Whether you are a home baker or professional pastry chef, measuring baking ingredients is of key importance. Due to the chemistry involved in baking, recipes for cake, bread, cookies and other baked goods necessitate very precise measurements, both for liquid and dry ingredients. The correct balance of ingredients will not only ensure that food turns out tasting great, but also that ratios of ingredients produce the proper consistency and density. These tips are designed for a novice baker looking to improve baking techniques.
How to Use Measuring Cups and Spoons
Everyone has seen a professional chef throw a “pinch” of this ingredient, or a “dash” of that. The professionals, often television personalities, sometimes seem like they are not measuring a thing. However, these chefs and bakers are practiced professionals and usually have precise measurements of their ingredients taken beforehand. For the amateur baker or baking hobbyist, it is essential to get in the habit of measuring ingredients the right way with measuring cups, spoons and scales to be sure your measurements are as accurate as possible.
Dry Measuring Cups
A dry graduated measuring cup
Although residential style measuring cups are most common, make sure you favor a dry measuring cup over a liquid measuring cup when working with dry ingredients. The main thing that sets apart a dry measuring cup from a liquid measuring cup is that the dry measure has a flat rim and no pouring spout. Dry ingredients are meant to be measured by filling the cup to the brim and scraping off the top with a flat utensil. The flat, thin rim makes for an accurate measurement, whereas a lip or spout would create an uneven measurement at the top of the cup. Dry graduated measuring cups are perfect for recipes that may call for larger measurements of dry ingredients, such as pints or quarts.
Liquid Measuring Cups
Liquid graduated measuring cups are often glass or plastic so that the liquid can be viewed through the sides of the cup and an accurate measure can be taken. However, the key feature of a liquid measure is the rim, which has a lip or a pouring spout. The graduated marking on the sides help the operator tell the correct measurement, and the lip or spout makes it easy to pour the liquid into a mixing bowl or other vessel. >> Learn more
Measuring spoons are most often seen in residential applications, but commercial bakeries that bake small-scale recipes may still find use for them. Measuring spoons are often sold in sets of three, four or five and typically measure out fractions of teaspoons and tablespoons. Measuring spoons are used for dry or wet ingredients, so they work just fine as long as the dry ingredients are properly leveled off and the wet ingredients are poured just before they would spill over, creating a round “bubble” at the top of the spoon.
Tips for Measuring Dry Ingredients
Dry ingredients consist of the flours, sugars, and leaveners of the baking world. These ingredients are typically granulated or powdered. As indicated before, dry ingredients do require a different method of measuring than liquid ingredients. Typically it is appropriate to use dry measuring cups or scales for dry ingredients, depending on the production volume.
- Flour. When measuring flour, it is important to first fluff it with a spoon. If the recipe calls specifically for sifted flour, strain it through a sifter or sieve. Both of these methods incorporate air into the flour for a more accurate measurement; sifting the flour helps ensure that only the finest particles are used in the recipe. After fluffing or sifting, use a spoon to scoop the flour from its storage container and into the measuring cup. Using the measuring cup as a scoop is incorrect, as it can over-pack the flour, resulting in an inaccurate measurement. When filling the cup, do not shake or pack the flour but rather use the back of a knife or other flat utensil to level off the flour. This will make it even with the top of the cup. One way to be sure you have an accurate amount of flour is to measure by weight instead of just by volume; using a digital portion control scale is a reliable method. A cup’s worth of all-purpose flour weighs 150 grams; 115 grams if sifted. >>Learn more
- Baking Powder / Baking Soda. Baking soda and baking powder perform different functions in a recipe, but they can be measured the same way. As with flour, it is advised to fluff these ingredients first to incorporate air and get an accurate measurement. To do so, stir the contents of the container first, then lightly scoop with a measuring spoon. Use a flat utensil to scrape off any excess from the top of the spoon back into the container.
- White Sugar. Measure sugar by using the measuring spoon or cup to scoop it directly out of the storage container or bag until it is overflowing. Level off the top by sliding the back of a knife over the rim of the cup. >> Learn more
- Brown Sugar. Brown sugar is essentially white sugar with the addition of molasses. It is thus a more moist, dense sugar. To measure brown sugar, pack it down into the cup or measuring utensil. This can be done by using the cup to scoop the sugar out of the container, then patting it down with one’s fingers. The goal is for the sugar to retain the shape of the measuring cup when added to the other ingredients.
- Powdered Sugar. Powdered sugar is very fine, and as such it is susceptible to clumping if exposed to moisture. Sift the powdered sugar to strain out the smallest particles for the recipe, then spoon the sifted sugar into the measuring cup. Then use the back of a knife to level off the measuring cup to achieve an accurate amount.
