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View Full Version : What's the purpose of sifting flour?

04-27-1999, 10:39 AM
Carl from Austin, TX wrote:

" .... The stuff I buy at the
store claims to be pre-sifted, but I can tell that it's denser before I sift it than after, so the measurements would be off."

Hello??? I don't know what kind of scales you use in Texas, but they must be pretty fancy if they can differentiate on the basis of the density of the ingredients! I would venture that 1kg of flour would still weigh 1kg even after you'd sifted it (unless you're incedibly clumsy and spilt most of it :-) )

At the risk of proposing a semi-sensible answer, I thought it was to do with getting more air into your ingredients/mixture which helps it rise during baking. Anyway, the answers from the SDStaff make for amusing reading ....

- Mark

04-27-1999, 11:48 AM
[[At the risk of proposing a semi-sensible answer, I thought it was to do with getting more airinto your ingredients/mixture which helps it rise during baking. Anyway, the answers from the SDStaff make for amusing reading ....]] Mark Taylor

I don't like your tone, young man. No cupcakes for you!
Jill

04-27-1999, 05:19 PM
Hello??? I don't know what kind of scales you use in Texas, but they must be pretty fancy if they can differentiate on the basis of the density of the ingredients! I would venture that 1kg of flour would still weigh 1kg even after you'd sifted it (unless you're incedibly clumsy and spilt most of it :-) )

I think you must be European. In the US we use cups of flour. When you are dealing in volume instead of mass, density is quite important.

PUN

04-28-1999, 08:41 AM
I think you must be European. In the US we use cups of flour. When you are dealing
in volume instead of mass, density is quite important.

Exactly, it makes it very important, which is why using something like mass to measure out solid ingredients would be much more ...... logical?? :-)

So, do you get receipes which ask for "1 cup of lard" for instance? If so, what do you do? - melt the lard so it fills the shape of the cup and then put it in the fridge again to solidify before adding it?

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_______________________________________________
Mark Taylor taylor@esc.cam.ac.uk
Dept. Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge

04-28-1999, 03:15 PM
<<So, do you get receipes which ask for "1 cup of lard" for instance? If so, what do you do? - melt the lard so it fills the shape of the cup and then put it in the fridge again to solidify before adding it?>>

I am not personally a user of lard (not kosher, dontcha know), but I do use recipes calling for solid shortening (vegetable) or butter by the cup (or fraction thereof).

For butter, it's generally pretty easy. Almost all butter in the US is sold in standard sticks of 1/2 cup (weighing a bit more than 100g). The sticks are wrapped in paper with volume markings on it, which you simply cut through with a knife. Voila, instant volume measure. I think lard is typically packed in a similar way.

For solid vegetable shortening, which is actually quite soft, you just kind of spackle it into a measuring cup (the kind of dry measure that you fill to the top and level with a knife or spatula). Then you scrape it out of the cup with a rubber spatula or similar utensil.

Let's not even get into tsps and tbls.

Best,
Rick

04-28-1999, 09:13 PM
[[So, do you get receipes which ask for "1 cup of lard" for instance? If so, what do you do?]]

For starters, I would look for a different recipe! There is a handy way to measure shortening (same consistency as lard) that makes clean-up easier too. If a recipe calls for 1/2 cup of shortening (or butter - not quite as gross as lard, I put water in the two-cup glass measuring cup up to the 1 1/2 cup line, then add spoonfuls of shortening until the water reaches the 2 cup line. Then dip out the shortening into the other ingredients. Makes one cake big enough for pieces for everyone except Mark Taylor.
Jill

04-29-1999, 09:44 AM

I feel I have to confess that my choice of "lard" as an example was less because of a genuine desire to find out to measure out lard and more because I thought it a (dare I say) "humourous" example? (You know, perceived incongruity and all that?) -- Jill is quite right that a recipe asking for lard would probably prompt you to look for an alternative!

