Learn how to sift flour like a professional, the key to light-as-air cookies, cakes, and all your best pastries. Here’s how (and when) to do it, and why it matters.
Got a baking sifter in the far reaches of your kitchen’s baking drawer? Even if you don’t, you can aerate flour in no time at all. When your favorite cake recipe calls for sifted flour, don’t leave out this crucial step. It’s the key to fluffy angel food cakes and lump-free pancake batter.
Here are the details, as well as how to measure flour correctly. (Chances are, if you’re anything like me, you may have been doing it wrong.)
Why sift flour?
Today, most flour that’s available to us has been commercially milled, so it’s fine textured and smooth. Historically, though, stone ground flour used to have tiny bits of the seed husk attached. In those days, sifting was a necessary step to remove these bits and make a more refined baked good.
So… why do we still sift? When a modern recipe calls for sifted flour, it usually means that the recipe requires fluffier, aerated flour, or flour without any lumps. As it is packaged, shipped, and stored, flour settles in the bag. Sifting lightens it up again.
It also creates space for the other components in the recipe to get in between the flour particles and do their work. Cakes become fluffier, pancakes lighter—you get the idea.
Sifting other ingredients:
Sifting is not just for flour!
Dry ingredients like salt, baking soda, baking powder, or dry milk are sometimes sifted together, in order to distribute them better. And cocoa powder or powdered sugar are often sifted to remove any lumps.
When to sift:
Should you sift flour for all recipes? No.
Commercial flour has already been sifted several times, so unless the recipe you are reading specifically requires it, you shouldn’t have to take the extra step.
Sift then measure, or measure then sift?
This is a great question. And it’s easy to answer if you read your particular recipe carefully.
- If the recipe calls for 3 cups sifted flour, then you need to pre-sift the flour into a bowl and then measure the flour.
- If the recipe calls for 3 cups flour, sifted, then measure the flour first, and then sift it.
On Culinary Hill, we always measure first, sift second.
How to sift flour:
You can sift flour with a flour sifter or a fine-mesh strainer. My preference is the strainer.
- Flour sifter: A flour sifter is a kitchen device that looks like a cup with a handle and a mesh strainer on one end. Some sifters have mechanical blades that help push the flour through the mesh, while others don’t. As you squeeze the handle, the blades are activated and sifted flour falls out the bottom of the cup.
- Fine-mesh strainer: A strainer (or sieve) is a circular gadget with a finely-woven mesh net used for straining liquids such as stocks or juice. It also works really well for sifting flour. Just pour your dry ingredients in it and tap the side with one hand. Anything left in the bottom can be pushed through with a spoon.
You can sift flour into a bowl, but parchment paper (or foil) makes the best funnel. When you’re done sifting, just lift the paper and aim it at your mixing bowl. It's much cleaner than trying to pour dry ingredients out of a large bowl into a second bowl attached to a mixer.
Other ways to aerate flour:
- A whisk. Add the flour to a dry bowl and whisk briskly.
- A food processor. The blades of the food processor do a great job. Just use the pulse function to spin it around.
Measuring flour accurately:
We’ve all heard that baking is more of a science than anything else, and it’s true! You need to measure ingredients more accurately in baking recipes than any other kind. Most importantly, how you measure flour matters.
Unless you have a digital scale to weigh out your flour—the most accurate way, as chefs agree—you can use dry measurement cups.
- But it doesn’t stop there. One cup of correctly measured flour should weigh 125 grams.
- But one cup of incorrectly measured flour can weigh up to 150 grams or more—a 20% difference!
Have you been measuring flour the right way, or the wrong way? Find out below.
The best way to measure flour:
- Spoon the flour out of the bag and directly into the measuring cup.
- Make a high mound on the top of the cup
- Then level off the measuring cup using the back of a knife.
That’s all there is to it!
The wrong way to measure flour? Don’t scoop or dip the cup into the flour, This is the most common baking mistake people make! It packs the flour into the cup, and will result in too much flour in your recipe.
Also, never dip, tap, tamp, jiggle, shake, or pack flour down into the measuring cup.
How to Sift Flour
- 1 cup all-purpose flour or other flour or dry ingredients
To sift with a fine-mesh strainer:
- Over a sheet of parchment paper, foil, or a bowl, add flour (or any dry ingredients) to a fine-mesh strainer and tap the side with one hand. Anything left in the bottom can be pushed through with a spoon.
To sift with a flour-sifter:
- Over a sheet of parchment paper, foil, or a bowl, add flour (or any dry ingredients) to sifter cup. Squeeze handle to activate the blades repeatedly until sifted flour falls out the bottom of the cup.