I'm a full-time recipe developer, so admittedly, I don't get to make other people's recipes as often as I'd like these days. But when I do, I have a vested interest in maximum deliciousness. Which means following any prescribed instructions to a T the first time I make it—all in pursuit of promised crinkly tops, or jammy textures, or the gooiest of cookie centers. I'll read through a new recipe several times before commencing, and adhere to its directives with drill sergeant-like accuracy.
There is, however, one marked exception: sifting. I have so many memories of being a child in the kitchen asking to help with something or another, and being handed the sifter. Which, in our household, was one of those deceptively charming old-fashioned metal ones. Not the kind with a friendly crank on the side, though—it had a vertical handle like that of a giant coffee mug, fitted with a lever that you'd have to squeeze inward over and over again, like you were firing off a staple gun, to get ingredients to pass through a sieve layer.
I spent a lot of time like that: sifting and sifting, an endless stream of dry ingredients, hands cramping, a cloud of white dust gathering on the countertop around my targeted vessel—sparing neither my clothing, nor my face. And to what avail? Weren't those flours and other dry ingredients getting beat into batters anyway? Wouldn't their particles disperse beyond a stage of lumpiness at that point?
One day in my own kitchen, I just stopped. And you know what? Everything has been fine. The world will try to tell you that you must break out a sifter for cocoa powder, one of the clumpiest pantry culprits, but I'm here to say that I've not once encountered a dry pocket, beating only with a whisk or paddle mixer.
Here you might be thinking: Hang on, your proportions must be completely bananas! And it's true that sifting affects the volume of dry ingredients. Cook's Illustrated writes:
When a recipe calls for “1 cup sifted flour,” the flour should be sifted before measuring; whereas “1 cup flour, sifted” should be sifted after measuring. Here’s why: A cup of flour sifted before measuring will weigh 20 to 30 percent less than a cup of flour sifted after measuring—a difference that can make a huge impact on the texture of finished baked goods.
But before you @me about this, I'll have you know that I bake with a digital scale—not with cup measurers.
And if I'm making something that requires the dry ingredients to be folded in rather than whisked or beaten in—with over-mixing discouraged—I'll just toss the dry stuff in its own bowl and either whisk it there, or if I'm feeling even lazier (read: don't want to wash a balloon whisk), I might just tussle things with a fork.
So if your recipe tells me to sift—unless it's that one day every three years where I've decided I must perfect French macarons—guess what?
Ella Quittner is a a writer at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner.