You've probably heard the saying ‘If cooking is an art, then baking is a science’. This is most certainly true. When cooking a savory dish, you can usually add an extra ingredient here or there, change ingredient measurements or even completely leave an ingredient out without causing a major problem with the resulting dish. But, baking recipes are carefully formulated equations that depend on exact combinations of flour, liquid, leavening agents, fats, sugars, and flavors. Baking is more precise than cooking and precise measurements are vital to the recipe's success. So, learning to measure ingredients accurately is one of the most important skills you'll need to become a successful baker.
Measuring Dry Ingredients
You should use graduated nested dry measuring cups to measure dry ingredients like flour, sugar, oatmeal, and cocoa. Dry measuring cups are designed so that they can be leveled off by sweeping a straight edge, like the back of a knife, across the top. Nested measuring cups come in sets which usually include 4 sizes: 1/4, 1/3, 1/2, and 1 cup. Some sets have the additional sizes 1/8, 2/3 and 3/4. These additional sizes can come in very handy, so I recommend looking for a set that includes them.
There are two main methods for measuring dry ingredients: the ‘scoop and sweep’ and the ‘spoon and sweep'
For the scoop and sweep method, the measuring cup is dipped into the dry ingredient, filling and piling the ingredients over the rim of the cup. A straight edge, such as the back of a table knife or the edge of a spatula, is then used to sweep the excess at the top, leaving the measured ingredients level with the top edge of the measuring cup.
For the spoon and sweep method, the ingredients are lightly spooned into the measuring cup until the ingredient is piled above the rim of the cup. As with the scoop and sweep method, a straight edge is then used to level the ingredients to the top of the measuring cup.
The spoon and sweep method is the preferred method of measuring ingredients like flour, cocoa and powdered sugar, because, since these ingredients can compact in handling, the scoop and sweep method can compress the ingredient as it's scooped into the cup and, as a result, you'll measure out too much of that ingredient. When measuring out these types of ingredients, you should first stir flour in its container or bag or use a fork to fluff it up to undo any packing that may have occurred in storage. Then lightly spoon the ingredient into your dry measuring cup and level it off with a straight edge.
Other dry ingredients can be measured with either the spoon or the scoop method.
Here are a couple more things to keep in mind when measuring dry ingredients:
1. Brown sugar tends to hold a lot of air between its sugar crystals and that air needs to be squeezed out in order to get an accurate measurement. For this reason, brown sugar is ‘packed’ when it's measured. So, to measure brown sugar, spoon or scoop the sugar into a dry measuring cup and then press it down firmly with the back of a spoon and then add more brown sugar and pack it down again. Once you have enough that it's over the top, sweep it level with the rim of the measuring cup.
2. Butter and margarine should be measured based on the markings lines shown on the sides of the paper wrapping.
3. Semi-solid foods such as peanut butter, sour cream, mayonnaise and shortening should be packed into measuring cups to remove all air bubbles until they are level with the top of the cup, using the back of a spoon or a spatula. However, an easier way to measure these types of ingredients is to use a plunger-type measuring cup. These push-cup measures are designed with a movable bottom that pushes the ingredient out after it has been measured and leveled off at the top. These types of measuring cups also work well with gooey, thick liquids like molasses, honey and maple syrup.
Measuring Liquid Ingredients
Liquid ingredients should be measured in a clear liquid measuring cup with a pour spout. These types of measuring cups are typically made of plastic or glass and have extra room at the top for the liquid to slosh around. If there were no room at the top, trying to measure to the full capacity of the measuring cup with a liquid ingredient would be a messy proposition indeed.
For accuracy, place the measuring cup on a level surface. Then, assuming that you're using traditional glass or plastic measuring cup, bend to view the cup at eye level as you pour the liquid ingredient into the cup to the point where the surface of the liquid against the side of the cup matches the line on the cup indicating the amount to be measured.
When using a liquid measure, keep in mind that these types of measuring cups tend to be most accurate when used to measure amounts that are close to their maximum capacity. This means that you're giving up some accuracy when you use a 2-cup measure to measure out ¼ of a cup, for example.
What about measuring spoons?
Measuring spoons are used to measure small amounts of both dry and liquid ingredients. They come in sets ranging from 1/4 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon, with some sets including additional odd sizes like 1/8 and 3/4 teaspoon.
By all means, don't use your flatware (teaspoon or tablespoon) as a substitute for measuring spoons.
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