New Life for Old-Fashioned Cooking Measurements


Cookbooks.  I love them.   Each book tells its own story between the covers.  Will I unlock the secrets to a smooth gravy?  Figure how to make biscuits that are feather-light?  Or perhaps read how to make a mayonnaise without it separating in the process? I collect them and read them like novels.

vintage cookbook

vintage cookbook

In my opinion, the vintage cookbooks are in a class of their own.  Often, their recipes have a short list of whole food ingredients, providing a nostalgic look into the past.  But sometimes, my vintage cookbooks can confuse me.  The reason?  Old-fashioned cooking measurements.  Current cooking measurements popular in the United States include teaspoon, tablespoon, cup, quart, and their partial measurements, such as: 1/4, 1/3, 1/2, 2/3, and 3/4.  And let’s not forget about temperatures.  Just what is a slow oven?

Vintage cookbooks may include terms such as peck and gill.  But friends, take heart, you can still try out recipes from these books.  You just have to armed with modern equivalent to those heirloom terms.

Fortunately, several of my cookbooks dating from the 1930s – 1960s have guides listing old terms and their modern equivalent.  The same is true for oven temperatures.

While modern cookbooks list an exact temperature for baking, vintage terms are slightly mysterious. Here is a clarifying guide to baking:

Vintage Term equals Modern Temperature Range

  • Very Slow Oven = 200 – 250F
  • Slow Oven = 250 – 350F
  • Moderate Oven = 350 – 400F
  • Quick or Hot Oven = 400 – 450F
  • Very Hot Oven = 450 – 500F

Measurement terms can also be confusing.  Homemakers used what they had on hand to measure out ingredients and some quantities are no longer commonly used or the term has just fallen out of favor.

Vintage Term equals Modern Measurements

  • wineglass = 1/4 C.
  • jigger = 1.5 fluid ounces
  • gill = 1/2 C.
  • teacup = scant 3/4 C. (scant refers to being slightly less than the quantity listed)
  • peck = 8 quarts
  • dessert spoon = 2 teaspoons
  • spoonful = 1 tablespoon, mounded
  • salt spoon = 1/4 teaspoon
  • dash = 1/8 teaspoon
  • pinch = 1/16 teaspoon (or what will fit between thumb and finger when pinched together)
  • saucer = 1 cup, slightly mounded
  • butter the size of an egg = 1/4 C.
  • butter the size of a walnut = 2 tablespoons

So while this is not a complete list of vintage baking measurements, it covers the more commonly used terms.

Don’t be afraid to make baked goods or meals from vintage books.  Now that you have a list of the modern equivalents, you can take the mystery out of the old recipes.  I encourage you to discover meals enjoyed by your grandparents and great grandparents.  Wonderful, whole food dishes are at your fingertips using modern equipment.


10 responses »

  1. It’s not so long ago that most cooking was done on wood-fired stoves (we got our first electric stove when I was in my mid-teens, but still used the wood/sawdust stove in winter for the added heat). Putting a hand in the oven makes it easy to tell if it’s warm, hot or very hot. My Mum still cooks with a bit of this and a bit of that. My Grandmothers (though I never got to know them) cooked that way, too. I do on a few things. Generally, I research a few recipes, then do my own thing. Sometimes it works out surprisingly well . . . I love the old measurements and don’t use modern measuring spoons, etc. Just the normal tableware. I can tell by texture if cake batter (for example) needs a bit more flour or milk and I adjust the leavening if needed. It’s an easier way to cook, for sure. I use recipes in some cases, often for sentimental reasons; even then, though, I will play with something . . . 😉 ~ Linne

    • My mom cooked by the look, feel, and taste. She said that her mom (my grandma) always told her, “A good cook always tastes her own cooking”. And even though my mom cooked with a gas stove, she would still put her arm in the oven to gauge if the oven was hot enough.

  2. My grandmother used to make the most wonderful chocolate cookies. She never had a recipe, it was just a handful of this and a handful of that. I wish I had her tiny hands, and that I had paid better attention when I was young!

  3. This is a wonderful post!

    I so remember those terms from my [very] young days as a cook. Mostly I remember the oven temperature terms – slow, moderate, hot – some of my vintage [or antique 🙂 ]cookbooks use those terms only, no actual temperatures at all.

    I guess it was because back in the day ovens were an item that were not ‘up-graded’ regularly as we like to do today. They were old appliances, not always electric [coal range for example] and each one cooked differently. You had to get to know your oven!

    I remember moving house and having to relearn how to cook my stand-by recipes again as the ‘new’ oven was so very different to the previous one………… Ah, a wee dose of nostalgia 🙂

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