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How did that flour get into the cup?

(article, Greg Patent)

One of my pet peeves over the years has been the guesswork we bakers face when it comes to measuring flour. A recipe might say, "1 cup flour." But how did the flour get into that cup? If we just weighed our dry ingredients, there'd be no problem — and in the first half of the 19th century, weighing is what home bakers did. Then somebody decided to use cups, and all sorts of problems began.
What size cup might be meant? And would you use the same cup to measure liquid and dry ingredients? Some authors said to use teacups, others tumblers, but no guidelines for what amounts these measures represented were given. By the time Fannie Farmer published her first cookbook in 1896, the shift from weighing to measuring was complete, and measuring cups were standardized to contain 8 ounces — by volume! And we had cups with spouts to measure liquids and smooth-rimmed cups to measure flour and the like.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="If no instructions for measuring flour are given, then you're safest measuring flour this way."] 

Many cookbook authors today, and a few of the food magazines, will tell you how to measure flour for their recipes. Some will say to use the dip and sweep method, which means you dip your cup used to measure dry ingredients into the flour container, fill it to overflowing without shaking or banging the cup, and sweep off the excess flour with a metal spatula or straightedge of some sort. A cup of flour measured this way weighs 5 ounces, on average. I say on average because the dryness or humidity of the flour will affect its weight.

The most common way to measure flour is probably the spoon-and-level method. If no instructions for measuring flour are given, then you're safest measuring flour this way. Stir the flour in its container to aerate it, spoon it into your dry measure until the cup is heaping — again, no banging or shaking the cup — and then sweep off the excess, leveling the flour in the cup. This cup of flour weighs 4 1/2 ounces.

If a recipe calls for sifted flour, you sift more than you need with a flour sifter, spoon the flour very gently into your dry measure until heaping, then sweep off the excess. This cup of flour will weigh about 4 ounces.

The weights I've given above apply to all-purpose flour. Many whole-grain flours are denser and will weigh more per cup. That's why using a scale rather than a cup leaves no doubts about the amount.

Happy baking!

reference-image, l