How important is sifting?

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Reader Deb asks if it’s necessary to sift the flour for an upside-down cake, or whether a vigorous whisking will suffice. I advise a full sift myself, for cakes especially, but everywhere lightness counts: biscuits, sponges, pancakes, tea breads, the list goes on.

It’s true that some modern bakers consider sifting to be little more than a ritual, and an outdated one at that. I disagree, though I will admit that sifting isn’t nearly as critical for the home baker as it once was.

There was a time — in fact pretty much all of recorded history up until about 75 years ago — when sifting was indispensable for the home baking arts. Even as recently as the early 1900’s, home bakers were not only required to mix, shape, bake and decorate their products, they also had to process many of their raw ingredients. Sugar had to be milled, spices ground, leaveners either grown or formulated by hand, and flours sifted.

Was flour that much coarser or clumpier then? Yes it was, however there were more pressing perils that awaited in a typical flour bag, namely “impurities” that ranged from bits of wheat husks and stalks to twigs, leaves, pebbles, bits of mill stones or pieces of metal like nuts, bolts or screws. Insect larvae — indeed whole insects like weevils — were common. Which meant that a home baker in those days not only had to be competent, but discreet. Whatever she found in the sifter was her own business.

Thankfully we don’t have to contend with these sorts of unwelcome surprises anymore. The most we have to worry about is the odd clump, and usually not even that. However since even the finest “pre-sifted” flours can become compacted between the mill and your kitchen, sifting does an excellent job of putting a little space between the flour granules. This is especially important for cake batters, the success of which depends on a good emulsion and an even distribution of fat droplets and liquid amid the flour, sugar and leavening.

If the end goal is a fine, tender texture, I say sift. It might not be strictly necessary, but then it can never hurt. Thanks Deb!

12 thoughts on “How important is sifting?”

  1. Another young baker here who sifts, and doesn’t mind admitting it. “Whatever I found in the sifter, is my own business”, I say that’s a T-shirt…or an apron 🙂

  2. “But Homer, the grocery store sells sugar for a dollar a pound. And it doesn’t have nails and bits of broken glass in it.”

    “But those are PRIZES!” *takes a bite* “Oooh–a blasting cap!”

    In all seriousness, while I’m glad to have weevil-free flour, I can’t recommend grinding your own spices strongly enough.

    1. In the end, does not all life boil down to a Simpsons episode? Thanks Eric!

      – Joe

      PS – I agree about the spices.

      1. Weevils make you run faster ask my brother… When I was a child living on the Island Jamaica we made pancakes from scratch and there were these black dots… I swire it was burnt flour my parents didn’t eat the pancakes after the discovery but my brother ate them all. He had track and feild and came first in all his races. My Dad said it’s the weevils they make you run faster

  3. Sifting is a necessity in high humidity. Otherwise, the flour tends to stubbornly clump together in little lumps and refuses to blend evenly.

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