Proper measuring is a crucial part of successful baking. Unlike cooking, where you can often get away with eyeballing the amount of ingredients you put in the dish—a ball of mozzarella, a knob of butter, three tomatoes—baking is chemistry and requires precision. Add too much flour to cake batter and the cake may come out tough and dry. Not enough flour and you risk ending up with a badly structured cake that will collapse in the oven.
Enter Measuring 101. Today we're going to talk about the best tools for measuring, how to measure wet versus dry ingredients, why an ounce is not always an ounce, and why you should really, really consider investing in a good digital scale.
Measuring 101: Table of Contents
Measuring by Volume
Volume is a measure of how much space something takes up, and it's the standard form of measurement for most baking recipes in the United States (whether it's the best way or not is an entirely different question). Gallons, quarts, pints, cups, tablespoons, teaspoons, and fluid ounces are the most common units of volume you'll find.
Essential Tools for Measuring by Volume
Let's get one thing out of the way. A coffee cup is not the same as a measuring cup. A teacup is not a measuring cup. A mug is not a measuring cup.
If you're cooking by volume measurements, having an accurate set of dry measuring cups, liquid measuring cups of a few different sizes (a two-cup measure, and a four-cup (one quart) measure are a good place to start. A good set of measuring spoons (we like these nesting magnetic spoons) is absolutely essential.
In the U.S., one cup equals approximately 240 milliliters.* In other parts of the world, such as Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, a cup is 284 milliliters, though modern British or Australian recipes generally opt for mass measurements over volumes. Although there are some recipes that can be made by measuring volume with a container of choice (a pound cake is made with equal volumes of butter, sugar, eggs, and flour, so in theory you could use a coffee mug to measure your ingredients) in general you want to make sure you're using graduated measuring cups and spoons.
* Okay, it's actually 236.6, but as volume measurements are inherently imprecise, 240 is close enough.
Like the cup, a tablespoon is also a standardized unit of measurement. Which means you can't use an ordinary dinner spoon if a recipe calls for a tablespoon of baking powder.
U.S. Volume Equivalencies
Here are a few basic equivalencies for volume measurements:
|Measure (standard U.S. units)||Equivalency|
|1 teaspoon||5 milliliters|
|1 tablespoon||3 teaspoons (15 milliliters)|
|1/4 cup||4 tablespoons (59 milliliters)|
|1/2 cup||8 tablespoons (118 milliliters)|
|1 cup||16 tablespoons (237 milliliters)|
|1 pint||2 cups (473 milliliters)|
|1 quart||2 pints (946 milliliters, approximately 1 liter)|
|1 gallon||4 quarts (3,785 milliliters)|
Volume: Wet vs. Dry Ingredients
Those cute blue and red measuring cups and spoons in the photo are dry measuring cups. The graduated plastic jug in the middle is a wet measuring cup.
Wet ingredients, such as milk, water, eggs (if you're measuring eggs by volume) or oils can technically be measured in both wet or dry measures—one dry measuring cup of milk should weigh exactly the same as one wet measuring cup of milk. However, a dry measuring cup must be filled to the brim for accuracy, which can make measuring liquids in them impractical. Likewise, dry ingredients can be measured in a liquid measure, but it is very difficult to accurately level dry ingredients without a straight brim to aid you.
How to Use Liquid Measuring Cups
To measure liquids, place an appropriately sized liquid measuring cup on a flat, stable surface (don't just hold it in your hand!). Pour in your liquid until it is just under the line. Squat or bend down so that your eye is exactly level with the graduation. You'll probably notice that the top surface of the liquid is not perfectly flat—it kind of climbs up the walls of the container around the edges. This is due to surface tension and the shape of that top surface of the liquid is called a meniscus.
In order to measure accurately, slowly add liquid until the bottom of the meniscus is perfectly level with the graduation on the cup.
