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Friday, December 20, 2013

How to Measure Flour (and why you need to know)

It seems like something that would be kind of obvious, yet since Home Ec. has disappeared from the school curriculum all over the country, this crucial bit of cooking info has been lost.

Why is this important? Because flour compacts very easily. The amount you're actually scooping out can vary wildly. Think of flour as the cement of the baked goods world. It's a foundation. It swells, absorbs moisture and bonds together. What would happen if you changed the amount of cement in concrete? Not enough and it wouldn't set. Too much and it would be dry and crumbly.

There are two types of measuring cups, one for wet ingredients and another for dry. The measuring cups for dry ingredients have a flat top so you can drag a knife across the top to get an even, level measurement. The measuring cups for wet ingredients have sides higher than the measurements so that you can fill to the measurement line without spilling.

To ensure consistent measurements across recipes across all recipes, the proper way to measure a cup of flour is:
  1. Use a fork (or whisk) to "fluff" up the top few inches of flour in the bag (or flour bin)
  2. Sink a spoon into the flour at a 45 degree angle (the way you would slide a shovel into the ground) and pull out flour without compacting it.
  3. Slide it off the spoon into a measuring cup for dry ingredients.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until the cup is completely full.
  5. Slide the back of a knife across the top of the measuring cup to even it out.
When you follow the steps above, the measurement should come out to approximately 125 grams per cup.

To demonstrate the variances, I fluffed the flour as in step one, then measure it just by scooping my one-cup measuring cup into the flour:

"1 cup" measured by scooping the cup into the flour
152 grams? But we wanted 1 cup, which should be 125 grams. That's 27 extra grams, almost 22% more flour than expected. When you're talking about an ingredient that's the base structure for most  baked goods, brace yourself for recipe failure! So then I measured it using the proper steps listed above and here are the results:

1 cup measured using the proper flour measurement steps above

126 grams? Almost perfect. Except.... that was a pain to measure that out. And, what if I need 4 cups of flour? I have to do that FOUR times? UGGGG!! That's where a scale becomes the best thing since sliced bread. On a recipe, I whip out my calculator to convert the flour in a recipe to weight. (For example, if the recipe calls for 3 1/2 cups, we know that 3.5 cups x 125 grams = 437.5 grams.) I usually write it on the recipe for future reference even in my cookbooks, in case it needs to be altered the next time I make it.

Here's the part that gets tricky... how did the person writing the recipe measure the flour? If it's a reputable source (like or America's Test Kitchen), they would have followed the steps above or weighed it. If it's someone of Food Network, well... those people are "food celebrities", not cooks. Someone else pre-cooks their food and they just go through the motions for the camera. They don't care if what they're demo'ing actually works or not because they'll never make it in real life.

A really solid recipe for baked goods will always list the flour by weight, but if it doesn't I do the conversion based on 125 grams per cup. If the baked good doesn't come out properly, I make a note which direction to alter the flour for next time. Usually in about 25 gram increments. (By the way, if I happen to know the person scooped the flour out with the cup directly, I automatically increase the conversion for that recipe by 25 grams.)

This, my friend, is how you get the exact same results every time. Chefs, restaurants, bakeries and even food producers weigh their flour.

Do you?

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