Flour 101: Tips for getting consistent results
Baking is known to be an exact science. Many recipes are able to accomodate some slight variations, but if you’ve ever wondered why a recipe turned out great one time and not so great another time, variation in your measurements could be a leading culprit.
Perhaps the recipe in question called for one cup of spelt flour, but exactly how much is in a cup of flour? This is where things can get tricky.
The majority of the recipes I develop make use of a variety of whole grain flours, gluten-free flours, nut flours as well as unbleached all-purpose flour, and they are all different in both weight and volume. There are two common methods for measuring flour, the first of which is to spoon the flour into a dry measuring cup and then scrape the flour to level using a knife. The other method is to scoop your measuring cup directly into the flour bag and then scrape the flour to level. But consider this: the difference in weight between one cup of flour using the first method, and one cup using the scooping method can be up to 20 grams. While this may not seem significant, in the baking world it is. If a recipe calls for two cups of spelt flour and it is measured differently, you could end up with 40 grams of extra flour—which is about 1/4 cup.
For all recipes on my blog, I use the scoop-and-level method.
For even more consistent results, I’ve started to weigh my flour. Most professional bakers measure their ingredients by weight. This is particularly helpful when you have found that perfect recipe and know you’ll be using it over and over again. You want perfect results every time, right? So, I often convert the flour called for in a recipe to grams before beginning. The following reference document can be used for converting cups to grams and ounces of flour so you can weigh it with a scale. Different flours have different weights for the same volume, so I’ve included a variety of regular and gluten-free flours I use most often in my kitchen. I recommend buying a good digital food scale that includes a tare function that allows you to weigh multiple items in the same bowl by reverting back to zero for each additional item (I own one like this). Once you find a brand of flour and conversion ratio that works for you, stick with it.
While we’re on the topic, have you ever wondered why some recipes sift flour? It is because aerating (sifting) the flour rids the flour of any clumps. Softer flours, such as pastry flour and many gluten-free flours, will typically clump together more than all-purpose and thicker whole grain flours. I also recommend whisking flour with other dry ingredients, which has a similar effect. Sifting also allows for maximum absorption of liquid into your flour with minimal stirring. When you have liquid and flour, any stirring that occurs will begin to develop gluten (this doesn’t apply to gluten-free baking). In most cases, less stirring is better in order to obtain a tender crumb.
When it comes to measuring and sifting, be sure to read your recipe carefully. If a recipe calls for one cup of sifted flour, this means you measure the flour after sifting. However, one cup of flour, sifted, means you measure the flour and then sift. There is a significant difference in weight between a sifted and unsifted cup of flour.
Despite being a dry ingredient, flour does contain a small percentage of moisture. Like anything exposed to air, it loses moisture as it ages. Flour likes to be stored in a cool, dry place. Properly stored, it can last up to six months. I find it best to purchase flour as I need it, but if I have a surplus and decide that I won’t be using it for a while, I freeze it in an air-tight container or freezer bag—this is also the best option for nut flours so they don’t go rancid.