How and When You Need to Sift Flour
They were once in every kitchen, sometimes even attached to a free-standing cabinet known as a Hoosier cabinet. A flour sifter was a necessary item to have if the home cook wanted tender cakes and biscuits. Today's recipes usually don't call for sifting flour, but it is still a good idea to have a sifter on hand for those few occasions when you do need it. If one recipe tells you to sift flour but another doesn't mention it, how do you know when, and if, the process of sifting is really necessary?
Why You Should Sift Flour
Putting your flour through a sifter will break up any lumps in the flour, which means you can get a more accurate measurement. Sifted flour is much lighter than unsifted flour and is easier to mix into other ingredients when making batters and doughs.
When making baked items such as cookies and bars, your recipe instructions may tell you to measure all dry ingredients, such as flour, spices, cocoa, etc., then sift together. This process helps to combine everything evenly before they are mixed with other ingredients, such as eggs and butter. If you don't have a sifter use a wire whisk or fine mesh strainer to blend together the dry ingredients.
When You Should Sift Flour
In the past, it was always necessary to sift in order to separate the flour from pieces of husk, seeds, and other debris, including bugs. Thankfully, today's commercial flours are refined hoosier enough that sifting is not called for in everyday baking. It is a good idea, however, to always stir your flour before measuring, spoon it into your dry measuring cup, then level it off with a knife. This ensures there are no odd clumps or air pockets in the flour and you get the exact measurement you need when baking those fabulous layer cakes for family reunions and other special events.
There are some recipes that benefit from sifted flour. The flour in angel food or sponge cakes, for instance, should be sifted to eliminate and prevent lumps that would weigh down the batter.
Another time you should sift is when your flour has been sitting around for a while and seems to be tightly packed. Go ahead and sift it before measuring to guarantee you get the right amount.
Sifting flour over a work surface, instead of just tossing it, when you're about to roll out or knead dough is a good idea if you want a thin layer of flour, since adding too much extra flour to your dough can make it tough or dry.
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How to Sift According to a Recipe
If your recipe calls for "X cups sifted flour," that means that you should sift a bunch of flour (more than called for), then measure out the amount needed in the recipe. If the recipe says, "X cups flour, sifted," then measure out the required amount of flour, sift it, and use that same amount.