Let’s jump straight into it here… what does sifting do? We’ve all done it since before we can remember, but what is the purpose of sifting flour? We’ve put it to the test here at Cake Decoration & Sugarcraft HQ, so the gloves are off for the fight of the century: sifted flour vs unsifted!
Not only are we looking at why we sift flour, but also when to sift flour and when it’s best to leave it be. Finally, we’re looking at the basics on how to use a sifter - while using a sieve is lovely and simple, once you’ve used a proper sifter, you’ll never look back!
What is the purpose of sifting flour?
Sifting flour simply means breaking up any lumps that may have formed in it. Other dry ingredients can be sifted as well, such as cocoa powder. This aerates the dry ingredients, making them lighter and therefore easier to mix into other ingredients. Sifting flour also helps when it comes to measuring accurately, removing any surprise heavy lumps before they ruin your delicately balanced mix. Essentially the purpose of sifting flour is to smooth it out and make it lighter for mixing in with other ingredients, or using as a base for kneading or rolling dough.
When to sift flour?
So, when should you sift flour? While many recipes will demand you sift every ingredient possible (top tip – don’t try and sift eggs, it gets awfully messy!), it’s not actually always necessary to sift flour. While commercial flours are generally refined enough so that you don’t end up with bugs, seeds and other unwanted and un-cakey extras, it can be crucial for making or breaking a really light sponge.
When baking every day items such as cookies, muffins, pie doughs and rough bread mixtures, it’s not really necessary to sift your flour. Do use a wooden spoon or similar to ‘muss’ the flour up somewhat, getting some air into the flour without having to fully sift it.
If you are baking a sponge cake and especially particular types of sponge cakes such as genoise or angel, sifting your flour is truly essential. The delicate nature of these sponges means that any extra aeration and smoothness you can in your ingredients, the better.
It can also be useful to sift flour that is being used on a work surface for kneading or rolling dough, as this helps prevent lumps of flour sticking to your dough, affecting the balance of ingredients and potentially toughening in up or drying it out.
How to use a sifter?
A useful little gadget that often sits in the back of our drawers or cupboards gathering dust, they are brilliant for helping keep your surfaces clean and ensuring all your carefully measured flour goes into the mixture where it belongs!
Using the actual sifter is pretty simple – generally resembling a large tin with a handle and crank, start by sitting the sifter in the bowl. Pour the required amount of flour into the sifter and pick up the sifter, ensuring it doesn’t leave the bowl. This is essential in preventing flour falling all over the place! Turn the crank on the flour sifter slowly and carefully, keeping a close eye on the sifted flour to make sure is even textured, light and lumpless. Once there is no more flour coming out of the sifter, give it a little tap on the side of the bowl to get any stragglers into the bowl. Finally, be sure to wash the sifter thoroughly ready for next time!
Pay careful attention to how a recipe is worded. If it is asking, for example, 500g of sifted flour, then this doesn’t mean you should measure out 500g and then sift. Instead, sift an amount of flour that is over 500g and then measure the exact amount. If the recipe asks for 500g of flour, sifted, then you can measure the flour, sift it and get mixing! It’s important to stick to the way the recipe asks you to sift flour, to ensure the correct measurements are kept throughout.
So, we would recommend if baking ‘rougher’ creations like cookies and breads, sifting is generally not needed. However, if you’re needing a thin layer for rolling dough, creating something with a really light consistency or may require extra help with aeration (such as an eggless cake), these times are when it is best to sift flour.
So there you have it, next time anyone asks you 'why sift flour?' you have the perfect answer for them!