Size So Totally Doesn't Matter
I'm trying to make banana pudding and the recipe is from the cook of my husband's grandmother. It calls for a dash of salt. What is a dash of something, and all those other little terms "old" cooks use, a smidgen, etc.?
Please don't ask us any more questions — you are way too high maintenance!
Smidgen, dash, pinch, etc. are words that reflect the way people used to cook, before celebrity chef recipes were set in stone and before people became irrationally fearful that the slightest deviation from a recipe would ruin their dish. (Also from the days before every kitchen had meticulously calibrated, Swiss-engineered measuring implements.)
After way too much paging through cooking reference books and old cookbooks, we assembled as good and as accurate a list as you will find of the definitions of these pioneering measuring terms. As you might expect, even in cases where we found actual measures associated with a particular word, there are often two or three conflicting amounts, so we're giving you everything we found:
At the very least, there is general agreement that these are in descending order according to size (although if you believe that a drop is 1/120th of a teaspoon, it is quite possible that your hint is bigger.)
Our regular old dictionary shies away from specificity for all these measures, generally stating "a small amount," with the exception of the pinch, which is the "quantity that may be grasped between the finger and thumb." Now that we think about it, that isn't very specific either. Smidgen is the only word that is exclusively used as a (nonspecific) unit of measure.
Jonathan Bartlett, author of The Cook's Dictionary and Culinary Reference, says many of these terms are used "when so little is needed that the exact amount is irrelevant." In general, that's a fair statement. A dash or hint of some flavoring is not going to cause your soufflé to fall or your pie to weep. It will just add a bit of flavor.
If you are a novice cook and have a recipe for some bakery item that calls for a pinch of yeast or dash of baking soda, however, you might want to find a more modern, more scientific recipe. If you're using salted butter instead of unsalted, you may have already added more than a few pinches of salt to your recipe. If you're cooking with cayenne pepper or any of the now popular intense spices that your grandmother-in-law's cook never imagined, you might want very small smidgens.
You can purchase measuring spoons that include smidgen, dash, and pinch and tad, smidgen, dash, pinch, and drop, which are cute, but whether they reflect any real standard — and whether they will have any discernable influence on your cooking — is questionable.
And, given the general inaccuracy of many measuring spoons on the market (and most likely already in your kitchen — GASP!), the precise measurements represented by these six indefinable words don't matter much.
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