A pinch of salt, a dash of cinnamon, a glug of soy sauce and a splash of vinegar. When one of these vague terms appears in a recipe, it can feel like you need a key to figure out how much of an ingredient you’re actually supposed to use. After all, where does a pinch end and a dash begin? Have splashes been standardized, or are we supposed to guess what qualifies as a smidge? And what happens if your drizzle is someone else’s dollop?

A caller on Milk Street Radio was wondering just that when she recently came to hosts Sara Moulton and Christopher Kimball, perplexed by this sort of culinary shorthand. How should she decode the imprecise measurements she often sees in recipes?

Kimball remembered asking the same question during a French cooking lesson. “I almost got thrown out of the class!” he recalled. “I guess because no one wanted to answer it.”

Standardized measuring tools weren’t manufactured until about a hundred years ago, Kimball noted, so before then, all cooking was done by estimates, memory and intuition.

“It’s like Italian grandmothers,” Moulton said. “You can never really get them to tell you what they’re doing."

Today, however, most recipes are written to be as transparent about measurements as possible, Moulton added. So if you need a heaping tablespoon of coriander, or should measure out a half cup of cilantro leaves after you’ve chopped them, the recipe should explicitly say so.Still, we all still encounter recipes that call for that pinch or dash.

Moulton said that as the name would suggest, a pinch refers to what you can pick up between two fingers. She and Kimball agreed that a dash would be larger.

When it comes to liquid measurements, we found that a glug is usually 1-2 tablespoons. “I think of it as enough to slick a skillet with oil for sautéing,” food editor Matt Card, says. A splash, by comparison is about 1/2 teaspoon. However, neither glug nor splash should be called for in recipes that require exact measurements. As Kimball put it, “A glug and a splash is not going to be for making sponge cake. It’s going to be for making a soup or a stew.”

All of these terms remain estimates when it comes bartending. You'll frequently see a dash called for in a cocktail recipe. Just like a pinch of salt in cooking, a dash for cocktails is meant to be done to taste.

You can also go by time. A quick shake for a dash. For a splash, pour from the bottle and pull back once the liquid starts to flow out. And when you hear your bottle make a deep “glug” sound as air gets sucked back in, you know you’ve hit your mark.

For more cooking tips from Christopher Kimball and Sara Moulton, listen to Milk Street Radio each week. Got your own questions? Call 855-4-BOWTIE or email questions@milkstreetradio.com

Join the conversation on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.