How and When You Need to Sift Flour

You may not need it very often, but it's still a good idea to have an old-fashioned flour sifter on hand.

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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? We've got the answers for you.

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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 also much lighter and airier 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., and then sift them together. This process helps to combine everything evenly before mixing with other ingredients, such as eggs and butter.

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 well 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, and 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.

Here are a few other times you should sift your flour for baking:

  • The flour in angel food or sponge cakes should be sifted to eliminate and prevent lumps and to result in a lighter batter. Many other cakes will benefit from sifting as well.
  • 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.
  • Sift flour over a work surface, instead of just tossing on a handful, when you're about to roll out or knead dough. This results in a thin layer of flour, which is helpful since adding too much extra flour to your dough can make it tough or dry.

How to Measure Sifted Flour

If your recipe calls for "X cups sifted flour," that means that you should sift a bunch of flour (more than called for) into a bowl, then measure out the amount needed in the recipe. Spoon the flour into a measuring cup to prevent overpacking, then level it off with a knife.

What If You Don't Have a Sifter?

If a recipe catches you unprepared because you don't already have a sifter on hand, you can still take steps to fluff up your flour. Use a wire whisk or fine-mesh sieve instead to blend together the dry ingredients or to lighten your flour before measuring. Some bakers even prefer to use a sieve, which sifts quickly and can hold greater volume.

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