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Baking bloopers: Did you measure wrong?

Thursday, December 20, 2001

By Suzanne Martinson, Food Editor, Post-Gazette

Before handing over the recipe for your showstopping cake or signature cookie, better get down and dirty and demand an answer to the cooking question of the hour: "And so, Virginia, how do you measure your flour?"

Measuring scoops are for dippers, not spooners. Purists will level off. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

Baking bloopers
Or was it the wrong flour?

Forgive us, Julia, for we have sinned. Forty years ago, Child wrote in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking": "Scoop the dry-measure cup directly into your flour container and fill the cup to overflowing; do not shake the cup or pack down the flour. Sweep off excess so that flour is even with the lip of the cup, using a straight edge of some sort."

Julia remains a scooper, but today there's no consensus on the "right" way to measure flour.

Unlike scoopers, the spooners follow latter-day scientific tradition and lightly spoon their flour into the measuring cup, then level it off. Then there are the bloopers, who may have no method or do it differently every time. Some wouldn't know the difference between a "dry" measuring cup and a "liquid" one. They might not even own a measuring cup.

In a hurry-up society, what we do in the privacy of our own kitchens, embarrassing or not, must be revealed if we want our recipe to find success in someone else's kitchen. Is there even a "wrong" way anymore?

Shirley Corriher, the Atlanta author of "CookWise," which many consider the definitive tome on the science behind the sauce and substance of cooking, figured she couldn't beat 'em, so she joined 'em. "I've been teaching cooking classes for 30 years," says the food scientist, who's writing a sequel called "BakeWise." "I always taught what I learned was the 'proper' way to measure flour: lightly spoon it into a dry measuring cup and level off with a spatula."

What her students did, however, was dip their measuring cup into a bag of flour and level it off on the side of the bag. And that, depending on how hard they packed it, meant 1 cup of flour could be 1 cup plus as much as 2 extra tablespoons. If the recipe is forgiving, it might not matter, but heavy-duty dippers can wreak havoc with a sensitive recipe.

Corriher dealt with reality by formulating her recipes for the way she believes bakers really measure. She's not the only one.

Nancy Baggett's beautiful, meticulously tested "The All-American Cookie Book" (Houghton Mifflin; $35) is predicated on the baker measuring accurately. She writes: "It's possible to cook many dishes without measuring carefully, but in baking, accuracy really counts. Most cookies (and other baked goods) depend on a certain ratio of flour, sugar, fat, egg and liquid. When these are even slightly out of balance, consistencies can change, sometimes with unwanted results."

Measure wrong, and you can create a cookie that even the starving neighbor kids won't eat. Yet how many cut right to the recipes and skip Baggett's "Read this" chapter?


By their measuring shall you know them







Most likely a spooner



Sifter and spooner





"When measuring for the recipes in this book, be sure to use the dip and sweep method, especially for flour. Fill graduated measures by scooping down into the canister or bag, not by shaking or spooning the flour into the cups. Dipping up the flour keeps it relatively compact, while spooning fluffs it up and throws off the volume measurement."

And that, Virginia, is exactly the opposite of what you might have learned in eighth-grade cooking.

Cook's magazine is also in the dip-and-sweep camp. Its editors describe their technique in "The America's Test Kitchen Cookbook" (Boston Common Press; $29.95): "Dip a metal or plastic dry measure into a bag of flour so that the cup is overflowing with flour. Then use a knife or icing spatula to level off the flour, sweeping the excess back into the bag. Short of weighing the flour (which is what professional bakers do), this measuring method is your best guarantee of using the right amount of flour. Spooning the flour into the measuring cup aerates it, and you might end up with as much as 25 percent less flour by weight."

General Mills, Pillsbury, Hershey's Chocolate and Kraft promote the opposite. Spoon, not scoop.

That's why Mary Bartz, director of Betty Crocker Kitchens for General Mills Inc., loves the new Gold Medal see-through plastic bag. "I think it will encourage people to spoon and level when they measure."

Betty Crocker has baked on both sides of the fence. The "Betty Crocker Good and Easy Cookbook" so popular with 1960s newlyweds in the work force described measuring flour with the "dip-level-pour" method. The company switched sides in the early '80s, says Bartz.

