A Pinch of This and a Dash of That

Have you ever noticed that some of those old family recipes never taste as good as you remember from your childhood?  Those early cooks didn’t waste a thing, as anyone who inherited a recipe for giblet pie will attest. I also have a recipe that calls for one quart of nice buttermilk. As soon as I find buttermilk that meets that criteria, I’ll try it.

I especially like the old-time recipes for sourdough biscuits. Here’s a recipe from The Oregon Trail Cookbook:

“Mix one-half cup sourdough starter with one cup milk. Cover and set it in the wagon near the baby to keep warm … pinch off pieces of dough the size of the baby’s hand.”

Early cooks didn’t have the accurate measuring devices we have today and had to make do with what was handy—even if it was the baby.

If you’re in the mood to drag out an old family recipe this Thanksgiving, here are some weights and measures used by pioneer cooks that might help: 

Tumblerful=Two Cups

Wineglass=1/4 Cup

Pound of eggs=8 to 9 large eggs, 10-12 smaller ones

Butter the size of an egg=1/4 cup

Butter the size of a walnut=2 Tablespoons

Dash=1/8 teaspoon

Pinch=1/8 teaspoon

Dram=3/4 teaspoon

Scruple= (an apothecary weight=1/4 teaspoon

Gill=1/2 Cup

Old-time tablespoon=4 modern teaspoons

Old-time teaspoons=1/4 modern teaspoon

2 Coffee Cups=1 pint

As for the size of the baby, you’re on your own.

                                                                Weights from Christmas in the Old West by Sam Travers


Chuck wagon or trail recipes call for a different type of measurement

Li’l bitty-1/4 tsp

Passle-1/2 tsp

Pittance-1/3 tsp

Dib-1/3 tsp

Crumble-1/8 tsp

A Wave at It-1/16 tsp

Heap-Rounded cupful     

Whole Heap-2 Rounded cupfuls

Bunch-6 items

However you measure it,

here’s hoping that your Thanksgiving is a “whole heap” of fun!


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22 thoughts on “A Pinch of This and a Dash of That”

  1. I loved this blog, Happy Thanksgiving Margaret!!!
    You are absolutely right, todays measurements just don’t add up to the old recipes and for sure the end results don’t taste the same. So now I’m going to go drink a “pint” of coffee and start my day, you have an awesome day with your family.

  2. What a fun post. Thank you! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!
    (BTW, I’m a tea drinker with milk in it Scottish style and I’m having some now!)

  3. I loved reading this post and I imagined just how much the Senior Citizens group would enjoy hearing this. I used to go and share a library program with them when I was still at the library.
    Thank you & Blessings!

  4. Happy Thanksgiving, Margaret. Loved this post. I have a recipe that calls for 1/3 teaspoon but I’ve never found a measuring spoon that size. I just wing it-it’s not quite a 1/2 teaspoon. Close enough. LOL

  5. I appreciate you providing these measurements. I have several recipes from my grandmother that do use these old type measurements. I have tried a couple of them and they never turn out quite right. I’ll have to dig them out and try again using these substitution. I remember one had called for lard the size of an egg. I like the chuck wagon measures. Creative names. I would think a wave at it would equate to a pinch in todays recipes.

    • Hi Patricia, glad to help. I think a wave would be a pinch. I grew up with the word smidgen, which you don’t hear anymore. In case you’re wondering, there are two smidgens in a pinch. Fun, uh?

  6. This was a fun post. I remember when I was little my grandma had sugar cookies waiting for us whenever we came. When I got older I asked for the recipe. My aunt had her write it down. There were some measurements for the butter, sugar and eggs. But then it said “one blue teaspoon baking powder” and “flour to make a rather stiff dough”. Lol. What does that look like?

    • Hi Susan, that’s funny.

      I once made the mistake of asking my chef son-in-law for his poached salmon recipe. He gave me the one he used in the restaurant which included four bottles of wine!

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