Maybe this is why people say they hate baking. For something as supposedly simple as mixing a few ingredients together, the hidden details that you don’t realize when you first start making food for yourself might be enough to make a novice cook throw in the towel. Or throw a measuring cup across the room in a fit of rage. And one of those things that falls under the G.I. Joe dictum (“knowing is half the battle“) is the most foolproof and accurate way to measure both liquid and dry ingredients.
I’ve said it before, but the best way to guarantee accuracy and consistency when measuring isn’t to use cups or spoons; it’s to use a kitchen scale. As you’ll see, even careful measuring has a margin of error, and being able to dump ingredients into one bowl set atop a scale is much less messy and leaves far fewer items to wash once your food goes into the oven.
But until we can get every cook in America comfortable with the tare function, we can at least talk about which measuring cups you should be using for which ingredients—and why adding your ingredients to the measuring cup in a certain way makes a difference.
First things first: there are different measuring cups for liquids and solids for a reason. Say you need 1 cup of water for a recipe, so you turn on the faucet and start filling up your basic metal measuring cup. But you can’t fill it to the tippy top or you’ll spill water everywhere as you carry it from the sink to the mixing bowl, so you might leave 1/8 inch of headroom between the lip of the cup and the water line. Guess what? That might be just enough space for an ounce and a half of water, so you’re only putting 6.5 fluid ounces into your recipe instead of the 8 fluid ounces (1 cup) it calls for. Whoops!
That’s why the liquid measuring cup was invented. It’s always got headspace so you can get the full cup (or two, or four) of liquid into your recipe without wobbling, spilling, and mismeasuring. Even better, three cheers to OXO for inventing the angled measuring cup—no longer do you have to crouch down to counter level or lift a sloshing measuring cup up to eye level to make sure you’re getting exactly the right amount of liquid. There’s even a stainless steel version for the plastic-averse.
For mayonnaise, molasses, peanut butter, and other sticky, goopy ingredients, the Adjust-A-Cup is my savior. With an adjustable plunger, this clever measuring tool lets you fill every last nook and cranny, then self-scrapes the sides of its plastic tube as you push the ingredient into the bowl. No waste, no annoyance. No more digging honey out of a quarter-cup measure with a tiny spatula.
That leaves the standard metal or plastic measuring cups and spoons for all other dry ingredients. But there’s one more crucial trick for making sure you get the same amount of flour, sugar, cornmeal, or other powdered items into your measuring cup time after time. Watch this quick video to see why the “spoon and sweep” method gives you a more accurate measurement than the “scoop and sweep” or even, heaven forbid, trying to measure dry ingredients in a liquid measuring cup.
And yes, I know this is a controversial stance for you scoop-and-sweepers. There are some high-profile scoopers out there, including Ina Garten, Dorie Greenspan, and Julia Child. But as baker extraordinaire Donna Currie explains, if you’re not going to weigh your flour directly into the mixing bowl with a kitchen scale, “most of the cookbooks I’ve seen that discuss the subject suggest that spooning and leveling will be more precise than any other method.” I’ve seen it from personal experience and repetition as well. Spooning flour into the cup provides me with reliable results, rather than blindly assuming that one heavily-packed cup of flour will be balanced out by a looser-packed scoop in the next cup.
That said, it doesn’t hurt to check the introductory notes of your cookbooks to see what method the author is using for their measurements, if you’re really obsessed with this sort of thing like I am.
As added encouragement to get more cooks comfortable using their kitchen scales, below is a quick-print chart of often-weighed ingredients that I keep at hand when baking. This is my personal list, but if you’d like to add more, weights of more ingredients than you can shake a can of bread crumbs at can be found on King Arthur Flour’s incredibly comprehensive Master Weight Chart, Hit Control-D and bookmark it ASAP!
Good. Food. Stories. Weights and Measures Chart
|All-Purpose Flour||1 cup||4 1/4 oz.|
|Whole Wheat Flour||1 cup||4 oz.|
|Milk||1 cup||8 oz.|
|Honey||1 tablespoon||3/4 oz.|
|Granulated Sugar||1 cup||7 oz.|
|Powdered Sugar||1 cup||4 oz.|
|Brown Sugar||1 cup, packed||7 1/2 oz.|
|Yeast||1 teaspoon||1/8 oz.|
|Baking Powder||1 teaspoon||1/8 oz.|
|Baking Soda||1 teaspoon||1/8 oz.|
|Kosher Salt||1 teaspoon||1/4 oz.|
|Cornstarch||1 teaspoon||1/8 oz.|
|Cocoa Powder||1 cup||3 oz.|
|Shortening||1 tablespoon||1/2 oz.|
|Butter||1 tablespoon||1/2 oz.|
|Canola Oil||1 tablespoon||1/2 oz.|
|Olive Oil||1 tablespoon||1/4 oz.|
|Mayonnaise||1/2 cup||4 oz.|
|Sour Cream||1/2 cup||4 oz.|
|Panko Bread Crumbs||1/2 cup||1 oz.|
|Freshly Grated Parmesan||1 cup||1 oz.|
|Almonds/Most Nuts||1 cup||5 oz.|
|Dried Cranberries||1 cup||6 oz.|