Bake

The One Recipe Instruction I'll Never, Ever Follow

And you can't make me!

October 25, 2018
Photo by Jenny Huang

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.

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“Word.”
— aargersi
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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?

I'm never, ever going to do it.

Is there any one recipe instruction you always skip over? Let me know in the comments!

24 Comments

Alina E. November 5, 2018
As a professional recipe developer and pastry chef I couldn't agree more! If something is really lumpy or has minimal mixing I take a whisk to the dry ingredients but that's it!<br />
 
Maggie S. October 31, 2018
Ha! You are the most charming anarchist. I grew up with the exact same sifter. I think it's helped me win many a thumb war.
 
foofaraw October 29, 2018
I think sifting step was a required part in older recipes, which kinda carries over to now until people like you (which is great!) asking why this step is necessary. My mom said that from where she comes from, flour tends to have impurities (pieces of grain skin, sometimes dead bugs, tiny stones that are large enough to be caught by sifter) which you need to sift it out unless you want to bite rock when you eat a cake. I remember I still found those stuff when I help her sifting. Now our production process is much better that we don't need to do it anymore.
 
suzybel63 October 26, 2018
I sift baking powder, soda and cocoa in a strainer, they always seem to be lumpy. I think I’ve sifted flour like maybe twice in 45 years.
 
Danuta G. October 26, 2018
You have validated my method of baking! Hate sifting...and refuse to do it! Granted, I have always weighed ingredients, and turn my nose up at recipes that call for half a cup of this, and three-quarters of a cup of that! I've never had a failure yet, except for the one time I fell asleep at the kitchen table, waiting for a last-minute, 2am baking frenzy to come out of the oven!
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. October 26, 2018
Happy to hear it! Re: the table nap, that actually sounds kind of cozy. :)
 
Seamus O. October 25, 2018
Where did you work as a pastry chef?
 
Mitchel L. October 25, 2018
I'm culinary school trained, make breads and various baked goods from my sourdough starter several times a week and I am here to say that sifting is all a ploy from the companies who make and sell sifters. Entirely unnecessary, a waste of time, and a waste of precious kitchen space. Not to mention it's just another thing to wash when you are done. I am a large proponent of using forks to whisk as well for that same reason.
 
Smaug October 25, 2018
Obviously you are in collusion with the fork industry in their remorseless campaign to bring down the mighty sifter industry. Can you prove that you're not an alien robot? I thought not.
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. October 25, 2018
I am so happy to hear it!
 
tia October 25, 2018
Huh. I've never sifted. It's only been a problem in one recipe, and only lately. We finally figured out that it's because my mom, whose kitchen we use for our annual Christmas Cookie Weekend, doesn't bake as much anymore so the flour sits around longer and settles. The recipe is very sensitive to how much flour goes into it, so now we just do the prescribed volume minus a tablespoon. We still don't sift.
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. October 25, 2018
Hear, hear!
 
boulangere October 25, 2018
I'm a diehard sifter, but I've always used a basket sieve. It's what I learned in culinary school, and besides it's a multi-purpose tool. I don't have room in my kitchen or my life for single-use anythings.
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. October 26, 2018
I agree, kitchen clutter be gone!
 
Smaug October 25, 2018
It's not so easy to find a good sifter- not much money in manufacturing such stuff- but they exist and are well worth seeking out. Sifting was originally largely for the purpose of removing stray objects and dead (we hope) insects- not so necessary now as it used to be, but still not a bad idea. It also separates out lumps in things like baking powder, which won't even out so easily as cocoa. I have a good sifter, and find it much easier and more effective than some of the alternatives offered, like putting it in a bowl and whisking it or running it through a strainer. Not making recipes that depend on volume measures cuts you off from the overwhelming majority of published recipes, wouldn't dream of it. I have steps I often omit- mostly having to do with salt- but I find sifting well worth the minimal effort it requires.
 
Smaug October 29, 2018
And one more, since this article refuses to go away- sifting is by far the most effective way to mix dry ingredients with flour. On the negative side- I dunno, I really can't see what people have against sifting. I don't particularly like stirring soup, but I don't worry about it, it's just part of the job and not a cause of significant anguish.
 
Ann W. November 9, 2018
I'm leery of recipes with only volume measurements for dry ingredients and far prefer recipes with weight measurements. I don't care how renowned the author is. The amount of flour you put into a cake can vary wildly from time to time when you use cups to dip, scoop, level etc. If you put it all on a scale you know exactly how much you're getting, and in a well-written recipe it will work perfectly with the weights of the other ingredients. My baking became much less unpredictable when I moved to measuring by weight rather than volume, and I have plenty of recipes to choose from: lots of quality baking blogs and websites in the US are moving in this direction and it's great to see.<br /><br />That said, I do usually sift but it's pretty easy: just put the bowl on the scale, then put a sieve on top of the bowl. Zero the scale out and measure out the flour/powdered sugar/cocoa. Take it all off the scale and tap the sieve till it's all in the bowl.
 
HalfPint October 25, 2018
I don't sift either except, as you pointed out, when I have to fold flour into a batter. 99% of times, I weigh out my flour and run a whisk through it to break up any lumps.
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. October 25, 2018
Always happy to find fellow rebels!
 
Eric K. October 25, 2018
I despise sifting, too.
 
Emma L. October 25, 2018
Me three!
 
Amy L. October 25, 2018
And me - as you grew up also in a non sifting kitchen!
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. October 26, 2018
We should all form a task force!
 
aargersi October 25, 2018
Word.