Anyway, the point I was trying to highlight was the slightly odd "custom" of using volume measurements to measure out solids in recipes in the US - Jill's example highlights why this is so odd:

If a recipe calls for 1/2 cup of shortening, I put water in the two-cup glass measuring cup up to the 1 1/2 cup line, then add spoonfuls of shortening until the water reaches the 2 cup line. Then dip out the shortening into the other ingredients.

Maybe I am just lazy, but doesn't this seem a rather extensive procedure to go through? - wouldn't it just be easier to weigh out a certain amount on a set of scales??

Anyway, never mind, and thanks for the answers .....

Cheers, Mark

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_______________________________________________
Mark Taylor taylor@esc.cam.ac.uk
Dept. Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge

04-29-1999, 11:22 AM
If a recipe calls for 1/2 cup of shortening (or
butter - not quite as gross as lard, I put water in the two-cup glass measuring cup up to the 1 1/2
cup line, then add spoonfuls of shortening until the water reaches the 2 cup line. Then dip out the
shortening into the other ingredients.

This is an interesting method that I will definitely try next time I bake.

One question: does the shortening float? If so, then what you are actually doing here is measuring an amount of shortening that weighs as much as 1/2 cup of water. By Archimedes' Principle, floating objects displace their weight of fluid. Objects that sink displace their volume. So, assuming the shortening floats, the volume you measure is actually a little more than 1/2 cup. The difference is probably trivial, but it's these kind of nitpicks that make life entertaining for us nitpickers (and annoy everyone else).

Rick

04-29-1999, 02:01 PM
Unfortunately, there are a great many paranoid morons in the US, and as far as they're concerned:

1) using scales in the kitchen is part of the Metric System, and

2) the Metric System was invented by Communists.

Since public policy in the US is generally under the threat of veto by said paranoid morons, we continue to use volume measure, in a complex and inconsistent system. (Many volume measures differ depending on what is being measured.) Intelligent cooks will use scales where possible, of course, but nearly all US cookbooks and package instructions fail to list weights, lest they be seen as part of the unAmerican atheist-red-jew-banker Metric conspiracy.

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John W. Kennedy
"Conpact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays."
-- Charles Williams

04-29-1999, 03:00 PM
Here it comes! My knee jerk response to all you Yank-bashers out there.

John- Your profile says Chatham, so I'm guessing you're English. Just because we don't do things the same way you or even the rest of the World does, does not make us morons. (I won't even comment on your offensive remarks about Americans believing in an athiest-Jew-banker....whatever conspiracy.)

We don't use the metric system for most things for the simple reason that the old way works just fine. ('Taint broken, don't fix it!) I won't call you names for driving on the left side of the road if you don't call me names for measuring my flour any damn way I please.

04-29-1999, 10:39 PM
[[Anyway, the point I was trying to highlight was the slightly odd "custom" of using volume measurements to measure out solids in recipes in the US]]

Maybe it's odd but food seems to turn out just fine most of the time with our odd measuring techniques. Let's see a show of hands. How many people here prefer American cooking over British cooking? You can even take that poll in England. Although I wonder if Chinese or Indian people measure their ingredients very carefully at all.. and in my opinion their foods are best of all.

Regarding lard, it's true I balk at cooking with it, but I often wonder if the reason food tastes better in Mexican restaurants than at my house is because of all the lard used. I just don't wanna know about it.

Yes, lard/shortening/butter floats in water, but I hadn't thought about the weight thing. I just thought it displaced space. You people sure know a lot of things.
Jill

04-30-1999, 12:59 AM
Just one comment:

What kind of cook worth their weight in salt (thats for Mark) actually precisely measures the ingredients. A rough measure is adaquate, especially considering the inconsistancy of ingredients, and moisture in the air, etc. vary so widely a precise measure is redundant. Most cooks, just wing it, and go by look and feel. Most recipes that call for flour, which started this absurdity, are breads and pasta that you knead and/or roll out. Typically you flour your hands and board frequently and therefore destroy all that time and effort you put into precision.

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The facts expressed here belong to everybody, the opinions to me. The distinction is
yours to draw...

