How you measure your ingredients could be the culprit of inconsistent results, making all the difference between a delicate, fluffy cake or a tough one. Could you be doing this without realizing it?
Think about the last time you recreated a baking recipe and it didn’t quite turn out as the author promised. You wonder if it’s the different brand of ingredients, or perhaps the author oversold the recipe?
Today I would like to bring another factor to your attention: how you measure ingredients for baking. Measuring ingredients is the most foundational step when executing a recipe, but it’s often the most overlooked because it’s so preliminary.
Baking is all about chemistry
A certain ratio of ingredients is needed for desired chemical reactions to take place – too little eggs and there isn’t enough protein for the Maillard reaction to make your cake a nice golden brown.
Besides that, crafted recipes are tried and tested, so measuring correctly ensures that you’re replicating a recipe as the author intended. It’s also more than a baker-to-baker concern. Using the right technique results in a consistent product every time you bake so you don’t have to fuss over why your signature cake fell flat this time.
Weight vs volume
When measuring ingredients, there are two options: measuring by weight or by volume. Volume is measured using measuring cups, while a kitchen scale is used for measuring weight. However, sometimes you may not have a choice.
Not all recipes are created equal – some only call for cups, and some only grams. That is why on my end, as a recipe developer, I try to always include both measurements where applicable in each recipe.
When to use one over the other?
Measuring cups are convenient but trickier to work with because the volume is dependent on how an ingredient fills the space. Several types of flour aerate easily or compact with pressure, and may fill the cup differently depending on how you pack it.
You then run the risk of introducing more or less of the ingredient than the recipe calls for. On a scale, however, you can be sure to accurately measure 100 grams every time. Measuring by weight is best for accuracy and reproducibility. I often use both means, verifying the expected weight on a scale after I measure them according to volume.
Using dry measuring cups
Each dry measuring cup individually measures ¼ cup, ⅓ cup, ½ cup, and 1 cup. The general rule when measuring dry ingredients is to scoop and sweep off the excess using a straight-edge spatula or the flat side of a knife to level it out. This works perfectly for ingredients such as cornmeal, granulated sugar, chocolate chips or cranberries.
Using measuring spoons
Measuring spoons are handy tools for measuring small amounts of ingredients like vanilla extract, spices, baking powder and baking soda since they range from 1/8 teaspoon, 1/4 teaspoon, 1/2 teaspoon, 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon. They are used the same way as a dry measuring cup.
Using liquid measuring cups
When it comes to liquids such as milk and olive oil, using dry measuring cups may be difficult since you would have to fill it to the brim and carefully but stealthily transfer that to your mixing bowl without spilling any. It works but is definitely not the most convenient. You also don’t want to be pouring it into the cup above your mixing bowl in case of it overflowing.
This is why the liquid measuring cup’s highest graduation is far from the brim. It is to keep everything inside if it gets sloshed around. It’s important to place the cup on a flat surface and read the meniscus at eye level to get an accurate read.
Trying to gauge the meniscus from above eye level will make it appear to have more liquid than it actually does, causing you to add less to your recipe, and vice versa.
Liquids like milk or oil are easy to handle, but for the ones that are more sticky or higher viscosity, such as honey and maple syrup, spraying the cup with cooking spray will ease in pouring it out.
Measuring compressible ingredients
It gets tricky when it comes to compressible ingredients like flour and confectioner’s sugar, as we’ve learned. To combat this, you can use one of these methods:
- Dip and sweep. Simply dip the measuring cup lightly into the bag and use a straight edge spatula or flat side of a knife to sweep away the excess. Be careful not to exert too much force as you dip to prevent the flour from packing.
- Spoon and sweep. Instead of going in with your measuring cup, use a spoon to transfer flour into the cup, lightly dusting it to spread the flour particles. Similarly, sweep the excess away to level it out.
To see if the techniques differed greatly, I tested out how much flour was measured in 1 cup (grams and ounces) for an entire 2-pound bag of flour. On average dip and sweep yields 147 grams (5.16 ounces) of flour. Spoon and sweep yield on average 131 grams (4.65 ounces).
A 16 gram (1/2 ounce) difference between the two methods, or about 2 tablespoons. That could be a significant change to the texture of a baked good. Between the two, I personally use the dip and sweep and always report the grams and ounces to give you reproducible results.
Measuring brown sugar
Brown sugar has molasses and moisture present. This means uneven granule sizes and a sticky consistency where its granules do not naturally sit on top of each other uniformly. Manually packing the brown sugar is an attempt to eliminate air pockets from these uneven granules. Doing so reduces the likelihood of measuring more air instead of sugar one time and vice versa.
It should be pressed with just enough force that the brown sugar no longer compresses easily and comes out in the shape of the measuring cup. While it’s good practice to pack your brown sugar when using measuring cups, be cautious of applying different pressures. For this tricky ingredient, it would be worthwhile investing in a measuring scale.
Measuring semi-liquid and butter
Semi-liquid ingredients like peanut butter, applesauce or sour cream can be measured by filling the cup well and leveling the top out with a spatula or knife. Butter and shortening can be measured this way too, as they are soft and malleable.
If available, butter and shortening sticks are a more convenient option since they come labeled with graduated markings in tablespoons and cups. Unfortunately, these are not commonly found outside of the United States. Butter is typically sold in blocks of 250g or 500g in most other countries like New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
Tips to remember
- Take heed of keywords stated in the recipe. Does it say “sifted” or “packed lightly”? These words affect how you should pack in, and consequently, the amount weighed, so it is crucial to follow.
- Be aware of the order in which it is written. “1 cup sifted flour” is different than “1 cup flour, sifted,” whereby you should sift the flour prior to measuring. Since sifted flour has been aerated, the former would weigh less than the latter.
- This goes for butter as well since melted and solid butter have different structures and densities. Measuring ½ cup of solid butter will result in a different weight than melting the butter and measuring out ½ cup.
- Flour can settle overtime in the bag, so make sure to gently mix it before scooping. Once the measuring cup is filled, avoid shaking or tapping it as this action forces the air out.
Using a kitchen scale
A scale can be superior because you don’t have to worry about the possible human errors that come with measuring cups. You can weigh almost everything on a scale since you have the option to convert between units, even to fluid ounces! To measure correctly, make sure the scale is tared or zeroed out with the empty bowl placed on it.
A kitchen scale can also make it easy to scale a recipe up or down since you’re not limited by the range of measuring cup sizes. However, it can make the job harder when trying to scale down ingredients normally added in small quantities, like baking powder, baking soda or salt.
Imagine trying to weigh 1/8th of a teaspoon of baking powder or spices, which is 0.5g. Most kitchen scales show a rounded number, so you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between 0.5g and 1g – that’s bound to cause issues since you would be adding twice the amount!
While having a kitchen scale is a worthy investment, especially if you’re a serious baker, no one can deny the convenience of measuring cups and spoons. At the end of the day, it never hurts to have all the tools in your arsenal, as long as you’re using them correctly!