Why This Recipe Instruction Has Me All Riled Up

August 16, 2018

I worry a lot. I want everyone to have success with my recipes, and I worry that new and occasional bakers may not understand recipe writing “code”—that the order of words and presence of commas, especially in the ingredient list, has a precise meaning which can affect your success with the recipe. This is especially (I say critically) important if you measure ingredients by volume—with measuring cups—instead of by weight. The good news is that the code is logical and easy to learn.

Let’s start by considering a cookie recipe that calls for almonds:

If your recipe calls for 1 cup almonds, chopped, it means you should measure 1 cup of whole almonds, then chop them. But if your recipe calls for 1 cup of chopped almonds, you should chop the almonds before you measure them. Read the line literally—the ingredient being measured is chopped almonds.

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Believe it or not, these are two different quantities of almonds because more whole almonds fit in a cup than chopped almonds (which can be proved by weighing each cup full).

Right about now, you may be rolling your eyes and thinking that a little more or fewer almonds is unlikely to ruin a good cookie. Even I might agree to that.

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Top Comment:
“I also find it annoying to try to use cup measures for sticky ingredients such as butter and peanut butter. A scale which measures in grams as well as pounds and ounces and has a tare function makes measuring quantities so much easier and more accurate, if only recipes would specify weights as well as volume. Happily I am seeing this more and more. ”
— Jenny H.

But flour is a whole different ball game.

Even a little too much flour can make the difference between a cake that melts in your mouth (or tender cookies), and one best employed as a doorstop or paper weight. When you measure flour with a cup, the amount of that fills that cup depends on how fluffy and aerated or dense and compacted the flour. Flour that’s been living a canister or sack (even if it was sifted or “pre-sifted” at the factory) settles and becomes compact when bags are stacked, shipped, and stored. Sifting before measuring fluffs and aerates the flour so that it take less to fill a cup in comparison with flour scooped right from sack or canister. In other words, a cup of sifted flour is less flour—it weighs less—than a cup of unsifted flour. When a recipe calls for a cup of sifted flour, the writer intends that you use that lighter cup full of flour. If you miss or ignore this detail, your cake will be denser than it should be, your cookies less tender.

Mrs. Worry-Wart here sometimes tries to cue the reader with a contortion such as this (just be sure people get it):

1 cup (sifted before measuring) flour

Now, I must tell you that life would be less anxiety-provoking for your favorite baking writers (and easier for you too!) if everyone used a scale. We could simply call for, let’s say, 4 ounces of flour. Sifting would have nothing to do with measurement because 4 ounces of flour is 4 ounces of flour, no matter when or if it is sifted. To read more about using a scale, go here.

Meanwhile, absent of a scale or the good Mrs. Worry-Wart, you don’t need a secret decoder ring to figure out whether to sift before or after measuring with a cup. Just pay careful (literal!) attention to the order of words and whether there is a comma. Here’s how it works.

1 cup of sifted flour

The ingredient being measured is sifted flour. This means sift the flour before you measure—either sift directly into the cup until the flour is heaped above the rim, or else sift onto a sheet of paper and then gently spoon the flour into the cup until it’s heaped above the rim. Sweep it to level without shaking or tapping the cup.

1 cup flour, sifted

This means measure the flour and then sift it. If using a cookbook, check the front of the book to learn how the author measures with a cup—some dip the cup into the flour then level the cup, others loosen the flour slightly in the canister and then spoon it lightly into the cup until it’s heaped, and then sweep it level without tapping or shaking the cup. (Most pastry chefs, including myself, do the latter). Once the flour is measured, sift it—just to help it mix more easily into batter without clumping.

1 cup flour

Just measure the flour!

Bottom line: If you measure with measuring cups, the order of words and presence of commas tells you whether to sift before or after measuring. And if that's too much to think about, consider a scale.