Omniscient; BAG

04-30-1999, 09:17 AM
My suspicion is that measuring ingredients is not inherently easier by mass than volume or the other way around. There are some ingredients which might be easier to weigh accurately than to put in a measuring cup accurately. But, if you consistantly use measuring cups you will get a feel for how high you want to stack the celery above the cup for a given recipe. (Granted this might depend as much on how much you LIKE celery as it does on how much space you think there is in the cup between celery pieces).
On the other hand, since I am a young american, measuring ingredients by mass would be darn near impossible, while measuring by volume is easy. (I have parts of several sets of measuring cups, but no scales whatsoever).

04-30-1999, 09:22 AM
since I am a young american, measuring ingredients by mass would be darn near impossible

why, is measuring things by mass something American's only learn when they get older?

(this would be another one of those supposed humours type things by the way ..... )

- Mark

04-30-1999, 09:48 PM
Regarding the lard measurement question: lard comes in sticks as well as in bulk. As to whether exact measurement matters: no in breads, more so in quick breads and cakes. For what it's worth, whole wheat flour does not pack down as much as white and may be used after a quick stir.

05-01-1999, 10:46 AM
The "profile" information seems unstable. Somehow, the "NJ" was lopped from "Chatham" -- not that that's any excuse for you failing to notice the word "we" in my posting.

For the rest, the present system is a mess. Literally years of "math" in elementary school are wasted in trying to teach the complex and nonsensical US system, when the metric system has to be learned anyway. Can you, right now, tell me the difference between a dry pint and a liquid pint? A Troy ounce and an Avoirdupois ounce? How many inches in a link? What is a slug? What is its relationship to a poundal?

As to whether or not there are paranoid right-wing lunatics who oppose the Metric system out of their crack-brained ideology, it takes only the skimming of any "letters to the Editor" column after an article on the subject to prove that.

As to the specific issue of cookery, any serious cook in any country will tell you to use a scale. You won't find a major cookbook or cooking-school textbook in America that doesn't deplore the popular aversion.

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John W. Kennedy
"Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays."
-- Charles Williams

05-02-1999, 06:21 AM
John says: << Can you, right now, tell me the difference between a dry pint and a liquid pint? A Troy ounce and an Avoirdupois ounce? How many inches in a link? What is a slug? What is its relationship to a poundal? >>

While commonly used arguments, such are not effective. Most people never need to know these things, and probably haven't ever heard of a "link" or a "slug" related to measurements. Hence, such as approach is easily shrugged off as irrelevant.

On the "not broken, needn't be fixed" comment re adopting the metric system...That's not the point. You probably get a new computer every few years, even though your old one isn't broken. It's called upgrading to a newer, better, more powerful system. Hey, my typewriter wasn't broken, either, but I got a word processor BECAUSE IT'S EASIER AND BETTER AND MORE COMPATIBLE WITH WHAT EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING.
Sic etiam metric.

05-02-1999, 11:36 AM
Upgrading my computer is a hell of a lot easier than upgrading the hundred or so cookbooks my wife and I own (She's British BTW, and does just fine without a scale.) I talked to a friend who graduated from the California Culinary Academy, and he tells me that, yes, he does have a scale, but rarely uses it. A really good chef will usually rely more on his instinct than precise measures. The purpose of a scale in most restaurant kitchens is food cost control and in most cases is gaged in ounces and pounds.

Is it fair to call Americans culinary Luddites because we're "too lazy" to recalibrate millions of receipes? I'm not going to apologize for my Grandmother's use of measuring cups in her cookie receipes, neither am I going to go to the trouble of converting it to the metric system. Sorry, if I'm holding up the pace of human progress!

05-02-1999, 11:57 AM
Oh, come on, the recipe conversion process is nothing. And you do it all the time. They repackage tomoto paste so you can't buy the 4 oz can anymore, and you have to change the number of cans you toss in a recipe. Big freakin' deal.

