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Drop a hint, pack a dollop.

A  word collage: drop, dash, dollop, hint, pinch, smidgen.
Exactly how does one measure six dollops?

Let’s face it, we’ve all stumbled across an online recipe which directs us to measure out ingredients in units so arcane that our heads spin. “Hmm, precisely how much is a bit?” we chuckle into our 13-ounce coffee cup. Is it as large as a chunk, or is it the same as a tad?

Other times, we find a recipe so overly precise that amounts are listed in fractions of a teaspoon so small that, if one could actually find the appropriately-sized measuring tool, a 200x magnifying glass would be needed to level off that 1/128th teaspoon of nutmeg.

Or how about that fanciful “Victorian” recipe which includes modern ingredients like quinoa and garam masala, yet measures these by the wineglass and saltspoon?

Fortunately, most of us don’t use these confusing terms. But before we become too smug, let us examine our own use of other poorly-defined units of measure. Handed down from generations past, these little offenders are hint, drop, smidgen, pinch, dash, and dollop. Let’s try to clarify what they are.

Hint

Hint and its French sister soup├žon are best described as a “trace”. How big is a trace? No one knows, but some have been tempted to define it as one half of a drop.

Drop

Drops have been plaguing the precisionist since the late 18th century, when the Royal College of Physicians determined that the drop’s volume was equal to one grain. Called a minum, this new drop was still considered vague. As the famed Mrs. Beeton wrote in her epic The Book of Household Management (1861), the quantity of a drop varied “either from the consistency of the liquid or the size and shape of the mouth of the bottle”.

A drop is still considered an approximated unit of measure. In cooking, it’s defined as the amount dispensed as one drop from an eyedropper, a useful visual when adding extract or food coloring. The accepted approximate volume is 1/64th teaspoon, which is useful only when using multiples of eight drops.

Smidgen

So far, our peculiar units have focused on fluid measurement. The smidgen, even more colloquially referred to as a “smidge”, deals with dry measurement. Dating back to the mid-19th century, and likely borrowed from Scottish smitch, it’s an informal way to describe a small amount of something. Early cookery books typically specify spices in terms of smidgens, leading some culinary sleuths to ascertain that a smidgen is actually one half of a pinch.

Pinch

Another small, indefinite dry measurement, pinch also dates back to the mid-19th century. A pinch is described as the act of grasping minute amounts of a dried herb, salt, or spice between index finger and thumb. In the early 2000s, one cooking tool company described a pinch as “half a dash”, yet the dash is historically a unit of fluid volume.

Dash

The darling of the bartending world, the volume of a dash has never been officially defined. The term “dash” refers to the act of dispensing liquid from a small-mouthed bottle with a quick, hard shake. The amount of liquid that dispenses from a bottle of bitters measures approximately as 1/8th of a teaspoon, so many sources choose this number as their standard.

Some inventive bloggers have begun a campaign to use dash for dry measurements. They maintain that the gesture of tossing a dry ingredient into a pot is a “dash”, and that adding a liquid ingredient is a “dollop”.

Dollop

Dollop is borrowed from the dialectal dallop (patch, tuft, or clump of grass), a word used in certain parts of medieval England. Dollop made its way into early 19th century recipes, where a dollop was akin to saying a heaping spoonful of soft food. No one can say for sure what size spoon was used, which is why it’s best to use “dollop” in recipes where exact amounts aren’t necessary. Whipped cream topping, anyone?

As you can see, many of these terms are unhelpfully vague. Best practices suggest that we reserve these poetic-sounding words for prose, and stick to standard measurements in recipes. A good rule of thumb is to round up measurements greater than an 1/8th teaspoon to 1/4th teaspoon; smaller than an 1/8th teaspoon, the ingredient should be “to taste”.

However, if you’re the type who simply loves the idea of measurements far too esoteric for most other cooks to grok, several entrepreneurial companies manufacture fractional teaspoon measuring sets labeled as smidgen, dash, and so on. And for those readers facing arcane units, we have an equivalency chart to help you translate.

An equivalency chart for small cooking measurements.

A final note: whatever your chosen measuring unit is, it’s far easier to add an ingredient than it is to take it out, so err on the side of smaller amounts, and taste between additions. And if a recipe specifies ingredients by the dollop and dash, run!