When some clever person coined the phrase "If cooking is an art, then baking is a science," an essential truth was captured. A quick taste of a simmering stew might lead you to casually sprinkle in more basil, but your pie crust recipe brooks no such changes, relying as it does on exactness for consistently delicious results. To get that consistency, it helps to understand the abbreviations used in recipes, including what a capitol T stands for.
Big T, Little T
It wasn't until the late 1800s that a standardized measurement for tablespoons and teaspoons was introduced. Before that time, most bakers were simply using their silverware pieces as measuring tools, meaning recipe results could be widely inconsistent from one household to the next. Today's measuring spoons are standardized, and sets typically include a 1/4 teaspoon, 1/2 teaspoon, 1 teaspoon, and 1 tablespoon measurement. It is here that recipe shorthand comes into play: A capitol T stands for a tablespoon and a lower-case t is shorthand for a teaspoon. It's an important distinction; confusing the two when adding spices or a leavening agent to a recipe could be an unwelcome game-changer.
Knowing a few tricks before using your measuring spoons will help you get better results. Before adding baking soda, baking powder, sugar or salt to a recipe, stir the container to loosen the ingredients. Scoop out a heaping tablespoon, and level it with the flat edge of a knife or spatula. When a recipe calls for brown sugar, pack it into the tablespoon with your finger before leveling it off; the air needs to be pressed out to get an accurate measurement. Any solid fat such as butter or shortening also needs to be pressed into the tablespoon to eliminate any air bubbles.
The folks at Cooks Illustrated spent time comparing the pros and cons of different measuring spoons, finally arriving on a few criteria. When choosing a set of measuring spoons, consider, for example, how often measuring spoons must dip into small containers (think spices) to retrieve ingredients. Selecting spoons with narrow, straight and lightweight handles that are not overly long can make this job easier. Another favorite tip was to purchase measuring spoons hung on a ring -- it eliminated digging through drawers to find a spoon that's gone missing.
More Recipe Shorthand
Now that you are savvy to capitol and lower-case Ts, you might want to tackle a few other types of recipe shorthand and conversions. If your recipe calls for a pinch of something, add 1/16 of a teaspoon. A dash is just slightly more than that -- about 1/8 teaspoon. Baked goods can be brightened with citrus, but that measurement can be vague, too. If your recipe calls for the zest of 1/2 of a lemon rind, add 1 tablespoon. The zest of ¼ orange also equals 1 tablespoon. Finally, to make things simpler: when a recipe calls for 4 T, you can add 1/4 cup; they are equal.