One important note: Since wet measuring cups are often larger than dry measuring cups—most one-cup graduated wet measures can hold at least two cups of liquid if you fill them past the top demarcation—I find it easier to measure small quantities of wet ingredients (say, one quarter or less) in dry measuring cups or measuring spoons. For example, when a recipe calls for a quarter cup of buttermilk, I take out my dry quarter cup measuring cup or use my tablespoon measure four times instead of bothering with my liquid measure.
How to Use Dry Measuring Cups
Dry ingredients like flour and sugar are best measured in dry measuring cups. There are many methods for filling a dry measuring cup—sifting, spooning, scooping—and believe it or not, the method by which you fill a dry measuring cup can seriously alter the mass of the ingredient you're measuring (more on that in a moment).
At Serious Eats, our standard technique is called the "dip and sweep."
To do it, have your dry ingredient in a wide-mouthed bag or jar. Dip your dry measuring cup into the container and lift it out, letting the dry ingredient overflow from the top.
Use a straight edge, like the edge of a butter knife, a chopstick, or a bench scraper to level off the top of the cup.
A properly measured dry cup of flour should have a flat top surface that is level with the brim of the cup.
Compressibility: Why Dry Measures are Inherently Inaccurate
When it comes to measuring dry ingredients by volume, the difficulty lies in the compressibility of the ingredients. For example, flour—be it all-purpose, cake, or bread flour—can easily be compressed as you spoon, scoop, or pack it into a measuring cup.
A cup filled by dipping a cup into a container can weigh as much as 50% more than a cup filled by sifting flour into it!
Even when using the exact same method, the amount of flour in a cup can vary. In the next two photos you see two cups of flour, measured using the same dip-and-sweep method. I was very light handed when I scooped out the first cup, while I was a bit rough with the second.
A lightly scooped cup of flour weighed 126 grams (about 4.4 ounces)
A firmly scooped cup of flour weighed 164 grams (about 5.8 ounces).
As you can see, these seemingly identical cups of flour are actually quite different—the heavily-scooped cup weighs a full 32% more than the lightly scooped cup! That kind of difference can spell the difference between success and failure in a recipe.
After many tests with various bakers and home cooks, we've found that the dip-and-sweep produces the smallest variation from cook to cook and that the average cup of flour measured using a dip-and-sweep weighs in at about five ounces (148 grams). This is the equivalency we use in all Serious Eats recipes. You may find that other sites or cookbooks use a different method for measuring flour. Make sure to check the equivalency charts of whatever source your using for accurate measuring (and if the site doesn't offer equivalencies, consider heading to a different source!).
If you insist on measuring dry ingredients by volume, the trick is to make sure to practice until you can accurately scoop a cup of flour that weighs the same five ounces each and every time. I'd recommend using the dip-and-sweet method to scoop flour into a bowl set on a scale a few times in a row until it becomes second nature.
U.S. Dry Measure to Mass Equivalencies
You may have noticed that when a Serious Eats recipe calls for flour, the amount called for is almost always given in both cups (a measure of volume) and ounces (a measure of weight). Our standard conversion is 1 cup of flour = 5 ounces, or 148 grams. This equivalency approximates what the average cook will get using the dip and sweep method.
Here are a few basic equivalencies for volume measurements:
|Measure (volume)||Equivalency (mass)|
|1 cup all-purpose flour||5 ounces (148 grams)|
|1 cup cake flour||4 1/2 ounces (133 grams)|
|1 cup bread flour||5 1/2 ounces (163 grams)|
|1 cup granulated sugar||7 ounces (207 grams)|
|1 cup confectioner's sugar||4 ounces (118 grams)|
|1 cup brown sugar, packed||7 ounces (207 grams)|
|1 cup cornstarch||4 1/2 ounces (133 grams)|
|1 cup cornmeal||5 ounces (148 grams)|
|1 cup cocoa powder||3 ounces (89 grams)|
Measuring by Weight: Just Do It.
Ounces vs. Fluid Ounces: They Aren't the Same!
