10 Great British Culinary Conundrums

Food Lists

Flickr/Tom Page

Once the butt of too many jokes about boiled beef and spotted dick, British food is finally getting the appreciation it merits. Telly exports like the Great British Bake Off have Americans smitten with the secret pleasures of the English kitchen, and, according to Vice magazine, British food is more popular than ever. But as much as Britain’s colonial offspring hunger for a taste of the motherland, unless you’re Mary Berry, it can be a little a daunting to tell your “soggy bottom” from your “saucy pud.” Here’s a handy guide to help you navigate the ocean between our larders.


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Treacle is the taste of England with a capital Ye Olde. Just the sound of it is like a hamper full of Queen Victoria, Alice in Wonderland, and boarding school. It’s essential for the kind of deep, dark sweet demanded by gingerbread or a proper Christmas pudding. If you can’t find a red and gold tin of Lyle’s Black Treacle, substitute molasses.

2. Golden Syrup

Golden syrup and black treacle—two by-products of the sugar refining process—are both technically treacle. Which explains why golden syrup is the main ingredient in classic recipes like treacle pudding and treacle tart. It’s about the consistency of corn syrup but has very different sweetness, like a very light caramel. Brits also drizzle it on ice cream, toast, or, like me, just eat it by the spoonful straight from the tin.

3. Caster Sugar

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A slightly finer-grained sugar that dissolves more easily than granulated, caster sugar is called for in most British baking recipes. You can make your own by giving granulated sugar a whir in a food processor, or find it in the drinks aisle of US grocery stories, where it’s called superfine. (Even though the measurement will be slightly off, I confess to using the two sugars interchangeably.)

4. Icing Sugar

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Baking is an important part of British culture from afternoon tea to vintage cakes. Hence the need for sweeteners to fill every niche function. Icing sugar is absolutely 100% the same as American powdered sugar or confectioner’s sugar, so use interchangeably and with absolute abandon.

5. Courgettes

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Flickr/Alice Henneman

A courgette is a zucchini, as an aubergine is an eggplant. Toss in a to-MAH-toe, and you’ve nearly got ratatouille. Yellow or green, in soup or the garden, the English seem to love courgettes, and now that I’m here, I decided I should too.

6. Currants and Sultanas

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Flickr/bongo vongo

Currants for baking are not dried sour red berries of the same name (usually found in red currant jelly). Currants are raisins, the title being a corruption of Corinth, the center of European raisin trade centuries ago. While currants are tiny and nearly black, sultanas are plump and golden. Use them interchangeably with golden raisins.

7. Cream: Single, Double, Clotted

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Flickr/Jeremy Keith

Let’s think of dairy fat as a luscious continuum with milk (at 3-4% fat) at one end and butter (about 80%) at the other. Whipping cream, right in the middle at 35%, is rarely used in recipes in the UK where double cream is the dairy queen. Unfortunately, stateside there is no substitution for double cream’s 48% fat. But in savoury sauces, for pasta for example, you can easily exchange it for whipping cream (and add a bit of extra butter if you want to raise the fat). If a cake or pastry filling calls for double cream, you can usually get by with whipping cream beaten to stiff peaks. But for anything else, you’ll need to shell out for what in the US is rare and expensive, about $7-9 per 6-ounce jar.

Double cream shouldn’t be confused clotted cream (55%), which is produced by evaporation to create a thick spread almost entirely reserved for scones and jam. (For a good, small batch clotted dream, see Blakemere Company, made in North Carolina by Devonshire native Amanda Fisher.)

And if a recipe calls for single cream, whose mere 18% fat won’t whip, you can switch in US half-and-half (10-18%).

8. Bacon

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The bacon aisle the typical British grocery store leaves me equally awed and bewildered. First, you have to choose rashers or streaky. Made from pork belly, almost all US bacon is streaky. Bacon rashers, sometimes called “back bacon,” are made from the loin. You’ll find back bacon thin and thick as well as cured or uncured, smoked or unsmoked and various combinations of the two. You could sub Canadian bacon, but the neighbours to the north remove the little extra bit of fat, so it isn’t quite the same. Try William’s (your British pork butcher in America), Myers of Keswick, or Zingerman’s.

9. Brown Sauce

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Flickr/Smabs Sputzer@N08/

There are two main sauces on the table of every roadside café, on the counter of every mobile greasy spoon: red and brown. The first is ketchup, and the second is a concoction of tomatoes, dates, tamarind and spices dreamed up by a Victorian grocer in Nottingham. HP (short for House of Parliament) is the most common brand. The new year has brought reports that brown sauce is on the wane but you’ll still find it oozing out of bacon sandwiches nationwide.

10. Jacket Potato

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Flickr/Véronique Debord-Lazaro

Not really an ingredient but a way of life and a wonderfully dressed-up, black-tie way of rebaptising the lowly “baked potato.” Jacket potatoes are a lunchtime option nearly everywhere, from school lunchrooms to the British Library cafe. And they always come with a choice of toppings: butter, cheese, baked beans, or tuna and sweetcorn. But for all their love of dairy, the UK spud is a stranger to sour cream.

Anne Bramley is a writer and independent scholar living in Norwich, UK. She’s the author of Eat Feed Autumn Winter and the first woman to create a food podcast, Eat Feed, which Saveur called “the finest way to take your food on the road.” Twitter: @eatfeed

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