Baking comes with plenty of rules: specific measurements (and sometimes weights), parchment-lined pans, unsalted butter. One of those rules that pops up every once in a while is sifting flour. It’s not called for in every baking recipe, which makes it even more confusing. When should you sift your flour and when can you skip that step?
To sort this out, we talked to two experts: Joanne Chang, award-winning pastry chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author, and Jessie Sheehan, pro baker, author of Snackable Bakes (among other books), and the self-proclaimed queen of easy-peasy sweets.
When You Should Sift and When You Can Skip It
Both Chang and Sheehan agreed that most of the time you don’t need to sift your flour for baking, so there’s no need to add that step when making cookies, pies, or tarts. “I really hate extra steps in baking recipes unless I am 1000% sure that they will make a big difference,” says Sheehan. “I feel like aerating the flour with a whisk in most recipes is all you need.”
That said, as with many things in life, there are some exceptions to the rule. Sift your flour if:
- Eggs are your leavener. Angel food cake, chiffon cake, and light and airy sponge cakes rely on eggs for lift, so this is a time when you should sift. “The lift power of the egg can be hampered by flour clumps,” says Chang.
- Your flour has been sitting for a while. If you’re not a frequent baker, your flour can sit in the cabinet for a spell, which might make it a bit clumpy. Clumpy flour can translate to less-than-tender bakes. If you’re in that camp, it could be worthwhile to run your flour through a sifter. “When I’m baking at home I usually will sift if the flour has been sitting for a while,” says Chang. “At work we go through flour so quickly it doesn’t have time to really compress.”
- You’re using cake flour (maybe). Sheehan has found that cake flour can sometimes have some lumps, so it’s worth having your sifter handy just in case.
Before you sift, make sure to read the recipe carefully. You should always read your recipe thoroughly before starting to cook, but this thoroughness is especially important when it comes to sifting. If the recipe says “X cups flour, sifted,” that means you should measure your flour before sifting it. If the recipe calls for “X cups sifted flour,” do the sifting before measuring. Why does this matter? Sifting aerates your flour, which means sifted flour is lighter than non-sifted flour.
What Kind Of Sifter Should I Use?
Chang likes to use a tamis (or drum sifter), which can be used for flour, and is also a great tool for making silky smooth mashed potatoes. Sheehan prefers a fine-mesh sieve. “I use it mostly for savory applications (it’s not a dedicated sieve just for baking) and it works like a charm,” she says. “I also sift lumpy cocoa powder and powdered sugar in it.” Whatever you choose, go larger than you think. “The bigger your sifter the easier it will be to sift,” says Chang.
Sheehan adds that you want to make sure you’re completely done sifting before moving to the clean-up phase. “Sometimes I rinse my sieve too early and then I realize I still need to use it and then it won’t work because it’s wet and I have to wait to let it dry,” she says.