How to Measure Flour Without Weighing Scales

How to Measure Flour Without Weighing Scales

How important is measuring? Depends on what you're making. You can be extremely casual with savory foods, because a few more tomatoes, extra garlic, and a couple added glugs of wine won't break (and might make) a dish. Baking is a little different because of the chemical interaction of the wet and dry ingredients and the leavening agents. Pro bakers work solely by weight, but that's too fussy for most home cooks. (Although, if you're into precision, go get yourself a kitchen scale stat.) You can generally get very good results by adhering to the measurements in a baking recipe, using this simple technique.

To get the most accurate quantities, liquid and dry ingredients should be measured using measuring cups designed for each. Here's how to measure flour to ensure best results with all your baking recipes. Note that this technique should also be applied to measuring out all dry ingredients, such as teaspoons of spices, salt, sugar, baking powder, and baking soda.

1 Dip a 1-cup dry measure into a container of flour and lift out an overflowing cupful.

2 Holding the measuring cup over the flour container, draw the flat (broad side) of a knife across the top of the cup to level it, letting the excess fall back into the container.

3 Put the measured flour into your mixing bowl. Don't shake the cup or it will settle the flour and make it denser.

Baking Basics: Biscuits and Quick Breads

Quick breads, unlike yeast breads, are simply mixed and baked, relying on the rising action of baking powder or baking soda combined with an acidic element such as buttermilk, yogurt, or sour cream. Quick breads can be savory, such as biscuits, or sweet, like a loaf of banana bread. Experienced cooks can make a batch of biscuits, start to finish, in about seventeen minutes, so they truly are quick.

On the Rise

Most quick breads get their lift from baking powder, a combination of baking soda and an acidic salt, such as cream of tartar or monocalcium phosphate, usually mixed into a base such as cornstarch. The liquid in the batter causes the chemicals in the baking powder to combine and release carbon dioxide gas bubbles. "Double-acting" baking powders have a second acid salt, such as sodium aluminum sulfate, which releases gas upon being heated, giving the bread a second, later lift when the batter goes into the hot oven.

Baking soda, meanwhile, works like that familiar childhood science experiment, when baking soda and vinegar combine with a rush to shoot off a bottle rocket or gush out of a papier-mâché "volcano." The soda and an acidic component are combined just before the dough or batter goes in the oven; the chemical reaction gives off carbon dioxide, and those tiny bubbles of gas raise the bread. This is why quick breads are usually baked in a very hot oven, typically anywhere from 375 to 425 degrees Fahrenheit: The high temperature helps "set" the structure of the bread as the bubbles rise, trapping them inside so that the finished product is fluffy and tender.

CAKE VS. QUICK BREAD

Though cakes also depend on baking powder or soda to rise, they get additional lightness from eggs and from the air that is whipped in as the sugar and butter are beaten together. A quick bread also has a coarser texture—called the "crumb" in baking parlance—than a cake.

Don't Wait to Bake

This leavening action also explains why quick bread batters cannot be mixed in advance and stored. As soon as the wet ingredients go into the dry ones, the batter should be poured directly into the prepared pan and popped in the preheated oven. If quick bread batters hang around waiting to be baked, all the carbon dioxide will bubble out, and the resulting bread will be flat and tough. Nearly all savory quick breads are best the day they're made; keeping them overnight tends to make them tough and dry. Quick breads that contain sugar, eggs, and butter, however, will last longer.

Good Fat

Aside from Irish soda bread—which contains only flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk—most quick breads have a high proportion of fat to flour compared to yeast breads, which may have no fat at all. Whether it's butter, oil, lard, or vegetable shortening, the fat coats the molecules of the flour and helps prevent gluten from developing as the bread rises in the oven. When the gluten doesn't develop, the crumbs don't have as much elasticity, so instead of the chewy texture of a yeast bread, a quick bread will remain tender, coming apart easily when you tear or cut it.

RECIPE: BUTTERMILK BISCUITS

A standard Home Ec class recipe, buttermilk biscuits may seem intimidating, but once you learn how to make them, the effort pays off in the form of buttery, heavenly goodness.

Makes 8 to 12 biscuits

2 cups all-purpose flour (plus 2 to 3 tablespoons for shaping)

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ cup (1 stick) cold, salted butter

½ cup well-shaken buttermilk

2 tablespoons milk (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 425°F and set out a baking sheet.

2. In a large mixing bowl, stir the flour, salt, and baking soda together with a wooden spoon.

3. Cut the butter into 8 pieces and drop them into the bowl. Use a fork or your fingers to "cut" or "rub" the butter into the dough, breaking it up into smaller and smaller bits as you combine it with the flour. (You can also use a pastry cutter for this job.) Stop when the flour mixture looks like a mass of crumbs, with no large lumps of butter visible.

4. Make a well in the center of the dough. Pour the buttermilk into the well.

5. Combine with the spoon, stirring just until the dough comes together into a clump.

6. Sprinkle 2 to 3 tablespoons of flour in a circle about 10 inches wide on a clean countertop or work surface, and then turn the dough out onto the flour along with any remaining dry bits left in the bowl.

7. Knead the dough briefly, folding and pressing it gently with the flat of your palms 3 or 4 times so that the shaggy mass becomes a smooth(ish) whole. Pat it gently into a sort of rectangle about ¾ inch thick.

8. Use a sharp knife to divide the dough into 8 to 12 squares. Lift the squares onto the baking sheet, gently rounding the edges—without overworking the dough.

9. If you like, use a pastry brush to lightly brush the surface of each biscuit with the milk. This helps make an evenly golden crust. Bake them for 10 to 12 minutes, until they are puffed and golden. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.

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