Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Matter of Some Measure: Flour Power!

As I gazed at the dismal results of my lovely cake – I wondered where I had gone wrong. The night I read about the recipe on a popular food blog, my mouth watered. I had to make it.

Although the cake looked beautiful when I took it out of the oven, it had a finer crumb than the text of the article had mentioned. Further investigation with my fork revealed white streaks that tasted like raw flour.

I went back to the food blog and found out where the original recipe appeared. I checked out the cookbook from my library and found that sure enough, dip and sweep was the measuring method used. If I’m not using a scale, I use the spoon and sweep method. My method had yielded too little flour.

In fact, the texture of the cake as described in the cookbook was totally different than what my finished product was. Besides not giving measuring technique in the blog, this blogger had also adapted a few other ingredients in the cake. It was now totally different than the author’s original version.

My cake was more like a cupcake in texture but the author of the cookbook, according to the recipe notes, intended it to have more of a pudding-like texture.

I actually made the cake a second time using the original recipe. Look how different they look.

Weighing is the most accurate way to follow a recipe, but many home cooks do not have a scale.

And not all recipes give metric or measurement by volume. In that case, either the spoon and sweep or dip and sweep method of measuring flour by volume is used.

Spoon and Sweep and Dip and Sweep – sounds like a dance from the 1920s and in fact sometimes the end result of using one or the other method to measure flour in baking can be as disorienting as such a dance sounds if the intent of the author of the recipe is unknown.

The spoon and sweep method requires that the baker first gently stir the flour then lightly spoon the flour into the measuring cup then level it with a knife. The dip and sweep method requires the baker to also stir the flour but then to dip the measuring cup into the flour then level with a knife. There can be as much as a 2-Tablespoon (.5 oz) difference in these two measuring methods.

If too little flour is used in a recipe, the finished product will be flat, wet and lacking in structure. Too much flour and the baked good can be dry and tough.

And not just the difference in how a baker measures flour can change its volume. Flour volume can change just because it is humid outside the day you want to bake or there is some other change in temperature.

Generally the introduction notes or the section on techniques in a cookbook gives the author’s preferred method of measuring flour.

But many home bakers these days get their recipes not just from cookbooks. Now there are cooking shows on TV, food sections of newspapers as well as hundreds of women’s and general interest magazines offering lifestyle articles with recipes included. But the biggest source of recipes these days has got to be food blogs.

But do you know how many of these sources offer guidance on how to measure the ingredients for their recipes? Not many.

And even some cookbooks don’t always specify a technique -- for example I was surprised to find that the popular Barefoot Contessa cookbooks by Ina Garten don’t specify how to measure dry ingredients.

I decided to do some research to see which method was preferred most often by authors of cookbooks, magazine and newspaper test kitchens.

It appears that this has been controversial subject for quite a long time. One of the first articles I found on this topic was from a 1945 piece in the New York Times. In the article, News of Food: A, B, C’s of Baking A Cake Are Outlined For Novices By Expert At The Red Cross, the expert implored bakers to measure flour by the spoon and sweep method: “lightly pile the material in the utensil and then cut off the “extra” by running a knife across the top.”

My mind spun when I discovered that Gourmet Magazine (and their cookbooks) use spoon and sweep but Bon Appetite Magazine (and cookbooks) use dip and sweep!

This means that all the recipes on that come from those two magazines use two different measuring methods!

And the measuring method for newspaper recipes are a mystery. The Los Angeles Times still has a test kitchen and they use spoon and sweep. I couldn’t find any information on test kitchens for the San Francisco Chronicle or the New York Times.

Who else uses spoon and sweep?
Flo Braker: cookbook author and master baker – she even gives her preferred measurement method in the text of her recipes if she contributes to a newspaper or magazine
Nick Malgieri
Joy of Cooking
Alice Medrich
King Arthur Flour cookbook
Fannie Farmer Cookbook

It seems that newer cookbooks are also using the spoon and sweep method
Anita Chu, Field Guide to Cookies
Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, authors of Baked: New Frontiers in Baking
•Molly Wizenberg the creator of the food blog orangette in her first book, A Homemade Life, includes only several instructions to following her recipes but on that short list there is the instruction to use spoon and sweep to measure flour.

But then in the dip and sweep camp we have some master bakers that you might have heard of:
Julia Child
Dorie Greenspan – who of course wrote Baking with Julia Child
•Edna Lewis, The Gift of Southern Cooking
•Sherry Yard, The Secrets of Baking
Cook’s Illustrated

But my research also yielded a promising trend in measuring flour – one geared toward consistency, which is the name of the game in baking. Many of the newer baking tomes give measurements by both weight AND by volume.

For example, one the funniest bits of information on measuring flour comes from the recent winner of the James Beard Award in the Baking category, Bakewise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking, by Shirley Corriher.

Corriher states in her Introduction chapter that “I find that many cooks will not read this Introduction or the headnote on a recipe that explains how the ingredients were measured. They do, however, read the ingredient line, so that is where I put which measuring technique was used.” In the ingredient list she specifies the weight of flour in both ounces and grams, the volume and how she measured the volume.

