Do I really need to sift the flour for baking?
One step in recipe preparation that doesn’t always seem worthwhile is sifting flour. We asked professional bakers to put things right on sifting.
Pastry is subject to many rules: specific measures (and sometimes weights), molds covered with parchment paper, unsalted butter. One such rule that pops up from time to time is flour sifting. It’s not called for in all baking recipes, which makes it even more confusing. When should you sift your flour and when can you skip this step?
To solve this problem, we spoke to two experts: Joanne Chang, award-winning pastry chef, restaurateur and cookbook author, and Jessie Sheehan, professional baker, author of Snack pastries (among other books), and the self-proclaimed queen of easy sweets.
When should you sift and when can you skip it
Chang and Sheehan agreed that most of the time you don’t need to sift your flour for baking, so there is no need to add this step when making cookies, pies or pies. “I really hate extra steps in baking recipes unless I’m 1000 percent sure they’ll make a big difference,” Sheehan says. “I feel like fluffing the flour with a whisk in most recipes is all you need.”
That said, as with many things in life, there are a few exceptions to the rule. Sift your flour if:
Eggs are your leaven. Angel food cake, chiffon cake, and light and airy sponge cakes rely on eggs for lift, so this is a time when you need to sift. “The egg’s lifting power can be hampered by flour clumps,” says Chang.
Your flour has sat for a while. If you’re not a regular baker, your flour may sit in the cupboard for a while, which could make it a bit lumpy. Lumpy flour can result in less than tender pastries. If you’re in that camp, it might be worth running your flour through a sieve. “When baking at home, I usually sift if the flour has been sitting for a while,” Chang explains. “At work, we go through the flour so quickly that it doesn’t have time to really compress.”
You use cake flour (maybe). Sheehan discovered that cake flour can sometimes have lumps, so it’s worth having your sifter handy just in case.
Before sifting, be sure to read the recipe carefully. You should always read your recipe carefully before you start cooking, but this thoroughness is especially important when it comes to sifting. If the recipe says “X cups flour, sifted”, that means you need to measure your flour before sifting it. If the recipe calls for “X cups sifted flour,” sift before measuring. Why is this important? Sifting aerates your flour, which means sifted flour is lighter than unsifted flour.
What type of sieve should I use?
Chang likes to use a sieve (or drum sieve), which can be used for flour, and is also a great tool for making silky smooth mashed potatoes. Sheehan prefers a fine mesh screen. “I use it primarily for savory applications (it’s not a dedicated cooking-only sieve) and it works like a charm,” she says. “I also sift some lumpy cocoa powder and powdered sugar into it.” Whatever you choose, go deeper than you think. “The larger your sieve, the easier it will be to sieve,” says Chang.
Sheehan adds that you want to make sure you’ve completely finished sifting before moving on to the cleaning phase. “Sometimes I rinse my sieve too soon and then realize I still have to use it and it won’t work because it’s wet and I have to wait to let it dry,” she says.
Read more: The best flour sifters for bakery-worthy cakes