Sifting your flour seems a bit old-timey to modern bakers. After all, who of us has one of those handheld metal sifters with the hand crank? Though it seems unnecessary, sifting your ingredients serves a purpose in baking recipes, and you may not want to skip this step. Read on to learn about sifting and when it’s appropriate for your recipes.
Sifting does two things for you when you’re baking. It lightens dry ingredients like flour and sugar that have gotten packed down during packaging, which makes them lighter and truer to their intended volume—a good thing. Think of it like this: One cup of packed down, dense flour is a very different amount than one cup of lightly packed, airy, fluffy flour; the former will unintentionally make a denser, thicker baked good, while the latter will result in a more fluffy, light baked good. (Professional bakers actually measure their dry ingredients out with weight, not volume, because it’s more precise.)
Sifting also breaks up any clumps in dry ingredients (especially baking powder or baking soda), making them easier to all combine cohesively in your mixing bowl. Hopefully you aren’t using ingredients so old that they’re clumping together like crazy, but even if you are, sifting will help make your powdered ingredients a fine “powder” once again.
These are the basic foods that can benefit from sifting in baking recipes:
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- Confectioners’ sugar (also called powdered sugar)
- Cocoa powder
- Cornstarch or arrowroot
- Baking soda or baking powder
When your recipe calls for sifting, it’s important to note how it’s listed with the ingredient. "1 cup flour, sifted,” means you should measure out a cup of flour, then sift it into the mixing bowl. But “1 cup sifted flour,” means that you should sift flour into a measuring cup until it reaches 1 cup total. The difference may seem negligible, but when it comes to baking, every ounce can make the difference between a good pastry and an excellent one.
While you can use an official kitchen sifter to get the job done, any regular strainer or sieve will work just as well. Just hold your strainer over a mixing bowl and gently tap your dry ingredient into it, shaking the strainer gently to sift. Sift your ingredients one at a time—don’t dump them into the strainer/sifter all at once; they won’t break down and sift as effectively. So sift your flour first, then your sugar, and so on.
If your recipe doesn’t call for sifting, should you do it anyways? It doesn’t hurt. Sifting will always break up clumps and can help any baking venture come together a bit better. When your recipe calls for flour, sugar, cocoa powder, etc. without the sifting note, measure out the amount called for first, then sift into your mixing bowl.
Do you sift when you bake? Let us know when you do, and how you do it.