Last week I was baking a birthday cake for my nephew. The recipe called for sifting my dry ingredients. Rather than pull out my fine-mesh strainer, I grabbed a nearby whisk and gave it a stir.
The ingredients looked well combined and clump-free. This got me thinking: Do we ever really need to sift dry ingredients?
After looking into it, I’m happy to report that in most cases, the answer is no.
Sign up for the Notes from the Test Kitchen newsletter
Our favorite tips and recipes, enjoyed by 2 million+ subscribers!
Whisking Versus Sifting
Whisking is simply a way to fully combine your dry ingredients. This guarantees even distribution, which guarantees better baked goods. If your cake batter has a pocket of baking powder, it won’t leaven properly. And you’re going to get a bite full of baking powder.
No matter what you’re baking, you should always whisk your dry ingredients before combining them with the wet.
Sifting really ensures just one thing: zero clumps. Clumps won’t fully hydrate from your wet ingredients, which can lead to dry pockets in your baked goods.
To sift dry ingredients, just add them to a fine-mesh strainer sitting over a bowl and give it a shake. For best results, stir and press with a rubber spatula to make certain no ingredient gets left behind.
It’s easy to do. But these days, you really don’t have to.
The Perfect CakeThe definitive guide to any cake you crave, from classic anytime Pound Cake (“The recipe is genius and worth the price of the book.” —The Wall Street Journal) to a stunning and impressive Blueberry Jam Cake with brilliant ombré frosting.
Why Don’t I Need to Sift?
To find out, I reached out to my colleague, ATK Books Deputy Food Editor (and baking expert) Stephanie Pixley.
“There’s less worry around clumping since all the dry ingredients are combined with all the liquid ingredients,” she said. A good whisking is all you need.
This is all thanks to the current state of flour milling. A century ago, the quality of flour mills resulted in a coarser grind with larger particles (the bran and germ). Without sifting, those clumps turned baked goods into a dense, sunken mess. This made sifting essential to de-clump and aerate the dry ingredients.
Commercial flour brands have since refined their mills, thus providing us with a clump-free product.
So When Do I Need to Sift?
Simply put, if your dry ingredients are clumped, give them a sift.
Proper storage helps to prevent clumping from the get-go. Store your dry ingredients in the pantry, away from light and heat. If possible, transfer them to an airtight container.
Note: Our recipes rarely call for sifting. But when they do, grab a fine-mesh strainer. Just know if a recipe calls for “1 cup sifted flour,” the flour should be sifted before measuring, whereas “1 cup flour, sifted” should be sifted after measuring. The difference could greatly affect the result of your baked goods. More on that here.