Interpreting Old Heirloom Recipes for Today’s Modern Family Cookbook

Occasionally, while browsing through old heirloom recipe books (mainly in those cookbook collector bookstores), I see some puzzling ingredient measurements that somehow have been lost over time to the modern family cook and modern family cookbooks.

Ingredient Measurements for Liquids
For most of us, the terms “gill” and “tumbler” for measuring liquid ingredients are most obscure, having been trained to use cups and ounces as our mainstay for measuring liquids. The other term I find odd is “scant,” not because it means “barely sufficient in amount or quantity,” but because the word was created to provide an explanation for why something measures less than an ordinary measurement! Here are some liquid measurements you’ll find in old heirloom recipe books:

1 wine glass = ¼ cup/2 ounces
1 jigger = 1.5 fluid ounces
1 gill = ½ cup/4 ounces (or 5 in the UK, generally)
1 teacup = a scant ¾ cup/almost 6 ounces
1 coffee cup = a scant cup/almost 8 ounces
1 tumbler = 1 cup/8 ounces
1 pint = 2 cups/16 ounces
1 quart = 4 cups/32 ounces

Ingredient Measurements for Dry Volume Items
Then we have old heirloom recipes with obscure dry ingredient measurement terms, all of which have unique definitions. “Peck” for example, is 2 gallons, and four pecks make a bushel.  Thus the old song lyrics “I love you, yes I do, a bushel and a peck , I do” mean 10 gallons (or a lot). So, you buy a bushel of tomatoes at the farmer’s market and you get 8 gallons of tomatoes by volume! (No wonder these measurements have faded out of everyday use.) Here are some dry measurements you’ll find in old heirloom recipe books:

1 peck = 2 dry gallons /8 dry quarts, 16 dry pints
1 pinch or dash = what can be picked up between the thumb and first two fingers; less than 1/8 teaspoon
½ pinch = what can be picked up between thumb and first finger
1 salt spoon = ¼ teaspoon

Ingredient Measuring Tools
My favorite part of reading old cookbooks is to see what measurement tools are used in the recipes.  The “saucer” is an interesting measurement. Where my grandfather’s family originated, a saucer was a small bowl that was used two ways: (1) to cool hot coffee poured from a coffee cup (often the coffee was sipped right from the saucer), and (2) for dunking homemade biscuits and eating them (much like some people do with doughnuts). Here are some measuring tools you’ll find in old heirloom recipe books:

1 kitchen spoon = 1 teaspoon
1 dessert spoon = 1 teaspoon or 1 soup spoon
1 spoonful = 1 Tablespoon, more or less
1 saucer = 1 heaping cup (about)

Hopefully, this bit of information will help you better interpret old family heirloom recipes. You can convert the old family heirloom recipes to more modern cookbook measurements in your modern family cookbook that still closely match the intended measurements of the original recipe. Can you imagine the difference in recipe results if we thought a spoonful of salt and kitchen spoon of salt were the same measurement?

Happy Cookbooking!


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  1. Matilda,

    Those are very interesting. Some I recognize and some I do not. My grandfather used to pour his coffee into a saucer all the time. Being that I am from Georgia I always thought it was a “southern” thing to do! Us southerners do al lot of very strange things!

    I’m going to have to go find me some of those cookbook collector stores. Have no idea where to start, but possibly some antique stores.


    P.S. My e-mail addy seems to have fixed itself. It is correct now. Or did you do something to it?

  2. Those are easy interpretations! Although very handy to have…
    Here’s one I found in a local heritage recipe book recently, the recipe called for “lean pork fat”. I have a guess for what they actually meant. There’s a few other recipes like that in the same book. Have any old world recipe translations?

  3. Do you have any idea what “a block of oleo” might be? It was in an old Louisiana cookbook dated at least as far back as the 1940s or 1950s.

  4. a block of oleo is a stick of margerine

  5. How much is a 5 cent stick of cinnamon in todays measuring?

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