Ounces are a unit of weight.
Fluid ounces are a unit of volume.
If measuring water, one fluid ounce weighs exactly one ounce of weight, however this ratio can change depending on the density of what you are measuring. The good news is that most of the time, one fluid ounce of any liquid you'd use in cooking will weigh close enough to an ounce that it shouldn't throw your final results off too much.
Our friend Stella Parks of The Bravetart has this to say about ounces vs. fluid ounces:
I'd like to go back in time and punch the guy who thought it'd be a good idea to force two different systems of measurement to share the same name.
We concur. It can be very confusing. If a recipe calls for eight ounces of chocolate chips, is that eight ounces on a scale (weight), or a one-cup dry measure filled with chocolate chips (volume)?
The convention in the U.S. is this: If a dry ingredient is listed in ounces, it's a unit of weight and should be measured on a scale. If a wet ingredient is listed in ounces, it's fluid ounces and should be measured in a wet measuring cup. Chocolate chips, oats, flour, pasta, and rice are all things that would be listed in ounces (weight), while water, stock, milk, cream, honey, or oil would all be listed in fluid ounces (volume).
The exception to this rule is when a baking recipe very clearly lists weights before volumes. In that case, every ingredient should be measured by weight on a scale. For instance, Kenji's New York-style pizza dough lists weights as the primary measure with approximate volumes in parentheses and is a recipe designed to be completed 100% on a scale with no liquid or dry measuring cups required.
At Serious Eats, many of our serious baking projects are listed in this manner. This is because we feel very strongly that using a scale and measuring ingredients—wet or dry—by weight is the best, most accurate way to guarantee consistency in your baking projects.*
* By extension, any time you see a serious baking recipe that offers only measurements in volume and not in mass it should immediately set off alarms in your head. Perhaps you should look for a different recipe!
Why Measure by Weight?
You want to get serious about baking? You want to make sure that your baking projects are consistent from batch to batch? You want to save yourself from having to wash all of your cups and measuring spoons every time you bake? Good! It's time for you to invest in a good digital scale (even an inexpensive analog scale is a big step up over measuring cups or spoons).
- It's more accurate. There are no compressibility problems when measuring by weight. Five ounces of flour is always five ounces of flour, no matter how you transfer it to the bowl. This means that every time you bake a given recipe, you're guaranteed that the ratio of ingredients is exactly the same time after time.
- It's less messy. Instead of using an array of different measuring cups which all need to be washed after you've finished mixing up your batter or dough, all you need to measure any number of ingredients with a scale is a single mixing bowl (or at most one bowl for your dry ingredients and a second bowl for your wet).
Improved accuracy and only a single bowl to clean. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.
How to Measure by Weight
Let's illustrate this by using that New York pizza dough as an example. It's a simple one, as it doesn't require a separate bowl for wet and dry ingredients—everything can be added to the same bowl sequentially.
The recipe calls for 22.5 ounces of all purpose flour, .5 ounces of sugar, .35 ounces of kosher salt, .35 ounces of yeast, 1.125 ounces of olive oil, and 15 ounces of water.
To measure ingredients by weight, start by placing your mixing bowl on top of your scale and hitting the "tare" or "zero" button. This will account for the weight of the bowl and set your scale's counter back to zero.
Now add your flour by spooning it into the bowl until it hits 22.5 ounces. (It's tempting to just tip or shake it in directly from the bag or storage container, but it's very easy to accidentally add too much this way.)
Now hit the "tare" or "zero" button again.
Next add your sugar until the scale hits .5 ounces.
Tare the scale again and repeat this process until all of your dry ingredients are added. Whisk them together, then add your wet ingredients before kneading them all together.
Ta-da! Your pizza dough is ready to go with perfectly accurate and precise measurements, all with just a single bowl to clean. Wasn't that easy?
Now go forth and bake! Accurately and precisely, that is.
Written with additional reporting from the Serious Eats team.