Reader Deb asks if it’s necessary to sift the flour for a 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It’s true that some modern bakers consider sifting to be little more than a ritual, and an outdated one at that.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 clumps were just the beginning if the potential perils that awaited inside a flour bag. Traditional “impurities” 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 had to be not only competent in those days, but discreet. Whatever was found in the sifter, stayed in the sifter.
Thankfully we don’t have to contend with these sorts of, er, 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 the 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 even distribution of fat droplets and liquid within the flour, sugar and leavening.
If the end goal is a fine, tender texture, I say sift. It might not be strictly necessary, but it’s the little improvements that make the difference between good and great. Thanks Deb!