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I often get this question: Do I really have to sift flour? If you are interested in knowing the ins and outs of sifting, read on!
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Do I really have to sift my flour? Usually said with a whiny tone. I know because I get that tone too. I am here to help on this Fundamental Friday, so let me enlighten you that you may whine no more. Or at least less.
So, Do I Really Have to Sift Flour?
Back in The Day, flour was milled using equipment that was less precise. Rustic, if you will. It was generally done with stones. Stone-ground. That meant that not all flour particles were fine and dust-like. There may have been larger “pieces” or a bit of bran that got left behind in the white flour, etc. Sifting the flour through a uniformly fine screen allowed only the wee particles to get through. No larger pieces or chunks or bran or any other large impurities that might have messed with the texture of your cake or bread or whatever you were making.
These days, wheat and other grains are ground with much more precision. All the particles are equally fine and there’s no rogue bran in the white flour. The bags often say things like “pre-sifted” to let you know that your flour is A-OK and good to go. Sifting is no longer necessary to make sure the flour is nice and pure and uniformly fine.
So, I’m Good Then? No Sifting?
Not so fast.
Since flour is a particulate, it can settle, compacting during the bagging and shipping process. Sifting to aerate your flour–to keep all the particles nice and separate with lots of air in the mix–is still a good thing to do. Note that I don’t say that it is necessary, at least not in this instance. You can also aerate your flour just by whisking it in a bin or bowl. In fact, I rarely sift my flour. I weigh out how much I need into a bowl (if the measurements are written in cups, I weigh about 4.25 oz per cup for cake flour and about 4.5 oz per cup of all purpose or bread flour) and whisk it well. If the recipe requires other dry ingredients such as baking soda, baking powder, spices and/or salt, I usually whisk all those ingredients together without bothering to sift.
Do I Have to Sift All Kinds of Flour?
I find that cake flour tends to get “clumpier” than all purpose or bread flour. In culinary school, we learned to at least be able to guesstimate the type of flour (cake, all purpose, bread) by squeezing a small handful together. If it clumped together, we knew it was lower protein and was most likely pastry or cake flour. If nothing happened and it remained completely separate after squeezing, the protein content was higher and we could guess it was probably bread flour. If it clumped just a bit but mostly remained separate, we could conclude it was all purpose flour.
Why is this? Honestly, I don’t know for certain, but my guess is that the starchy part of flour is clumpier than the proteiny part of the flour. So lower protein flour contains more starch per ounce and would more easily clump while higher protein flour is lower in starch and wouldn’t clump as easily. Don’t quote me on this, but it seems a reasonable hypothesis given that the main difference among refined (not “whole”) wheat flours is protein content.
Okay, so back to the sifting. Since cake flour is more susceptible to clumping up, even with whisking, I almost always sift it, just to be sure I don’t end up with tiny “pebbles” of flour in whatever I’m baking. With all purpose flour, whisking alone is usually enough to aerate it since it doesn’t clump much at all.
I never sift and almost never whisk bread flour. I know that my measurement will be accurate either way since I use a scale, and clumping isn’t an issue.
Here, I’m embedding my first Instructional Video Ever. It is not super high quality, or even very good quality, because I had no idea what I was doing, technology-wise or editing-wise. But the information is sound, and I demonstrate why it is so critical to weigh your flour rather than just using volumetric measurements.
Have you bought a scale yet? Seriously, you should get one. Here’s the kind I have (but it comes in a bunch of different colors):
To Sift or Not To Sift
Instances in which I almost always sift the flour.
- When I’m using cake flour, whether I’m adding other dry ingredients to it or not.
- If I’m using flour as a thickener in pastry cream or pudding. Sifting it keeps there from being any lumps as it cooks. I do always strain my pastry cream though, so the strainer would catch any lumps that might form. Still, I have a wee tiny strainer I use for sifting small amounts of dry ingredients.
- When I am making genoise or sponge cake (or similar). The base is usually a poofy egg foam, and sifting the flour into the egg foam not only aerates it making it easier to fold into the eggs, but it also allows the flour to land more “softly” on top of the eggs thereby minimizing deflation.
Instances in which I almost never sift the flour.
- When I’m using all purpose flour or bread flour in bread or cake (not in a cooked-on-the-stove preparation).
Whisking Versus Sifting to Combine Dry Ingredients
I have read recipes that instruct you to sift dry ingredients together 3-4 times before adding them to the bowl. This certainly aerates them, but sifting so many times also helps to incorporate all the dry ingredients evenly. I don’t know if you’ve even sifted flour and cocoa powder together (and I use this example because the color is so different it’s easy to tell if the cocoa powder is or is not dispersed throughout the flour) by pouring the flour in the sifter and then adding the cocoa powder, one trip through the sifter pretty much buys you sifted cocoa powder on top of sifted flour. It takes a few more sifting sessions to get the cocoa to disperse evenly.
I always sift cocoa powder because it is super prone to clumpiness. After sifting the cocoa into the flour, a few turns around the bowl with your whisk is all it takes to uniformly combine the two. The same holds true for spices or leaveners. I will almost always choose to incorporate them with a whisk rather than with a sifter or sieve. If you enjoy the process of sifting and find it soothing or something, by all means sift away. But it’s not really necessary.
Dry Ingredients I Always Sift
…due to their clumpiness:
- cake flour
- powdered sugar
- cocoa powder
Dry Ingredients I Sometimes Sift
…because sometimes they can be clumpy:
- granulalated sugar (not through too fine a strainer)
- brown sugar (ditto for the strainer)
- baking soda (I use a tiny strainer)
Do I Need an Actual Sifter?
This is all about personal preference. I used to have an old-school sifter like this:
Both of these are fine if you remember not to get them wet. Just knock out the excess flour, cocoa powder or whatever and give it a swipe or two with a barely damp paper towel. Hand cranks can break though, and the tension spring thing on the second one can come undone. Once I decided to go lower-tech, a fine mesh strainer like this one is my tool of choice for sifting:
Why? Lots of reasons:
- It’s dishwasher safe.
- I can sift just by tapping my hand against the side of the strainer.
- I can use it for straining liquids such as lemon curd and custards.
- I also use it for draining single servings of pasta.
- It has a wider opening at the top making it easier to add dry ingredients. Easier=less mess. And I need all the help I can get.
For sifting sugars and/or for sifting flour into egg foams, I use a strainer with a bit larger openings (though still pretty tiny). Larger holes allows coarser ingredients like granulated sugar and almond meal to pass through, and sifting also goes much more quickly if the mesh is a bit coarser. Here’s the one I use. It’s made to strain large amounts of pasta or vegetables right into the sink, but I like to find as many uses for things as I can:
And I think that takes care of it.
- You really need a scale
- Always sift cake flour
- Sift other ingredients if they are clumpy
- Use a dedicated sifter or just a fine mesh strainer
- Aeration is important as is combining ingredients. This can be done efficiently with a whisk.
Have I answered the question, “Do I really need to sift flour?” Yes, I think I have. I hope you’ve found this post useful and informative. Thanks so much for reading today. Have a lovely day.
Please tell me: What subject would you like me to address for an upcoming Fundamental Friday post?