Instead, we have to pay more for car repairs because the service station needs both metric and imperial sized wrenches. We travel to foreign countries and they announce the weather as 20, and we don't know if that's cold or hot. I bought the wrong amount of lumber because someone converted the measurements from inches to yards and got it wrong.

Yeah, we're too lazy to improve ourselves. That's the spirit.

05-03-1999, 10:19 AM
As an engineer who has spent what seems like a ridiculous amount of time converting units of various types into units of various other types and back, I have to agree that I would like it if the US switched to the metric system in manufacturing. However, considering the amount of equipment presently existing in factories that is not metric, I suspect that the next several generations of engineers will have to learn multiple systems of units. New plants will, I believe, slowly be built more and more with metric parts, because of the increasing globalization of industry.

However, I fail to see why that should have any impact on whether I cook with cups of flour or grams of flour.

05-04-1999, 09:04 AM
There is a purely political association in American's minds between kitchen scales and the metric system. I don't know why.

But any chemist will tell you that the only serious way to measure non-liquids is by weight. (Not to mention that traditional American use of volume measurements is hopelessly imprecise to begin with -- just how much is a "heaping teaspoon", anyway?)

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John W. Kennedy
"Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays."
-- Charles Williams

05-04-1999, 09:51 AM
I had some really good pro-volume comments to make, and then John Kennedy (hello from Florham Park!) has to make this comment about *heaping* teaspoons...

Excellent point, but my guess is that a recipe which calls for such an amount would not be seriously affected by using slightly more or less than that amount. Anyone ever see a recipe call for heaping teaspoons of baking powder? ... I didn't think so.

Anyway, here is my pro-volume comment:

Using cups and spoons, it is not difficult to measure out 200ml or even 5ml of an ingredient quite precisely. But suppose I need 50 grams? Or 25 grams? Where are you going to find a scale to get measure it out to a 10% accuracy? or even 20%?

The scales I see, I wouldn't trust them to be accurate more than to the nearest ounce (=25gr), if that much. Sure, professional chefs can afford the more accurate ones, but for normal household use, I'll take volume measurements any day.

05-04-1999, 11:20 PM
I used to work as a pro baker (nothing snotty, just a baker in a local bakery, making scones and cakes and brownies and such), and I still bake and cook a lot in my personal life. So here are my observations:

1) Like someone said, yeasted breads TEND to be forgiving in terms of variations in ingredient amounts, whereas quickbreads (i.e., pastries leavened through means other than yeast, such as baking powder, baking soda, steam, frothed eggs, etc.) tend to be less forgiving. I usually only measure the water and salt when I'm making yeast bread -- the former determines how many loaves I get, and the latter ain't real forgiving -- but on cakes and quickbreads I measure everything except the spices.

2) Someone mentioned the variations external conditions such as humidity create in cooking. It's sometimes true -- but it takes an extremely experienced cook, like a grandma or someone, to be able to take such factors into account successfully. For amateurs and semipros like me, measurement is often very useful.

3) Scales do get you more accurate results in your cooking, as some folks insist; however, they're more expensive, harder to clean, worthless for anything except measuring, and all around more of a pain in the butt to use than a nice set of pyrex measuring bowls and a few measuring spoons. There are occasions when I like to use a scale (or would like to -- I don't own one right now), but I never have had a recipe fail for a lack of a scale.

4) As for the American disdain for the metric system -- ah, get over it, ya damn furners! Someone once told me that 0 Fahrenheit was the temperature at which blood freezes, and that's way cooler than anything the metric system has to offer. I've noticed that the same people who hawk the metric system also think Esperanto is a good idea. That oughta tell you something.

05-05-1999, 12:15 AM
Hey, how many of you people actually COOK? Based on personal experience, a recipe that *requires* flour to be sifted is one that you can't mix well for some reason -- muffins, for example, where too much mixing messes up the texture, or a sponge cake, where you're mixing flour into egg whites that'll lose their volume if you beat 'em up too much. So you want the flour you're mixing to be fine and even in texture, with no chunks. The measurement argument is totally bogus.

