I’m proud to say that we don’t get very many complaints about Fine Cooking recipes. We work hard to make sure they’re as foolproof as possible. But despite our best efforts, sometimes things go awry. When it comes to baking recipes, a top cause of less-than-spectacular results is the way people measure flour.
Without question, the most accurate method of measuring flour is with a scale. An ounce is an ounce is an ounce, and that’s why our recipes list flour by weight first. If you don’t own a digital kitchen scale, treat yourself to one. They’re so useful in the kitchen, and not just for flour.
If you don’t have a scale, you’re stuck with the not-so-consistent method of measuring by the cup. It seems straightforward enough to measure by the cup, but between the method you use to get the flour into the cup and the fact that the actual volume of a cup varies slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer, there can be quite a bit a variation in how much flour you end up with—especially if you’re measuring several cups.
Over the years, we’ve played around with different ways of measuring flour by the cup, and we’ve found that the following method results in the least amount of variation:
1. Stir the flour to break up any lumps.
2. Spoon the flour into the cup without packing.
3. Level the cup with a straight edge, like a knife.
Using this method, you should get roughly 4 1/2 ounces per cup. At this point, you might be thinking, “But wait, I thought there are 8 ounces in a cup!” You can thank the U.S. measuring system for your confusion. There are 8 fluid ounces in a cup, which is a measure of volume. But the weight of the contents of that cup, also measured in ounces, varies depending on the mass of the contents. The old adage “A pint is a pound the world ‘round” only applies to water and other ingredients of similar mass. If you were measuring a cup of lead, you can bet it would be much heavier than 8 ounces. If we used the metric system, we’d be talking about grams and liters, and things would be a lot clearer.
One last suggestion: Avoid scooping a measuring cup into the flour. This approach can lead to a heavy, packed cup of flour, and that leads to dense and dry baked goods.