Psst—No need to measure this one

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Gary Kaiser
    Gary Kaiser
  • Steven
  • foofaraw
  • FrugalCat
  • Danuta Gajewski
    Danuta Gajewski
My career was sparked by a single bite of a chocolate truffle, made by my Paris landlady in 1972. I returned home to open this country’s first chocolate bakery and dessert shop, Cocolat, and I am often “blamed” for introducing chocolate truffles to America. Today I am the James Beard Foundation and IACP award-winning author of ten cookbooks, teach a chocolate dessert class on, and work with some of the world’s best chocolate companies. In 2018, I won the IACP Award for Best Food-Focused Column (this one!).


Gary K. April 12, 2019
Wait; "...more whole almonds fit in a cup than chopped almonds?"
Isn't this backwards?
Steven April 12, 2019
How bout: 1 cup whole almonds, then chop them
foofaraw October 29, 2018
I just assume that if the recipe is in volume/cups it just means that the small difference doesn't matter much for the recipe. Baking recipes in US uses a lot of chemical leaveners like baking soda/powder that would help those differences, unlike French and a lot of European recipes that usually only rely on whipped eggs or cream anyway.
FrugalCat August 19, 2018
Aaaand.....this is why I rarely bake. I'm always worried I'm going to screw something up. These complicated directions only reinforce that fear.
Danuta G. August 17, 2018
Thank you, Alice! Whew! I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who obsesses over language in recipes!
As a Canadian, we've been metricized (is that a word?) for years, but it's amazing how many recipes originating in Canada are lazily, and incorrectly, converted to make them appear metric, just by listing the millilitre equivalent (for both liquid and dry ingredients) against the Imperial measurement rather than mL for volume [liquid] and g for weight [dry]. It took me a while to realize they were simply copying the equivalents from a measuring cup (most measuring cups in Canada show both oz and mL). Frustrating and annoying!
John S. August 17, 2018
I am reminded of a recipe that called for 3/8 of a cup. Solved when I told the cook that a cup is 8 oz, so 3/8 is 3 oz. And Thanksgiving dinner was delicious.
Lynn D. August 17, 2018
I would still like you to clarify the instructions for Brown Butter Tiger nut Genoise.
LoriLipko August 17, 2018
I have had a love for cooking for as long as I can remember..but NEVER took into consideration the fact that there were hidden meanings into the prep of recipes until reading this article...thank you for the I understand why certain recipes would never work out for me
Jenny H. August 16, 2018
It would be great if American recipes would specify quantities in grams for ease and precision of measurement . I also find it annoying to try to use cup measures for sticky ingredients such as butter and peanut butter. A scale which measures in grams as well as pounds and ounces and has a tare function makes measuring quantities so much easier and more accurate, if only recipes would specify weights as well as volume. Happily I am seeing this more and more.
Karen M. August 17, 2018
Exactly! Metric measurements are so much easier to work with.
I also use a scale when I measure a lots of things. Easier, faster and more accurate.
Cups, quarts, pints.... really??
Diana M. August 17, 2018
ctgal August 20, 2018
And especially if you bake gluten free!
Ann W. November 9, 2018
Seeing dry ingredient measurements in US blogs and websites in weight rather than volume is a signal to me that they are likely well tested and written by people who know how to bake. It's a sign of quality.
kareema August 16, 2018
One of the things that irks me the most in recipes is when they say something like "1 onion, chopped". Jeez, recipe authors, onions vary IMMENSELY in size. Could you just put it in a form that uses either measuring cups or weight?
Jenny H. August 16, 2018
So true.
Diana M. August 16, 2018
I have come to an accommodation with vagueness in recipes - my take is that if it isn't very specific, then it doesn't matter much. In the case of the onions, consider what you're adding them to, decide if you like more onion or less onion in general, and go from there. If your onions are huge, possibly only use 1/2 or 3/4; if they're small, double up.
Karen M. August 17, 2018
Amen to that! That's real cooking.... when you're creating with intention :)
ChrisBird August 17, 2018 I wrote this a while back. Seems appropriate in this thread.
Jenny H. August 17, 2018
I agree, except when it comes to baking; you need to be precise for good results every time for many baked items.
Diana M. August 17, 2018
Indeed, and, one would hope, in such cases the instructions would not be vague. Although, it's fascinating to read recipes from the 18th/19th centuries and before. Vague may be too precise a term .