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 the food editor 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 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 at @emmalaperruque.


Ann February 28, 2020
I love in the Caribbean so we do not grow apples.
As a bootleg version of baked goods with apples I have had really good results using green papaya as the alternative to apples. Coupled with a good apple pie spice, the difference is not really discernable.
Try it
W J. February 28, 2020
So would you call your method of estimation "digital?"
Smaug February 28, 2020
Only under extreme duress- there's far too much anguish in the world as it is.
dgarey February 28, 2020
I store a wooden ruler (and one of those dough scraper things) next to my rolling pin.

[email protected] February 28, 2020
I find I get far more juice out of my lemons, limes & oranges if I cut a small amount peel off the top and bottom of the fruit before cutting it in half and squeezing it in the hand held press.
Chris February 28, 2020
I make a lot of apple pies (have three trees). I roll out the pie dough between two sheets of wax paper, then refrigerate it until it’s cool. When ready, I quickly pull off the top sheet, flip the dough into the pan, then peel off the other sheet. The dough isn’t overworked and comes out flakey when baked. My mom taught me this.
Chris February 28, 2020
Forgot to mention, you can pick up the sheets, with the dough in between, to check and correct the thickness of the crust by holding it up to light.
Angie D. February 28, 2020
Expanding on the baking by weight discussion..... Has anyone else had trouble understanding how different recipes that call for all-purpose flour by the cup and grams will have differing number for grams per cup. I’ve been told by one flour company that they feel the protein in their flour is at a different level so there cup of all purpose flour is 120 grams. I’ve seen ranges from 120 to 150 per cup listed on recipes. Most recipes don’t request a specific brand and
that’s quite a big difference. Thoughts?
Erin February 28, 2020
KA uses 120 gms (they get this by stirring and spooning the flour into the cup). So if it’s a KA recipe I use that weight. ATK scoops their flour, resulting in a cup weighing 142 gms. Quite a difference so that’s what weight I use when I’m using one of their recipes. Otherwise I use 128 gms per cup if the recipe doesn’t say otherwise (can’t remember what website I got that measurement from but it works).
Angie D. February 28, 2020
Thx so much for the info. :)
Peter G. February 27, 2020
A neat technique I recently saw is helpful when rolling out dough to specific lengths/sizes. On your work surface measure out the distance you are attempting to roll to. Mark the beginning and ending points with a piece of masking tape off to one side. If you have multiple sizes mark them all from the same starting point and write what they are on them with a black marking pen. Then flour your surface and roll your dough as usual. When it is the right dimensions after lifting and shrinking you are done. Essentially measure once and roll all day!
Ken K. February 28, 2020
Great idea! I keep a roll of bright blue painters' tape in the kitchen for labeling things. Now I've got another use for it!
Ken K. February 27, 2020
I chuckle whenever I see an item about the very lovely (but expensive) set of rolling pins with end caps to measure the thickness of what you're rolling out. For years, I've kept several sets of different thickness wooden dowels in the drawer with my rolling pin to accomplish the same thing. Just set them on the board and keep the rolling pin on top of them. I can also use them to control the width of what I'm rolling when I need to. Dowels are a few dollars each at a place like the big orange building supply store. They usually come in 4ft lengths, so you can cut / break them into the length you want (mine are about 18"). You can score thinner (up to 3/8" or so) dowels with a knife and break them cleanly, but you need to use a saw for thicker ones. Back in the day the neighborhood hardware store would cut them to length for me, but it's a little harder to find a place that will do that nowadays...
Smaug February 28, 2020
If you're fortunate enough to be or know a woodworker, it's a simple (and nearly free) matter to cut strips to any desired thickness (and length). I find myself far more likely to end up using not so obvious thicknesses- for instance, 5/32" rather than 1/8".
Ken K. February 28, 2020
Just curious - what in the world to you bake / cook that requires a measurement that precise?
Smaug February 28, 2020
Just about anything, but sandwich cookies are a good example; I might try, say, a Linzer cookie rolling it out to 1/8" and decide the result is a bit thinner or thicker than I prefer- either for proportion of filling to pastry, or for handling of the dough, or for pure whimsy. I don't really see 1/8 as a better number than 5/32 (perhaps because I have a math background), and it's no harder to cut the one than the other. And it's not that small a difference- in this case, a 25% difference in thickness will materially change the baking characteristics and the thickness of the finished cookie, which will have doubled the difference.
Erik W. February 27, 2020
My wife used to snicker at me when I told her my feet are exactly one foot, and if I spread my hand out the distance from the tip of my thumb to the tip of my pinkie is exactly 10 inches. Now that we've purchased and furnished two homes together she doesn't laugh anymore. Instead I'll get, "Hey, could you measure the size of this rug with your feet?". Vindication feels good. :-)
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.
Kristin N. February 27, 2020
Curious what you mean about a crutch to avoiding understanding...
Rosalind P. February 27, 2020
Crutch? Anything that helps you bake better is good. And can't see where that would hurt. Hard to tell if someone is just trying to avoid understanding if that's even a thing. Who wants to judge?
Pamela_in_Tokyo February 27, 2020
Well, using weights makes for more understanding if you ask me....
Smaug February 28, 2020
This is hardly the place or situation for an extensive essay on the subject, which even a minimal answer would require, and which I've done a number of times. It's not just the use of scales-- people nowadays are far too prone to rely on mechanistic following of a series of steps as a substitute for understanding the reasoning behind the steps. In the case of baking, this is a false goal on so many fronts- you cannot exactly duplicate someone else's results- your materials, equipment, situation etc. are never exactly the same. There is not a "perfect" way to do much of anything- and the very specific recipe you're following is merely a snapshot. Notice that (whether using weights or volumes) recipes never call for 243.6 grams or 53/38 of a cup- they're always rounded off to convenient numbers. As far as scales go, they're more convenient for some things and more accurate for a few things- assuming your scale is actually accurate, which few have the ability to check. Uniformity of results is necessary in commercial situations for marketing and pricing purposes; as a home cook, it's just boring. Slavishly following a set of instructions may be OK for a first attempt at something, to help you get located, but it gets you nowhere towards being able to adapt to different materials, situations or desired results, or to being able to develop your own recipes and methods.
Rosalind P. February 28, 2020
totally agree. but we are being watched... :-) :-)
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.