Measuring Ingredients for Baking

You probably know someone who bakes a lot, and it seems like she just tosses this in and that in and presto, out come cookies or a pie or something delicious. It seems like magic, so you may wonder how important it is to be accurate in measuring. The answer is: very important. Proper measuring is critical to baking. Baking is a science, and when you mix together ingredients, you're creating chemistry, albeit edible chemistry, so being precise is important. There is balance between flour, leaveners, fats, and liquids.

Extra salt or baking soda can ruin otherwise perfect cookies. Too much flour makes muffins taste dry and flavorless. No beginning cook should be nonchalant about measuring. The success of your recipe depends on it.

As you begin to feel more comfortable with baking, you may feel inclined to experiment a bit, maybe add some chocolate chips to peanut butter cookies, or throw some nuts or dried cranberries into oatmeal cookies, or substitute pecans for walnuts. That's all well and fine, but give it time. You're never too good or experienced to measure.

Measuring equipment

Measuring spoons come in sets of four or six, ranging from 1/4 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon. (Be sure to use graded teaspoons and tablespoons — and not the spoons you use to eat with —for accuracy.) You can use the same measuring tools for both liquids and dry ingredients. For liquids, fill the spoon until it's full. For dry ingredients, pour or scoop into the spoon until it's full, leveling off the spoon with the straight edge of a spatula or knife.

Never measure over the bowl of ingredients you're using for the recipe. If you overpour or level extra into the bowl, your measurements will not be accurate.

Measuring cups are essential for every kitchen. You won't find many recipes that don't require measurements of some kind. Measuring cups come in two basic types:

  • Graded: Graded cups range in sizes from 1/4 cup to 1 cup and can range from 4 to 6 cups in a set. Use graded cups to measure dry ingredients and solid fats, such as shortening.
  • Glass: Glass cups are available in a wide range of sizes, the most common being 1 cup, 2 cups, and 4 cups. Use these cups for measuring liquids.

When measuring thick, sticky liquids such as honey, molasses, and corn syrup, spray the inside of the measuring glass with nonstick cooking spray or grease it a little with oil. The liquid will then be much easier to remove.

Measuring dry ingredients

To measure flour, sugar, breadcrumbs, and other dry ingredients (with the exception of brown sugar in many cases), spoon the ingredients lightly into the measuring cup. Do not shake the cup to make level! Take the straight edge of a knife (not the cutting edge) and level off the ingredient. Leveling it off gives you one level cup. If the recipe calls for a heaping cup, do not level off the cup. Instead, leave a small mounded top of ingredients.

Sometimes ingredients, such as brown sugar, shredded cheeses, coconut, or herbs, are called for as lightly or firmly packed. Why pack? Generally, these ingredients are bulkier and can form big air pockets if you use the traditional spoon-and-level method of measuring. If you apply light or slightly firm pressure to the ingredients, you eliminate some of the air pockets and get a more accurate measurement. Never push the ingredients in so much that you actually crush them or pack them in so tightly that you have difficulty getting them out the of cup measure. If you do so, you will overmeasure, adding too much of the ingredient. A good visual cue that you have lightly packed something is that after you pour it out of the measuring cup, it will lose the shape of the cup it was in. If it's firmly packed, it will slightly retain the shape of the measuring cup after it's dumped out into the bowl, but it will be easy to stir apart.

To measure chopped nuts, shredded cheese, fresh herbs, and coconut, spoon the ingredients into the measuring cup and pack down lightly.

Measuring fats and other solids

To measure shortening, spoon the ingredients into a cup and pack down firmly with a spoon or rubber spatula to eliminate any air holes. Bakers, these days, don't often have to measure fats because butter and margarine come in conveniently measured sticks. One stick equals 8 tablespoons or 1/2 cup. Two sticks equal 1 cup. You still have to measure solid shortening, but now they make shortening sticks, so even that task has been greatly simplified.

If you're measuring fats, an easy way to keep the cup clean (and save yourself time by not having to wash it) is to place a piece of plastic wrap in the measuring cup first. Then, after the shortening is measured, pull the ends of the plastic out of the cup. The measuring cup stays clean and you have perfectly measured shortening.

Measuring liquids

Always use a glass measuring cup for measuring liquids. For an accurate reading, always rest the cup on a level surface and read at eye level.

Sometimes the container in which you purchase an ingredient might be labeled in ounces when your recipe calls for cup or spoon measurements (or vice versa). Check out Table 1 for some common equivalencies.

Table 1: Measurement Equivalents

If a Recipe Calls for This Amount

You Also Can Measure It This Way

Dash

2 or 3 drops (liquid) or less than 1/8 teaspoon (dry)

1 tablespoon

3 teaspoons or 1/2 ounce

2 tablespoons

1 ounce

1/4 cup

4 tablespoons or 2 ounces

1/3 cup

5 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon

1/2 cup

8 tablespoons or 4 ounces

1 cup

16 tablespoons or 8 ounces

1 pint

2 cups or 16 ounces or 1 pound

1 quart

4 cups or 2 pints

1 gallon

4 quarts

1 pound

16 ounces

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