Tips for Measuring Liquid Ingredients
Measuring liquid ingredients requires specialized liquid measuring cups with pouring spouts or lips. The process is also made easier if the cups are made from plastic or glass rather than metal. Rest the measuring cup on a level surface, pour in the liquid, and view it at eye level to be sure the liquid hits the appropriate line on the cup. For smaller measurements, a regular measuring spoon works just fine.
- Water. Many recipes call for water or other liquid base for a recipe. The key for measuring water is to use a plastic or glass measuring cup, if possible, and to measure at eye level. It is not enough to hold a cup under a faucet then dump it into a bowl. Bend down to view the liquid in the cup and make sure the meniscus of the liquid rests right on the line of the measuring cup. If the liquid it opaque, such as milk, then simply get as close as possible to the measuring line.
- Vanilla. Vanilla and other extracts are typically measured in very small portions, since they are so concentrated and aromatic; a little goes a long way. Many bakers measure vanilla into a measuring spoon while holding it over the mixing bowl. This is typically not the best idea, especially if you do not have a steady hand. If any liquid drips over the sides of the spoon, you may end up with more vanilla in the recipe than you need, which can throw off the flavors. Instead, measure over a clean measuring cup or another bowl. This way, any spilled extract can potentially be saved to use in another recipe, since vanilla is expensive.
- Oils. Measuring oil is just like measuring water or other liquid, only it has a different consistency. Make sure to measure oil in a clean liquid measuring cup. If the cup happens to have any water leftover from a washing or from a previous measurement, it can alter the final measurement of the oil, so make sure to dry the cup before using it.
When it comes to solid fats, an alternate method of measuring is to use the liquid displacement method. For example, to measure a ½ cup of shortening, fill a liquid graduated measuring cup to the ½ cup mark with cold water. Add the shortening until the water level reaches 1 cup when viewed at eye level. Then simply pour out the water (using a colander or strainer may help) and add the shortening—now equal to ½ cup—to your recipe.
Tips for Measuring Unusual Ingredients
Not all baking ingredients fall into the categories of dry or liquid. Many ingredients are somewhere in between, with a semi-liquid state, or something totally different, like chopped nuts. Be prepared to measure unusual ingredients, or those that do not necessarily fall into these categories of dry and liquid.
Nuts are best measured with dry graduated cups
- Butter and Shortening. Fats that are solid at room temperature, including shortening and butter, require their own measuring techniques. Butter for baking typically comes in sticks surrounded by paper wrapping, and that wrapping is conveniently marked with measurements, usually in terms of tablespoons. One stick of butter is equal to ½ cup. Nowadays manufacturers also make shortening available in “stick” form, whereas it used to be available only in hefty canisters. If you are measuring shortening the old fashioned way, the correct method is to scoop a heaping amount into a dry measuring cup, pack it down so there are no air spaces, and then level off the top with the back of a knife. >> Learn more
- Chopped Ingredients. Many recipes call for chopped items, whether it be nuts, fruit or even candy. Be aware of whether the recipe asks the baker to measure the ingredient before chopping or after. For instance, the recipe may call for “a 12 ounce bar of dark chocolate, chopped.” The ideal way to measure this would be to purchase a chocolate bar wrapped and labeled “12 ounces,” or potentially to weigh a hunk of chocolate before chopping it. However, if the recipe calls for “one cup of coarsely chopped dark chocolate,” then one would measure using a dry measuring cup, filling it with chopped chocolate until it is level with the rim. Typically there is no need to level off the ingredients in this situation.
- Eggs. Measuring eggs does not always require a measuring cup, but rather an understanding of what size egg you need, and how to avoid getting shells in the batter or other ingredients. Always use the size of eggs a recipe calls for, but if no size is given then assume it calls for large eggs. Then, crack the eggs into a small glass bowl before adding them to the other ingredients. This will allow you to see if there are any stray pieces of shell in the eggs, and afford you the chance to pick them out before they get lost in the other ingredients. >> Learn more
- Peanut Butter. Peanut butter is much like shortening in that it is dense, sticky and difficult to manage, let alone measure. When measuring, spoon out the peanut butter into a dry measuring cup until it is level with the rim of the cup. It will help if the cup is slightly greased with a tiny amount of oil, which will prevent part of the peanut butter from sticking to the cup and throwing off the measurement.
Measuring ingredients while baking is half the battle when it comes to creating something that will turn out properly and taste amazing. With the right measuring tools and techniques, any baker can take their baked items a step in the right direction.
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