Clarifying Confusing Culinary Terms

I am a man uneasy with vagueness, approximations, and the lack of specificity. For me,  “Close enough” is the mission statement of mediocrity.

I am an analytical, left-brain, logical, linear thinker that finds peace, confidence, and comfort in knowing specifics and details.  Formulas are meant to be followed.  Recipes specify ingredients for a reason. Deviations lead to disaster or, at the very least, a distasteful experience.

Even in the world of words, specificity is essential.  Commas and punctuation exist for a reason.  There’s a big difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma” and “Let’s eat Grandma.”  Punctuation can save a life.

Whether trying to survive Organic Chemistry at Georgia Tech, or developing time standards during my career at BellSouth, or writing blog posts (like this one), a “close enough” approach doesn’t achieve the desired results.  Accuracy and specificity is the difference between the exceptional and the ordinary. 

In my retirement, I have learned the same applies in the field of cooking.  Don’t laugh! I have a few favorite recipes and occasionally enjoy the opportunity to prepare a meal.  My wife swears she married a charming “Renaissance Man” who writes complete sentences, talks in multi-syllables, reads a variety of genres, is athletic enough to play a competitive round of golf, will tolerate a Hallmark Channel movie, and knows his way around the kitchen, especially the dishwasher.  The latter being the biggest surprise of our marriage thus far.  Doesn’t every husband know the difference between a ladle and a spatula?

So you will understand why this meticulous man of metrics is mortified when reading recipes that call for a pinch of salt, a dollop of sour cream, or a zest of lemon.  And don’t get me started on a tad, a smidge, or a dash.  Such terms fail to exude the precision of that which I am accustomed.  I fear guesstimating ingredients can make the tasty detestable.

Yes, I know, these terms may sound minute in degree.  Even Webster’s dictionary defines a tad as an insignificant amount.  Yet a tad of certain spices – think cayenne pepper – can make a big difference in taste.  

For the benefit of my logical-minded readers who, like me, are frustrated with culinary obfuscation and long for kitchen clarity, fear not, TheBuddyBlog.com is here to provide a public service and clarify the bewildering terminology of measurements used in cooking.  

So what exactly are a tad, a smidge, a pinch, a dash, a dollop?  Are they generic kitchen codes meant to sound more elegant than ambiguous phrases like a “little bit” or “small amount”?   Or might there be actual differences between these puzzling calibrations?  Is a tad merely, as one new bride assumed, the size of a tadpole?

Though some still choose to define these terms loosely, here are the commonly-held specifications for those of us needing more precision in our ingredients.

Tad = 1/4 teaspoon

Dash = 1/8 teaspoon

Pinch = 1/16th teaspoon

Smidge or Smidgen = 1/32 teaspoon

Drop (liquid only) = 1/64th teaspoon

Hint and Trace are undefined

Jigger = 3 tablespoons

Zest = 1 teaspoon of grated peel of a citrus fruit

Dollop  = 1 heaping tablespoon

I can breathe easier now.  I no longer need to avoid recipes that include these cryptic culinary terms.  The gastronomical mystery has been decoded.  I may now cook with confidence without sacrificing my allegiance to accuracy, dedication to detail, faithfulness to finiteness.  Well, you get the idea.

Though the lexicon of confusing kitchen terms has been clarified, I must confess.  When I cook my chili, I always throw in an extra heaping spoonful of chili powder.  How do I define a heaping spoonful?  I use Webster’s definition:  “to bestow in large quantities.”

And that’s specific enough for me.

Note:  Picture of measuring spoons are those actually used by the author.

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