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Why This Recipe Instruction Has Me All Riled Up

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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.

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).

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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.

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.

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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

Tags: Tips & Techniques