Sift dry ingredients.
Sift before measuring.
Sift! Sift! Sift!
Why can’t they just leave us alone? Why must we, in our quest for easy, quick, delicious baked goods, always be balked by this complication?
Doesn’t the Sift Tyrant realize that this is a painful extra step? It dirties at least one more dish, if not two, and perhaps a sheet of waxed paper too. I don’t have any waxed paper! And anyway, the bag says it's pre-sifted. WHY MUST THEY TAUNT US SO???
Well buster, I’m here to tell you why.
It’s mostly the fault of measuring by volume. You see, most things that need to be sifted are finely ground; flour, powdered sugar, cornstarch, cocoa, etc. They settle a lot during shipping. A lot. If you measure by volume, the tiny particles can get more and more compressed and your results can vary wildly. How wildly you ask, skeptically?
Scooped using a 1 c. measure, directly from the bag: 145g
Scooped using a 1 c. measure, from flour that had been poured into a large bowl: 129g
Poured into 1 c. measure, directly from the bag: 125g
Sprinkled by the spoonful into 1 c. measure: 122g
Sifted using a wire mesh strainer into a large bowl, and then spooned into a 1 c. measure: 116g
Sifted using a wire mesh strainer directly into a 1 c. measure: 109g.
This little empirical interlude was brought to you by a bag of all-purpose flour, a Polder kitchen scale, and the letter ''g.'' I don’t have a sifter, let alone a triple sifter, so I can’t give you those results.
To put this into context, my favorite baking book1 equates 1 cup of flour to 100g. None of these turned up 100g! Hell’s bells, can you imagine what would happen to a cake or cookie batch if the person who wrote the recipe sifted, and the person using the recipe scooped directly from the bag? That’s almost half again the necessary flour!
So, just what am I getting at? If you don’t sift prior to measuring, realize that you may need to tweak your quantities. Leave out some of the flour depending on how densly packed it seems to be. This can take some practice, but it doesn't have to be very precise for scones, muffins, and other simple recipes.
And no, this is NOT carte blanche to never sift. Sifting does some other important things too.
It removes lumps, clumps, and other impediments. Cocoa may be lovely, but I don’t want a pea sized undissolved clump of it marring my glaze, or worse yet, lots of different sized undissolved clumps looking like ants buried in a mudslide. Also, baking powder has a tendency to clump into hard little pellets at the least hint of moisture. These pellets will haunt your dish as the nasty, unappetizing little menaces that they are. Even if you sift nothing else, if your baking powder is clumped up, sift it!
It aerates the ingredients, making them easier to blend with wet or liquid ingredients. You want everything to come together smoothly, right? With everything loose, it can do so without forming clumps as you stir.
It thoroughly mixes dry ingredients together. Again, extremely important for any number of recipes. Also this consolidates steps, sifting and mixing at the same time.
Have I convinced you yet? Go forth and sift, my friends! What…? Oh, what do I do? Um, hey have you heard the one about the pastry and the….? Wha? Yes, I know I said I don’t have a sifter. Um, well….
OK, you caught me. I don’t sift much. I usually weigh everything with my handy dandy kitchen scale. I convert my recipes from volume to weight and go with that.
Mind you, I still sift ingredients together when smoothness is an issue, as with a cocoa glaze or making choux pastry. In that case, I take out my wire strainer and use it instead. It isn’t as light as if I had used a triple sifter, but it does the job enough.
For cakes, etc, where aerating is necessary for blending but not so much for smoothness, I run a whisk briskly through it to blend the ingredients together. Again, not as perfect as a triple sifter. But it does help. And yes, I always sift things that are clumpy and would not otherwise mix properly.
So there. No excuses. Go into baking with your eyes open. Know why and you can compensate with the tools you have on hand. This doesn’t have to be hard.
With thanks to exceptinsects who revealed to me a fatal flaw in one of my recipes dealing with just this problem.
1Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible is the book I turn to the most. It’s fantabulous.