Do I sift flour before measuring? Is sugar supposed to be packed? Are liquid and dry measurements the same? What do I do with semi-liquids: dry or wet measuring cups? If you’ve ever had any of these questions, this is the post for you. I’m going to (perhaps exhaustively) cover how to measure ingredients. With the “baking season” coming up (note that baking ingredients will be on sale during November and December), this is a great time to learn or review this information.
When cooking dinner, tossing a handful of this and pinch of that often works. Baking is not forgiving of error and mis-measurement. Cookies can be hard as rocks because of an extra teaspoon salt. Extra or not enough flour also affects them drastically. As it does pie crusts. You get the idea: baking is a science. And science requires proper measurements. Note that American measuring is often different from the rest of the world. They often weigh everything, plus often use metric.
- Please check out the “Ingredients” and “Substitutes” pages for information on any cooking ingredient or what and how to substitute when you need.
FREE printable cooking measurement conversion chart at the bottom of this post!
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Flour is a subject of debate. Professional bakers insist you actually weigh flour. This is because the amount of flour in one cup can actually vary drastically between sifted, fluffed up/then measured in cup, cup dipped into canister/then leveled off, etc. Vary by more than you can imagine. And with flour being the main ingredient in many a baked good, this is important. So, IF you have a scale and don’t mind the extra step, I recommend weighing.
There is a chart next to this that shows common flour (all-purpose, self-rising) and how much a cup should weigh. (Yes, various flours have different values, another reason I’m going to recommend just using a measuring cup). This is a smart part of a graphic “The Bearfoot Baker” (yes, it’s spelled that way) has on her site. Click on either her name or the graphic to be sent directly there. It also has larger flour measures, sugar, and powdered sugar.
If you need measures for other types of flours, please check out “King Arthur Flours” handy, exhaustive chart.
The weight argument being set aside, I don’t weigh my ingredients. I already have measuring cups out for everything. And I’ve never had a problem.
To properly measure:
1. Using a spoon, stir up the flour in the canister a little bit.
2. Using the spoon, scoop the stirred up flour into the measuring cup until it is overflowing. Do NOT pack down the flour, scoop the cup into the flour canister, or tap the cup to get the flour to settle. All result in too much flour.
3. Then use a flat edge to scrape the excess flour off the top back into the canister.
If a recipe specifies sifted flour:
-1 cup flour, sifted- you sift AFTER measuring.
-1 cup sifted flour- you sift, THEN measure.
Brown– pack brown sugar into the measuring cup until well-packed and completely full. Make sure it is leveled off. When you dump the cup out, the brown sugar should be packed enough to retain the shape of the cup.
Granulated– this sugar is forgiving and easy. If you haven’t used your sugar in awhile and it has packed down, use a spoon to stir up the sugar in the canister. Scoop the measuring cup in the canister, fill to overflowing. Then use flat edge to level.
Powdered sugar (aka confectioner’s sugar)– this one can be slightly confusing. Recipes often call for the sugar to be sifted. But before or after measuring?
-1 cup powdered sugar, sifted- you sift AFTER measuring.
-1 cup sifted powdered sugar- you sift, THEN measure.
For the measuring, it is the same as flour above. Spoon into measuring cup (don’t pack or tap measuring cup), then level off. Full disclosure: I often sift the powdered sugar after measuring even if the recipe doesn’t specify sifting it. It gets rid of lumps and results in a smoother finished product.
Leaveners: Baking Powder, Baking Soda, Yeast, Etc.
If you skip every other section, don’t skip this one. Leavening agents are the most important ingredients in baked goods and must be measured exactly.
Baking powder & Baking soda: before you start measuring, check expiration dates. Both of these go over fairly quickly (4 months and 6 months, respectively) so fresh product is important. Quick tests if you’re not sure: baking powder: place a teaspoon of baking powder in a 1/3 C. of hot water. If it bubbles ‘enthusiastically,’ it is still fresh. Baking soda: mix 2 tsp. white vinegar and 1/4 tsp. baking soda. If it bubbles up immediately, it is still fresh.
-Shake up the container slightly in case any settling has occurred. Dip measuring spoon into container, level off.