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". . . and all places are alike to me."
--R. Kipling

05-06-1999, 11:30 PM
Go ahead and pile your flour up on a scale. This is what I will continue to do: dip a cup measure into the jar of flour (we could also debate why flour comes in frigging BAGS that cause such a mess), tamp it down on top slightly then slide a knife across the top, nice and smooth. One of life's simple pleasures.
Jill
(then I have to add a coupla TBs anyway, because I'm at high altitude.)

05-10-1999, 04:26 AM
Daniel: your assertion thatthe same people who hawk the metric system also think Esperanto is a good idea tells me you don't understand what a good idea is.

Esperento is considerably easier to learn than national languages and actually does have a large following. Many of that following are in the United States and the metric/traditional argument rages in our community also.

Are you really a conspiracy theorist or do you just want to be considered one of those morons? Either way, keep up those assertions and you will, at least, be considered one!

And just for fun, check the North American Esperanto League's homepage.

Gxis revido!
-Cxip

05-10-1999, 04:42 AM
Ho! I forgot to post the link: http://www.esperanto-usa.org/ . The official English name of the outfit is: The Esperanto League for North America. (I really have to quit back-translating.)

Gxis revido!
-Cxip

05-10-1999, 07:17 PM
Whoops! Sorry, Daniel; didn't mean to imply you'd be considered a moron. I don't think you're a consipiracy theorist, anyway.

Cheers!

05-12-1999, 11:17 PM
Monty: Not that Esperanto is even vaguely related to this thread...

But my reasons for disliking both Esperanto and the Metric system are similar. The systems of measurement and communication we have now carry a great deal of cultural history and weight. When there's a strong reason for chucking some cultural artifact (the Confederate Flag, for example, may carry cultural history, but it's inextricably linked to the atrocity of human slavery), I have no objection to it. But come on. Esperanto? The Metric system? Ain't nuthin wrong with the systems we have now; ain't no reason to turn our full service bar of a cultural polyglot into a glass of deionized water.

When I hear that an author I respect (and please let's leave Ken Kesey out of this) has written something in Esperanto, considering it a communication form superior to English (or Mandarin, or Russian, or Yoruban), I'll reconsider my position.

Incidentally, conspiracy theories? huh? Wait -- do you mean that people dislike Esperanto cuz they think it has something to do with the NWO and the imminent UN takeover of good ole Murruhkuh? If that's what you mean, that's great -- theories like that are what makes life interesting, and I can almost respect Esperanto if it can give rise to such fancy. Otherwise, my objection to it and to the metric system is that the two are just too dull to be much good.

I think the difference between us might be this: you (and other Esperanto fans) seem to believe that the shortest distance between two brains is a universal language. I believe that this is true under some circumstances -- within scientific practices, for example (and if Esperanto kindly restricts its growth to such fields, I'll happily advocate it). However, I also think that we're irrational emotional nonlinear critters, and forcing our meandering into the straight lines of universal language will strip of us much of our useless impertinent beauty and pleasure. Kant said something like, "Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made." Esperanto feels to me like a lathe applied to a grapevine.

Take care,
Daniel

05-13-1999, 01:40 PM
Great response, Daniel!

I disagree with you about the rationale of some folks (such as I) using Esperanto being in those folks' opinion "a superior language." My point is that, by using this workable, proven planned language, the "pride of place" has been removed from, say, English being spoken by an Englishman to a Japanese.

Of course, "natural" languages are superior in the area of cultural heritage. But that is changing as Esperanto has been extant for over 100 years now. Esperanto, in my opinion (and of others), is superior for international communications for the reasons I've given above.

Dull? C'mon! There are a great many individuals, television programmes, novels, and what have you in every language under the sun! It's the content, not the medium that dulls.

As it is, I've had occasion to use Esperanto in every country I've visited.

Now we've gotten that out of the way...the Metric system.

"Not broke?" Please. The so-called traditional English system of measures used in the United States is nowhere near "fixed." By law, all of those measures, today, are defined in terms of the Metric system, so that should show the legislature, at least, considers one superior to the other.