But the real trend is in the urging of master bakers for the home baker to finally buy a scale.

Although Cindy Mushet in her excellent book, The Art and Soul of Baking, specifies the dip and sweep method, she advises the reader to “put aside the dry measuring cups, purchase a digital scale and start weighing. If one thing can improve your baking, beginning with your first pan of brownies, it’s a scale.“

I also like the tone of Aliza Green, author of Starting with Ingredients: Baking: Quintessential Recipes for the Way We Really Bake, when she says that her mission is to convince home bakers to use a scale.

Fran Gage author of many baking books states plainly, “A good digital scale can be had online for about $30 so, in my opinion, not having a scale is no longer an excuse.”

Even Cooking Light Magazine is easing its readers into the transition to using a scale. Their test kitchen uses the spoon and sweep method but they recently announced that the magazine started calling for flours by weight, followed by an approximate cup measure. According to the magazines website, “With light baking, there is even less margin for error than with conventional baking, and even a couple of tablespoons too much flour may yield a dry cookie or cake. A kitchen scale is a smart tool to ensure you measure accurately and achieve the same great results we enjoy in our Test Kitchens.”

Famous pastry chefs don’t even bother to give you a choice, they only specify ounces and grams. As Claire Clark, pastry chef at the French Laundry, says in her beautiful cookbook, Indulge – 100 Perfect Desserts -- “I recommend you invest in some weighing scales before starting to cook from this book.”

So what is the bottom line?

Use a scale to measure flour. But if you still can’t bear to use one, use the spoon and sweep method. According to Fine Cooking Magazine, it results in the least amount of variation.

Here is a link to one scale you might like to buy. It is affordable and easy to use.


  1. Pat,
    Wow--A scientist could not have done a better job explaining this phenomena. Very detailed and precise article--I really liked it--also lots of good resources.


  2. I LOVE my scale, and if I want a consistent bake, I ALWAYS use it.


  3. Thanks for this compilation of measuring techniques! I also prefer to weigh flour, and wish more recipes specified weights. You mentioned that the method used in "Baked" was spoon and sweep, but actually the book states, "We measure dry ingredients by scooping into the cup from another larger cup, then leveling to the top of the cup." Although not crystal clear, it seems that this method would yield more flour per cup than lightly spooning and leveling.

  4. From ringalings:

    To anonymous:
    I had the pleasure of hearing Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito speak at Omnivore Books on Food tonight (5/28). I confirmed that they measure flour by spoon and sweep method. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Patricia! Again we were at another Omnivore event together, but I failed to catch you and say hi afterward!
    Interesting that you caught the very same discrepancy that Mat and Renato did - the two different measuring methods used by the sister publications Bon Appetit and Gourmet. I have noticed that, too, on epicurious. As I said last night, at least the epicurious reviews can guide you a little bit. I always prefer recipes with weight equivalents (but I am huge Rose Levy Beranbaum fan, and she is crazy precise), but when they aren't there and I try a recipe "blind" (i.e. with no measuring instructions), I agree with the Baked boys and Flo and Shriley and yourself....SPOON AND SWEEP. And I usually take the extra measure of stirring the flour with a whisk before spooning to reduce the chance of getting clumps or streaks.
    Excellent post, Patricia!

  6. P.S. I have noticed that Ina on the Barefoot Contessa TV show seems to use dip and sweep. She seems to level everything with her finger, too!
    I am too anxious of a baker for that. :)

  7. Patricia, how wonderful that you were able to confirm the measuring method directly from the source! Were the
    Baked boys as charming in person as on TV? Thanks so much for clearing this up! I'm am making a note in the book right now.

  8. From ringalings
    to anonymous:
    Yes, they are very charming and so enthusiastic about baking. It was great fun to get to hear them speak about their baking adventures and to talk to them a bit before they spoke. I will publish a post about them soon.

  9. Hello Patricia!
    Thank you so much for your helpful and informative post!
    I wish measurements in weight were more commonly used, and find it very frustrating when even the measuring method (of flour, at least) is not mentioned.
    I just received a new cookbook, and am really looking forward to trying the recipes, but unfortunately there is no indication as to how the flour was measured by the author.
    Is there any way I can find out?

    Thank you for tackling the most prickly baking question of all. (one of them, anyway...)

  10. em,
    hello! thanks for your comment! you can email the author of the cookbook -- I have had good luck in doing just that. I'm always amazed but thankful when they reply. If you want to respond with the name of the book, perhaps I can help you figure it out.

  11. Patricia,
    Thank you so much for your kind reply!
    I really appreciate your willingness to help.
    The book is 'The Craft of Baking' by Karen DeMasco and Mindy Fox.
    Do you think you may be able to figure it out?

    Thanks again for your consideration!

  12. em,
    that's so funny! I actually had the same problem with that cookbook! That is one author that I didn't hear from and I even emailed someone who used to work with her at Craft but of course she didn't know because they scale everything in a commercial kitchen. She said she always uses spoon and sweep so give that a try. But start with a recipe that isn't too elaborate or uses expensive ingredients in case it doesn't turn out well using that method. Send me your email address (I won't publish it) and if I ever find out I will let you know. Take care.