Yeast: again, check the expiration date. Quick test if you’re not sure if it’s too old: sprinkle onto 2 Tbsp. of HOT water (110°-115°). It should start foaming within five minutes. Even if the recipe doesn’t call for proofing the yeast, it shouldn’t hurt to do so.
-If you’re an infrequent baker, you probably just buy the little packets that are 1/4 ounce (2 & 1/4 teaspoons). If using a jar or needing a smaller amount, dip the measuring spoon into container (or packet), level off.
As with flour and powdered sugar, spoon into measuring cup (don’t pack or tap measuring cup), then level off. I have heard of requiring powder to be sifted, but have never done so. I do use a small spoon to break up and squash any lumps.
Spices & Salts:
If the spoon fits in the jar, simply place in the jar, fill, then level off.
If the spoon doesn’t fit (a common problem), pour spice from the jar into the measuring cup with a small bowl underneath. Level off. Pour excess spice back into jar. I have a flexible plastic bowl I use with a pour spout. However, if you don’t own such a thing, use a small funnel or fashion a piece of paper into a funnel.
For fresh herbs, if the recipe doesn’t specify, very lightly pack. There is a lot of volume between leaves.
This category includes items such as chocolate chips, nuts, dried fruit, candy pieces, sprinkles, etc.
Either scoop the measuring cup into the the container or pour the items into the measuring cup. Level off. These ingredients are just as they are labeled (add-ins); they don’t contribute much to structure or baking chemistry, hence exact measurements aren’t as important.
Some recipes may specified firmly or lightly packed. This is often for ingredients such as shredded coconut or shredded cheeses, which can form large air pockets. If it doesn’t specify, I usually give the measuring cup and good shake and tap. It allows for a small amount of settling.
This category includes ingredients such as peanut butter, applesauce, yogurt, sour cream, etc.
Use dry measuring cups. If needed, spray a bit of non-stick into measuring cup. Then use a spoon to fill measuring cup. Pack down lightly; this is to prevent any air pockets (a common problem with peanut butter!). Level off. If you’re having trouble getting ingredients out of measuring cup, use a spatula.
(Side note: I have a fabulous measuring cup from Pampered Chef that actually allows you to push the ingredients out…I’m not being paid to recommend it. But I recommend it. Plus it has liquid on one side of the cup and dry on the other. It’s amazing).
Wet ingredients are measured with liquid measuring cups. They generally have a pour spout. Note that there IS a difference in volume for wet and dry measuring cups. In addition, you need to check level in cups at eye level. Leave the cup on the counter, and lower down to read the cup…don’t lift the cup to eye level. You can’t make sure you’re holding it straight.
However, to confuse matters, some newer cups are made so you can read them from above. I simply ignore this fact.
Use the above method for oils, water, milk, heavy cream (and other liquid milk products), etc.
For sticky liquid items (honey, molasses, syrups, etc.), lightly spray the measuring cup with non-stick spray before pouring liquid in cup. It will easy pour back out without losing too much to sticking.
If you’re going to be very precise, the meniscus the curved upper surface of a liquid. The BOTTOM of the meniscus should be at the measuring line, not the top of it. Another way of describing it: water curves downward. Have the bottom of the curve at the measuring line, not the top.
Random Tips & Hints:
- This is fairly obvious…but use real measuring cups and spoons. Don’t use the cups you drink from. Don’t use the spoons you eat with. I admit: I didn’t know the bit about the spoons when I started baking. Our eating spoons are NOT teaspoon and tablespoon size.
- Make sure you have dry and liquid measuring cups.
- Never measure over the bowl of mixed ingredients. If you over-pour the salt or vanilla, you can’t remove it from the recipe. I had this issue with vanilla once.
- Crack eggs open into a separate bowl one by one. Smell and then dump into recipe. I thought it was an urban legend until I actually got a bad egg. Ick.
- For sticky ingredients, spray non-stick spray into the measuring cup before adding the ingredient. It will be easy to pour or remove.
- -Or- place plastic wrap in the measuring cup. Fill, then pull out plastic wrap and dump out ingredient. This works well with shortening, which often sticks to the cup and is hard to clean out. Again, I recommend the Pampered Chef measuring cup…it removes this problem.
• Print options: regular paper works, but you can also use card stock.
• The file is in pdf below. Or click on the image. It will open in a new window and you can either print directly or save to computer.
• The default size of these is full-page.