It really doesn’t matter, does it?

One aspect of cooking that confuses a whole lot of people is the difference between “1 cup flour, sifted” and “1 cup sifted flour”. I’m here to tell you there’s a HUGE difference, and it applies to most ingredients. Both of the above examples list one cup as the amount and flour as the ingredient, but they’re very different. Flour is one of the most important ingredients in all baking, and how you prepare and measure it very much matters.

In my post titled “This isn’t your ordinary Meal Prep” I told you that most ingredients do not weigh the same as their volume measurement (i.e., 8 ounces of flour in weight is not going to measure 1 cup in volume). In fact, one cup of unsifted all-purpose flour weighs 120 grams, or about 4¼ ounces, whereas one cup of sifted all-purpose flour weighs 115 grams, or about 4 ounces. This applies only to properly measured flour, which is done by spooning or scooping small amounts at a time into the measuring cup until it’s overflowing, and then leveling it off at the top. Resist shaking it as you spoon it into the measuring cup, as this will affect both its weight and volume.

So, what’s the difference? If it says, “1 cup flour, sifted” then what you need to do is spoon it into the measuring cup as above, and then sift it. If it says, “1 cup sifted flour” then you need to sift it first, then measure it as above. In both cases, you cannot skip the sifting step, because it will affect your finished product. Sifting the flour incorporates air into it, which helps to give your cakes and other baked goods a light, airy texture. The difference, therefore, is when the sifting is done. It’s either done before you measure the flour, or after it.

This also applies to chopping, mincing, dicing, shredding, and other methods of ingredient preparation. To illustrate this, let’s have a short homework assignment, OK? Don’t worry–you won’t be tested. Take any food that you would usually chop before cooking it. Say, an onion. Get one that roughly fits into a 1-cup dry measuring cup. Put it into the measuring cup. That is “1 cup onion”, which isn’t a correct ingredient listing at all; neither is “1 cup onion, chopped”. Peel the onion and run a knife through it briefly. Put it back into the measuring cup. It probably comes close to the volume. This is because the pieces are big, and there are air spaces between them.

Now remove the onion from the measuring cup, and run the knife through it again. You’re going to have less than you did the first time, because the pieces are smaller and there are fewer air spaces. If you keep running the knife through the onion pieces to make them progressively smaller, you might find that you need more than one onion, chopped, to fill that cup. See the difference now?

The bottom line is, not only do the ingredients matter, but also how they’re prepared. Pay close attention to words such as chopped, minced, sifted, shredded, etc., as well as where they appear in the ingredient listing. Think of it this way. In the first flour example above, the ingredient is flour, the amount is one cup, and sifting is what you do with it. In the second example, the ingredient is sifted flour and the amount is one cup. If you don’t know when to perform the preparation of the ingredient, everything will turn out wrong, even if you know how to perform the preparation.

Have anything to add or a question to ask? Feel free to comment below.

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