How you measure your ingredients could be the culprit of inconsistent results, making all the difference between a delicate, fluffy cake and a tough one. Could you be doing this without realizing it?
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Think about the last time you recreated a baking recipe that didn’t turn out as the author promised. You wonder if it’s the different ingredients brand, 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 occur – too few eggs and insufficient protein for the Maillard reaction to make your cake a nice golden brown.
Besides that, crafted recipes are tried and tested, so measuring baking ingredients correctly ensures that you’re replicating a recipe as the author intended. It’s also more than a baker-to-baker concern. Using the proper 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 volume or by weight. Volume is measured using measuring cups, while a kitchen scale measures 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, 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 because the volume depends 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 risk introducing more or less of the ingredient than the recipe calls for. On a scale, however, you can be sure to measure 100 grams accurately 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 components 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 ⅛ teaspoon, ¼ teaspoon, ½ 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 types of cooking oil, using dry measuring cups may be difficult since you would have to fill the top of the cup to the brim and carefully but stealthily transfer that to your mixing bowl without spilling any. It works, but it is not the most convenient. You also don’t want to pour it into the cup above your mixing bowl if it overflows.
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 essential 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 does, causing you to add less to your recipe and vice versa.
Liquids like milk or oil are easy to handle, but for sticky ingredients with a higher viscosity, such as honey and maple syrup, spraying the cup with cooking spray will ease pouring it out.
Measuring compressible ingredients
As we’ve learned, it gets tricky when it comes to compressible ingredients like flour and confectioners’ sugar. 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 the 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 significantly, I tested how much flour was measured in 1 cup (grams and ounces) for an entire 2-pound bag. On average, dip and sweep yield 147 grams (5.16 ounces) of flour. Spoon and sweep yield, on average, 131 grams (4.65 ounces).
A 16-gram (½ ounce) difference between the two methods, or about 2 tablespoons, could be a significant change to the texture of a baked good. Between the two, I use the dip and sweep and consistently report the grams and ounces to give you reproducible results.
Measuring brown sugar
Brown sugar has molasses and moisture present. This means variable granule sizes and a sticky consistency where its granules do not naturally sit on top of each other uniformly. Manually packing softened 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 about applying different pressures. Investing in a measuring scale would be worthwhile for this tricky ingredient.
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 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 more convenient since they come labeled with graduated markings in tablespoons and cups. Unfortunately, these are not commonly found outside of the United States. Common types of butter are 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 the keywords stated in the recipe. Does it say “sifted” or “packed lightly”? These words affect how you pack in and the amount weighed, so it is crucial to follow them.
- 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 before measuring. Since sifted flour has been aerated, the former would weigh less than the latter.
- This also goes for butter since melted and solid butter has 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.
- When measuring flour, not that it can settle over time in the bag, so mix it gently 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 can convert between units, even 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 the range of measuring cup sizes does not limit you. However, it can be more challenging to scale down ingredients typically added in small quantities, like baking powder, baking soda, or salt.
Imagine weighing 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. It never hurts to have all the tools in your arsenal, as long as you’re using them correctly!
9 Comments Leave a comment or review
Yes. All skilled people have all tools with them to complete a task. I use my scale and spoons when baking.
Thank you for this. There were several things I had not thought about before such as the shifted flour vs flour, sifted.
Jessica Gavin says
Always new things to learn in the kitchen, so much fun!
Is it accurate to measure liquids such as water and milk on a kitchen scale rather than using a measuring jug? I often find it confusing as Australia has different cup sizes to USA, which means when finding recipes online it can make big differences to the results.
Jessica Gavin says
I think that measuring on a scale would make for more consistent measuring results for liquids. I totally see how the cups can be confusing as it varies in different countries.
Should the flour used for dusting a work surface come from a recipe’s measured amount or is that “extra”? Similar question for any fat used to grease or oil a cooking surface.
Jessica Gavin says
The flour dusting and greasing oil is usually extra, otherwise specified in the recipe.
Paul Costanzo says
Great recipes. Question is; when I mix spices and herbs (like chicken breasts). How do I know how much of each spice to add. ie.. garlic powder, paparika, etc…
Thank you… Grandma Meatball and chicken breasts are in demand at my house. Thank you
Jessica Gavin says
I have recipes on my website for chicken seasoning, tacos, etc. For salt and pepper I usually like to do a 2:1 ratio. Then I might add about 1/4 to 1/2 of the amount of garlic or onion powder compared to the salt as an accent flavor. Depending on how you cook the ingredient, paprika can burn. I start with adding in a small amount, about 1/4 of the salt, and increase to taste. It helps with enhancing the color.