"We were flour dippers for many years, but after extensive testing, we found spooning gently and leveling gave a more consistent cup weight, time after time, and with each person consistently."

The change in philosophy probably prevented a food fight with former cross-town rival Pillsbury when the two Minneapolis food companies merged on Nov. 1. Pillsbury has long been a spoon-and-sweep proponent, making it easier for Betty Crocker and the Pillsbury Doughboy to share a kitchen.

Jean Anderson, who has been inducted into the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame, goes one step further than spoon-and-sweep. She does not subscribe to the common practice of not bothering to sift flour before measuring.

"I sift it even if it says presifted. Flour compacts. If it isn't sifted, it can be as much as 1/4 cup off."

Controversy on the "right" way simmers, and culinary mystery writer Diane Mott Davidson cites Rose Levy Beranbaum as being in the opposing dip-and-sweep camp. "I lightly spoon and sweep," says Davidson, whose heroine works as a caterer when she isn't solving murders. She bakes in Colorado at an altitude of 8,000 feet. "I usually have to add an extra 2 tablespoons or so, but flour is like salt. Once it's added, you can't take it out."

She hasn't made much progress winning her sister over, though. "She pours flour into a glass measuring cup and shakes it down until there's 2 cups. I tell her, 'You've got an extra half-cup in there!' But she keeps doing it."

Such diverse techniques put recipe developers on edge. Illinois-based Kraft Foods Kitchen, whose products include Calumet Baking Powder and Baker's Chocolate, is sensitive to the nouveau cook who seeks simple recipes, such as one-bowl cakes. Janet Myers, Kraft kitchen's associate director, says their recipes don't require sifting flour, but it's important to measure it in a "cup with straight sides, not a pour for liquid measures."

Still, speed matters today. Everybody's on deadline.

So cookery stores, such as Williams-Sonoma, TV personality Martha Stewart and All-Clad of Canonsburg dangle time-saving measuring scoops in front of a busy baker's eyes. Dropped into a flour canister, a scoop is an invitation to dip, shake and roll with the recipe. Purists will level, of course.

Grandma, on the other hand, may have operated without standard measurements. Teaspoon? Tablespoon? Cup? She opened her dish cupboard or the silverware drawer.

"My grandmother could make the most wonderful strudel, and she never measured anything," says Linda Wernikoff, owner of Crate in Scott.

An experienced baker knows the feel, the look, the moment, when the dough "seems right." Beautiful baked goods require precision, but many a Nana's "butter the size of an egg" never varied by an Nth of an ounce, though her advice to "add flour until it feels right" is little help if she isn't standing by your side.

Nana's insurance policy was experience; the beginning baker's is accurate measuring. A few even do it like the pros -- weighing ingredients. Crate teachers -- generally a spoon-and-level crowd --also like a $56.96 Soehle scale that is easy to use.

Scaling ingredients probably won't overtake most kitchens anytime soon. "I don't think home cooks are going to weigh things," says Wernikoff.

Know that you are in good company if you and your best baking friend can't agree on the "proper" way to measure flour. Even the 13 authors of "The Baker's Dozen Cookbook" (William Morrow: $59.95) disagree. They are a Who's Who of the baking world: Flo Braker, John Phillips Carroll, Julia B. Cookenboo, Marion Cunningham, Carol Field, Fran Gage, David Lebovitz, Alice Medrich, Robert Morocco, Peter Reinhart, Lindsey Remolife Shere, Kathleen Stewart and Carolyn Beth Weil.

"We could not come to an agreement on one best way to measure. Most home cooks measure by the dip-and-sweep method. . . . This method is fine for most doughs and batters. But many of our chapter editors argued strongly for an alternate method that is best for delicate cakes and pastries. This manner of measuring is called the spoon-and-sweep method. . . . When a recipe requires this method, we say so in the ingredients list next to the flour."

So there you have it. Measure the way the recipe intended. And if your mother-in-law or best friend won't tell if she's a scooper or spooner, be afraid, be very afraid.

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