When's the last time you picked up one of those liter or 2 liter bottles of soda? Seems to me, that's an endorsement of the Metric system.

Also, whilst visiting friends in Preston England back in 1982, I had occasion to stand on their bathroom scale. Darn thing was graduated in Stones and then pounds. I suppose if you're used to seeing weights as multiples of fourteen, that's fine. Most English speakers aren't and thus don't use such a scale.

Oh, and I agree with you about the conspiracy theories making life interesting. It's just that I'm wary of folks (I'm not including you) who actually believe them. Heck, I even hosted one Straight Dope chat in which the crowd concocted some conspiracy theories just for fun.

Gxis revido!
-Cxip

05-13-1999, 02:14 PM
[[Oh, and I agree with you about the conspiracy theories making life interesting. It's just that I'm wary of folks (I'm not including you) who actually believe them. ]]

I know. And those people are everywhere.
Jill

05-13-1999, 06:27 PM
The original topic here was "why is flour sifted" not "how is (or should) flour be measured". Flour is sifted to insure that it is NOT densely packed. Sifting puts air between the flour's particles, facilitating mixture with liquids (water, egg white, ET AL). A solid, compacted mass of flour would not mix at all (or at least, it would be very difficult to do). See Unca Cecil's rap on how quicksand particles work for further details on a related subject.

05-14-1999, 04:24 PM
You tell em, Daniel!

I just wanna add one more curio (since this topic is supposed to be aobut flour & not Esperanto etc., I'll forcibly restrain myself from the above conversation -- maybe someone should get Cecil to rag on Esperanto a little so we can continue it?).

The absolute best cake book in the world, IMHO, is Rose Beranbaum's Cake Bible. In it, she doesn't call for sifting the flour ever: instead, in order to incorporate air pockets into the batter, she advises beating the shortening lots and lots. It works beautifully and is much easier & less messy than flour sifting.

One last note, that I picked up a couple weks ago from a book called Cook Wise: leaveners like baking powder, baking soda, and yeast aren't actually strong enough (according to the author) to create air pockets in batters and doughs: they only expand existing air pockets, which is why it's so important to introduce them mechanically. That sounds kinda weird to me -- I think I could pour baking soda into boiled water and still get some fizz -- but the author of the book seems otherwise to know her stuff real well. What do folks think?

05-27-1999, 01:34 AM
the purpose of sifting flour is two-fold first, more air is incorporated. sifted flour is fluffier, so a cup of sifted flour is less than a cup of unsifted. If you don't believe me, jiggle a cup of each. the sifted stuff will settle more. secondly, small particles from the grinding process and occasional flour bugs (those little brown specks are alive!!) won' fit through the screen as easily as the flour. Sifting just makes a person feel better than knowing you ate bugs.
as far as the lard segue, it makes the bread softer, and the fried chicken crispier. My grandma told me to measure it by spooning small amounts into a measuring vessel. It will float just under the surface. I want a quarter cup, (4 tbs) I fill the vessel to the 3/4c line and spoon in lard until the water line reaches 1c the same process would work just as well with a pitcher if you want to REALLY ACCURATELY measure a cup of lard.

can't tell I like to cook, can ya???

05-27-1999, 08:47 AM
Large commercial bakeries (I work for Pillsbury) sift flour for 3 reasons:
1. Sifting (hopefully) rids flour of extraneous materials (bits of wood, metal, large insects, you-don't-wanna-know) that invariably find their way into flour shipments. In addition to sifting, the flour is passed across some very heavy-duty bar magnets at several points in the process.
2. Unless flour has been sifted properly, it cannot be transported efficiently in large volumes. (Flour is pumped through pipes by air pressure/flow). (Very tricky, that - the static charge generated in the process can knock you on your ass, and that stuff gets hot unless cooled with liquid .. uh, better not give away the doughboy's secrets).
3. The federal government says they have to, primarly because of reason #1.