Sift Happens: How (and Why) We Sift Flour

When you're baking, do you measure and sift your flour? Or, do you scoop the flour into a cup and hope for the best? Understanding how to sift flour — and why it's important — is key for successful baked goods.

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When it comes to sifting flour, there are different levels of belief, whether folks are just learning how to bake or are baking experts. Some swear by sifting, claiming that it is the secret to creating light and fluffy cakes or cookies. Some shrug and say it's not necessary for a delicious finished result. So what should you believe?

Let's take a few moments to explore sifting, including why it is necessary in order to create a great cake as canvas for cake decorating, and how to do it well.

Sifting flour is a baking basic. Traditionally, sifting has been a way of fluffing flour, as well as filtering out impurities. When you're eating a delicious cookie, cake, cinnamon roll or basically any type of delicious sweet, the last thing you want to to chomp down on big clump of gluey flour — or even worse, a bug!

Flour vs. Flower Cartoon

Illustrations via CakeSpy

Why sift?

Sifting aerates the flour.

This is advantageous in many ways when baking. First, it allows for a light, airy and delicate texture in a finished baked good. It also reduces any clumps of flour in the batter. For cakes and cookies in particular, this can be the difference between a lumpy, bumpy baked good and a delicately crumbed, professional-tasting finished product.

Illustration of a Happy Cartoon Cupcake

Level out your measurements.

Depending on the climate you live in, the flour can compact more in the bag or container. For instance, in a humid tropical climate, the flour can tend to pack more densely, so if you measure out a cup of flour, it may actually weigh more, and you may be using too much flour, resulting in baked goods that are too dry and crumbly.

Simply sifting the flour can allow for a more even and consistent measurement, no matter the climate or texture of your flour. This adds up to a consistent finished result.

Note: Some recipes are more forgiving than others when it comes to even measurements, but in general, the more delicate the finished product, the more important sifting will be to the process. For instance, if you forgo the sifting process in a dense scone recipe, your results might be better than if you attempt to make a light-as-air angel food cake without sifting first.

Remove debris or unwanted material.

In times past, store-bought flour could have bugs or bits of debris in it. While better conditions in factories make this less of a problem today, there's still the possibility that a bug or bit of debris could find its way into your flour bag. To remove the possibility of baking something you didn't intend to be part of your cake, sift your flour. You may save yourself a big headache.

Mix your ingredients together.

You can sift flour with other dry ingredients, such as baking soda, salt or cocoa powder, to ensure they are really well mixed.

What tools do I need to sift?

A flour sifter, of course! The most common sifter is a canister type with either a single mesh screen or triple mesh screen and a rotating blade that is controlled by a turning, rotary handle. However, a fine mesh sieve can be used for sifting if you do not have a flour sifter.

Very important question: When should I sift?

Refer to your recipe. If a recipe lists a quantity and then specifies "sifted" (for instance, "2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted"), then measure the flour first, and then sift.

If the recipe lists the sifting action before the quantity (for instance, "2 cups sifted all-purpose flour"), then you should sift the flour first and then measure it.

How to sift flour with a sifter

Sifter and Measuring Cup

Note: Refer to your specific recipe for quantities and whether or not the flour should be sifted with other dry ingredients.

1. Place a sheet of waxed or parchment paper below your work surface to keep things clean. Fill the sifter about 3/4 full with flour and hold it over a measuring cup or bowl.

Sifter With Flour

2. Either gently shake, or turn the handle. The sifted flour will drift through into your measuring cup or bowl.

3. Once you have your desired quantity, continue with your recipe with the confidence that your flour is the perfect texture for baking.

How to sift flour without a sifter

Bowl of Sifted Flour

Note: Refer to your specific recipe for quantities and whether or not the flour should be sifted with other dry ingredients.

1. Place a sheet of waxed or parchment paper below your work surface to keep things clean. Press the flour down through the sieve. Hold it over a bowl (a measuring cup may be too small to catch the sifted flour from the larger sieve).

2. Hold the sieve with one hand, and gently tap it with your other hand. The flour will sift through into your prepared bowl.

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6 Comments

Linda

Thank you for this reminder. My mother used to sift everything and made me do the same. While I stir the flour with a for, before measuring, I think I should sift again. Am going to make an apple pie with my grandchildren. I think it’s time to set a good example. 🙂

Reply
Loey Krause

If you measure by weight, does it matter when you sift? I have gotten out of the habit of sifting, but obviously need to step up my game! I always measure by weight.

Reply
TerriSue Borden

Dear Jessie,
Thank you for the timely article. My mother decorated cakes on a small scale in the 50’s and 60’s. She was a marvelous baker and cook. She did have some erroneous ideas though. One was that self-rising flour was for lazy people as there was no difference between it and all-purpose flour except the added salt and baking powder. When I found out it was made from a softer wheat and tried it out I was amazed at the biscuits I could produce! One of the others was sifting flour. She would only sift flour if the recipe was one one that listed the sifting action before the quantity. She grew up during the depression and claimed that flour was pure now and there was no longer the need to sift. I personally appreciate how sifting mixes other ingredients into the flour. I also use an organic sugar that can be lumpy. I would much rather get the lumps out in my sifter than while I am trying to beat up a batter. Maybe this one will seem silly but when baking with grandchildren, handing them the sifter and a bowl keeps them quite contented, happy, and feeling like a vital part of making the recipe, while I am doing things I don’t want little fingers in yet, like creaming sugar and butter at a high speed! last of all , is there anything more homey than the sound of the sifter blade scraping the mesh?

Reply
Stephanie Danger

When should you sift if the recipe doesn’t specify? I’ve seen a lot of recipes for breads and such that do not say a word about sifting.

Reply
Susan

If a recipe doesn’t mention sifting at all, should you still sift the flour? If so, before or after measuring?
When you measure flour before or after sifting, do you “lightly” fill the measuring cup or do you tamp it down before leveling with a flat knife?

Reply
Clair

Thanks for the very interesting article, now I’m really curious if there is actually a difference in taste. I stopped sifting years ago because I could never figure out what its use is (other than sifting out impurities). I am a chef and worked in a few restaurants and I never saw anyone sifting flour. If recipes are measured in cups I guess it makes sense or if your flour is lumpy from humidity. But other than that I’m sceptic. I will try a few recipes with and without sifting to compare the results. Thanks again for making me curious.

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