The Handy Trick I Learned While Working in a Bakery

January 22, 2020
Photo by Bobbi Lin

How many recipes have told you to cut squash into ½-inch chunks, or slice potatoes into ¼-inch rounds, or roll sheets of cookie dough to ⅛-inch thick? Even though I cook and bake for a living, I still have trouble estimating these measurements by sight. (It’s hard!) And while our test kitchen and my own kitchen have rulers on deck, the more I cook elsewhere, the more I realize this isn’t a given.

Before I joined the team here at Food52, I worked as a nighttime baker. Which meant a lot of pie dough–rolling, cookie dough–rolling, biscuit dough–rolling...really, just a lot of rolling. After a while, instead of trying to find a ruler every time—as I'm covered in dough, no less—I figured out something about my hands: 1-inch is the distance from the first to second knuckle on my middle finger. And ¼-inch is the thickness of my pinky.

Of course, your body is different. But, whether it’s your middle finger or ring finger or thumb, I’d bet a biscuit that you can find natural 1-inch and ¼-inch markers, which you can use as a rough guide for whatever recipes throw at you. Estimate the halfway point of the 1-inch and you have ½ inch. Do the same with the ¼-inch and you have ⅛-inch.

It may not be quite as precise as a ruler—but it sure is more convenient, and it has yet to let me down.

Recipes Where This Will Come in Handy

What’s your handiest trick when cooking? Let us know in the comments!

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Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.


Miss_Karen January 26, 2020
My comment isn't regarding prestidigitation, but it works great: use a toothbrush to remove citrus zest from a microplane or grater. No sleight of hand required. 🙂
Judith J. January 26, 2020
Best handy tip I learned from my mother was displacement technique. When measuring thick sticky items (think peanut butter, shortening, etc), put same amount of water in measuring cup as the item you need (eg if you need 1/2 cup PB, put 1/2 cup water in measuring cup. Spoon item into measuring cup until water level is doubled. Just need to make sure that item you are measuring is below water level. Drain out water and voila, you have you 1/2 cup of peanut buter or other item!
MBE January 26, 2020
Good for your mom and thank you Archimedes!
Smaug January 26, 2020
Useful for some things, but won't work for, eg., honey- this is one area where scales shine, particularly those with a tare button(that zeroes out the weight of your container)- you can usually add something directly to other ingredients without putting it in a separate container and trying to scrape it out.
Rosalind P. January 27, 2020
I am almost a fanatic about using weight measurements, especially for baking. Years ago it turned me into a relatively competent baker from an almost 100% baking klutz. Not asking for a weight dictatorship; just it them along with volume measures. You wouldn't believe the hostility this has generated from a few regulars on this site. You know who you are. Yeah, yeah -- American cooks don't have/ use scales Not true any more. Just let weight and volume coexist, for the sake of the less talented.
MBE January 29, 2020
It's not even a case of being less talented :-) Weight measurements will make any baker better/more consistent. Once I got my kitchen scale I began using it for lots more than baking.
Smaug January 29, 2020
Well, more consistent anyway. The problem is when it's used as a crutch to avoid understanding what you're doing.
jpriddy January 26, 2020
You have skinny pinkies, which might go to explain why some videoed recipes claim I should roll out something to an eighth or quarter inch when I can see quite clearly that they've rolled it out thicker than that. (I know what an inch looks like without measuring against my knuckle—former graphic designer and yearbook teacher.)
MBE January 26, 2020
Been using the knuckle to knuckle inch for years :-) and as my father-in-law (who was neither a quilter or a woodworker) my pinkie thickness for 1/4" looks to be "good enough for government work".
I do love my new rolling pins however that let me roll to a perfect thinkness!!
nancy January 26, 2020
I have a ruler in my kitchen but I get it...why not use a reliable-enough and readily “handy” substitute? The span from the tips of my thumb to pinky is 9 inches. I use that all the time to roughly estimate the size of things, including rolled-out doughs.
Smaug January 26, 2020
Wow, that's a pretty big hand. No reason not to use stuff like that if you know it, and people who sew and do woodworking (and doubtless some other activities) spend a lot of time looking at things of known size and can usually eyeball things pretty accurately. A ruler just seems like such a basic thing to have in your house. By the way, trying to judge the thickness of a pie crust with a ruler is pretty dubious- if you don't use rolling guides, feel is (with a small amount of practice0 likely to be a lot more accurate.
Denise January 26, 2020
That was a great article! I will have to measure my fingers and see. Thank you!
Resa A. January 23, 2020
You’re obviously not a quilter.
Smaug January 24, 2020
Or a woodworker.
Cali B. January 22, 2020
The distance from pinky tip to thumb tip can also be useful (mine’s 7”) for figuring out if your pan is the one referenced in a recipe.
jpriddy January 26, 2020
Yes, but you do have to actually measure it. Mine handspan is 8".
Jerry January 22, 2020
Estimates come easy with experience. I need no measuring cup to pour a cup of liquid. A healthy wrist turns 1/3 of a circle, useful when kneading dough. 1", 1/2 and 1/4" lends itself very well to lift and feel. Practise pouring spoon sizes in your palm and you'll get it quickly.
Smaug January 22, 2020
Are there really people who don't have a ruler in their house?
Courtney January 23, 2020
I know I have a tape measurer - probably in the shed. But a ruler? Not that I’m aware of.
M January 22, 2020
Neat idea, but I'm truly interested to see if readers find a 1/4", and if larger hands find either. I have narrow fingers and can find an inch, but my pinky width is roughly double yours, and there's not a spot on my hands that measures a quarter.
garlic&lemon January 23, 2020
This is really interesting. I just went and measured various hand parts on my small hands. Yes, the depth (not the width) of the tip of my pinky is 1/4". But the only 1st to 2nd knuckle that measured 1" was also the pinky. That place on all my other fingers was significantly longer than 1".
Laura D. January 26, 2020
I have tiny hands - wear size 3 ring - and there is not a finger which measures 1/4" and no knuckle to knuckle of 1" - all are larger. As an accountant by profession, math has always been easy for me and measurements play into that. I use intuition to make most of my estimates and it generally works.