Bits and Smidgeons and Other Small Units of Measure

When expressing quantities of ingredients for a recipe, magic potion, or an alchemical preparation, some find it difficult to remember the correct scientific units of measure for small amounts. This easy guide will help you.

First of all, NEVER write “some” or “a little” in your recipes. These are very inexact figures and can be misleading to someone who is trying to recreate your recipe centuries later. If you truly mean no less than a little, you should say a “bit.” This is the largest small amount that can be used. A “little bit” is a little smaller than a “bit,” and can be used when less than a bit is needed. If you need even less than a little bit, use a “tiny bit.” And in these days of micro- and nanotechnology, you may even have a need to use a “teeny-tiny bit,” which is the smallest of all these. An “eentsy-weentsy bit” is actually the same as a teeny-tiny bit, which is often a point of confusion.

But what if you need more than a little bit, but less than a bit? Is there no in-between measurement for this small, but not too small, amount? I’m glad you asked, for indeed there is. If you need less than a bit, but more than a little bit, the standard measurement is a “tad,” which is halfway between the two. Further, halfway between a tad and a bit is a “dab,” although this amount is hard to measure with either solids or very low-surface tension liquids, and is more often used with viscous liquids, such as glue/paste and peanut butter. With solids, it will be necessary to use a “pinch,” and with thinner liquids you will need a “drop.” (A “drip” can also be used, but requires special handling techniques to prevent spills.)

A “smidgeon” 1 is another very small measurement, which is less than a little bit, and is precisely ten per cent larger than a tiny bit.

In ancient times the “iota” was also used, but this has gone into disuse because of its inherent inaccuracy. An iota was meted out with an i-shaped “ota” (similar to a ladle) with several holes in it, which meant some of the substance would leak out while it was being transferred from the container to the recipe, thus causing a degree of error depending on the exact distance between the containing container and the mixing container, and the speed at which the transferrer performed the transfer. Also, if there was any distraction produced by a foreign entity such as a spouse, child, or armed bandits,2 the ladle might not arrive in time for any of the ingredient to reach the mixing chamber, which ruined many recipes. (This is one reason Roman cakes tasted so bad.3)

Lastly, some flavouring agents, such as salt, pepper, and rhinoceroses, are often used with the term “to taste.” I looked up “to taste” in the dictionary and discovered that it means to sense something by mouth, and I’m pretty sure that rhinoceroses are the only one of these three examples with a mouth. (Rivers also have mouths, but they are not common ingredients for recipes anymore due to their impracticality as a means of transportation relative to newer methods.) In my experience, “to taste” is a measurement used by people with very bad taste, and it’s better not to rely on their bad taste to flavour your recipe. So, whenever you come across this phrase, your best bet is to substitute a smidgeon and a half.4

Here’s a handy table:
1 bit = 1 bit
1 little bit = 1/4 bit
1 tiny bit = 1/16 bit
1 teeny tiny bit = 1/256 bit
1 tad = 3/4 bit
1 dab = 7/8 viscous bit
1 pinch = 7/8 solid bit
1 drop = 7/8 liquid bit
1 smidgeon = 11/160 bit (0.06875 bit)

And the metric equivalents:
2.54 metric bits = one 1/4″ drill bit
1 metric little bit = √2 little bits
The smidgeon is not used in metric; rather, a “smidge” is used:
1 smidge = 1.418 smidgeons = 0.0974875 bits

“Bethlehem scale,” by Thelmadatter, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Altered.

  1. Also spelled “smidgen” by people who don’t like the letter O.
  2. Bandits were common in those days, and had no respect for proper measurements.
  3. Plus, they lacked high-fructose corn syrup.
  4. “dash” is not discussed here, since it is beyond the scope of this article.

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