, has decided to keep producing the old version. The Pyrex 2-Cup Measuring Cup ($5.99) is our “new” favorite liquid measuring cup.

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What has happened to the simple liquid measuring cup? When we began shopping for this story, we figured we were on easy street. All we wanted was a 2-cup size with legible markings. Something we could throw in the dishwasher and use in the microwave. No problem, right? Wrong.

A liquid measuring cup doesn’t have to be glamorous. It’s a basic kitchen tool, meaning that accuracy matters more than looks, that form should follow function. But manufacturers have let their imaginations run wild. We found cup after wacky cup, in silly shapes and candy colors, made of materials that were squishy or flimsy, with markings that ran from overly minimal (No quarter-cup measures? No thirds?) to ridiculously excessive (Pints, tablespoons, and cubic centimeters, anyone?).

Disappointment with the winner of our most recent liquid measuring cup testing sent us on this mission. Our former pick comes with a red plastic clip that you set to the desired level. Instead of crouching down to check precise measurements at eye level (a necessity with traditional cups), you pour until the liquid reaches the level marked off by the clip. However, this cup hasn’t held up in the test kitchen—the clip falls off and gets lost, eliminating the very feature that made it our winner.

We were ready to promote our then runner-up, which has survived years of daily use with sturdy grace: the familiar Pyrex glass measuring cup, with its simple red markings. But we found that Pyrex had discontinued this kitchen classic, which requires you to crouch to read it properly, in favor of an updated “read-from-above” design.

Unsure whether any of the new, unusual shapes and features might prove useful, we bought 15 models ranging from $3.99 to $34.99, made variously of glass, silicone, and plastic. After the first few tests, we tossed out seven. How did they fail so quickly? First, some simply weren’t accurate. We had two ways of evaluating accuracy: We poured 236.6 ml of water (equivalent to 1 cup) measured in a laboratory graduated cylinder into each cup to see if it reached the marking exactly. We also checked to see if 1 cup of water measured in each model weighed the correct 236.2 grams. We found a few off by small amounts, but one was short by more than 2 tablespoons—a quantity that could turn your baked goods dry. We also automatically rejected models with no markings for quarters and thirds—a nonstarter in a measuring cup.

Hot and Sticky
Since we often use liquid measuring cups to check our progress while reducing sauces, a good model must be heatproof and sturdy enough not to tip when filled with boiling liquid. To test this, we ladled bubbling hot stock into each cup, then poured it out. Two cups that lacked handles quickly became too hot to hold, particularly one made of silicone. The squishy silicone softened with the heat and narrowed where we held it, raising the level of the steaming liquid so high that it scorched our fingers. It was clear that for a measuring cup to be really useful, handles are a must.

Next, we poured hot pan sauce from a skillet into each cup and then poured it out. When we realized we were worried about letting the searing hot pan touch the plastic measuring cups, we decided to explore that fear—and rested the hot pan right on the rim of each cup, leaving it there for five seconds. None melted.

Sticky liquids pose special measuring challenges. Here, we found that in a chilly kitchen, a thick glass measuring cup retained more of the cold than plastic cups, so honey didn’t flow or level out as well, and it was harder to remove. One plastic model, which displays markings along two angled ramps inside the cup that can be read from above, created more surface and thus extra scraping work. The very best cups were just an inch or two wider than the spatula, with rounded bottoms instead of sharp corners that trap honey.

Measure for Measure
No matter how accurate the cup is technically, its design features determine how well it works for different users. We rounded up a dozen volunteers to use the cups. After they measured 1 cup of water, we poured it onto a scale to weigh it. With each tester, we repeated the process three times.

It was clear that certain cups facilitated accuracy, with crisp, unambiguous markings, while others—with busy designs and small type—were much more difficult to use correctly. To our surprise, the worst offender in this test was the redesigned Pyrex cup. Thick bands of red paint circle the cup at the 1-cup mark and all markings are printed on the inside, to be read from a standing position. But tester after tester complained that the water level was nearly impossible to see against the red paint.

After all our testing, the top-ranked cups are recommended because they work just fine. They’re not especially durable, though. Our otherwise high-ranking plastic cups began showing faint scratches after fewer than 25 trips through the dishwasher. That comes with being plastic. Will they hold up to years of hard test-kitchen use? We’re skeptical. Luckily, they come cheap.

This conclusion leaves us as disappointed as ever. After all our searching and testing, we never found the perfect liquid measuring cup. Whether its fatal flaw was a gimmicky design, lack of critical measurement markings, poor material, or—worst of all—inaccuracy, there wasn’t a single cup we could highly recommend. Our best advice? Buy up a stash of the classic Pyrex liquid measuring cups before they’re all gone from store shelves.

Methodology:

DISHWASHER- AND MICROWAVE-SAFE
We downgraded models that weren’t microwave-safe; all models were dishwasher-safe.

BPA
Cups were downgraded for containing Bisphenol A as reported by manufacturers. Research has linked this controversial material to health issues.

ACCURACY
Using a laboratory graduated cylinder, we measured 236.6 ml of water (equivalent to 1 cup) and poured it into each measuring cup. We also weighed the water. Because accuracy was crucial, this test was weighted heavily in determining final rankings.

PERFORMANCE
Twelve volunteers measured 1 cup of water and transferred it to a bowl; we then weighed the water to determine accuracy, repeating this three times for each cup. We ladled hot broth and poured hot pan sauce into each cup and tipped the liquid out. We measured honey and scraped it out of the cups. We boiled water in the cups in the microwave, downgrading those that became uncomfortable to handle. The score is composite, reflecting overall performance.

DESIGN
We evaluated the cup’s dimensions, shape, gradation markings, and materials.

DURABILITY
We ran all cups through 25 dishwasher cycles (using the Dry Heat mode), dropped them from counter height, and rested a hot skillet on the rims of plastic cups for five seconds to check for melting. Cups lost points for signs of wear.

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