Measuring seems simple enough. A recipe calls for a cup of flour so you scoop out a cup and shake off the excess… right? Not quite. How you get the flour in the cup will affect how much flour you actually have. If you scoop and level the top, you will have more flour by weight than if you stir the flour first and spoon it into the measuring cup, since it won’t be so densely packed.
Liquid ingredients can be accurately measured by volume or weight, but the most accurate measurement for dry ingredients will always be weight—specifically, grams. This is why most of my baking recipes include gram measurements (and if they don’t, it probably means the recipe is quite forgiving of sloppy measuring). This accuracy is more important in baking, and less so in dishes like casseroles or stir fries, where a little more or less of an ingredient is unlikely to adversely affect the final product.
So what if you don’t have a kitchen scale? You’ll have to measure by volume, which means using cups, and there are a few tips that will help you measure as accurately as you can with what you have.
Measuring Cups Differ
A cup measurement is not exactly the same in every country. In the US, a cup measures 240ml, but it’s 250ml in Australia and Canada, and as low as 200ml in some countries. This is another reason why weight measurements are superior. Most recipes you come across written in English will be using 240-250ml cups, and this difference usually won’t be enough to affect your recipe.
Tablespoons are not always the same either. They are 15ml in the US and UK, but 20ml in Australia, which is a whole teaspoon more!
This is just something that is important to keep in mind when following a recipe. If it doesn’t turn out the way you hoped, consider where the recipe came from and how their measurements may have differed to yours. You may also want to check how much your measuring utensils actually hold. Just because you live in Australia, does not mean you have Australian measuring cups, especially if you got them online.
For the record, all my recipes use US measurements when indicating cups and tablespoons.
Measuring Dry Ingredients
For most dry ingredients, go ahead and use your cup to scoop it out of the container. Alternatively, pour the ingredient into your measuring cup. Run the flat side of a knife over the top to make sure it’s level. Keep in mind that sometimes recipes will ask for a ‘heaped’ teaspoon or tablespoon of an ingredient. In that case, overflow is a good thing.
Unless otherwise specified, brown sugar is usually packed into the measuring cup. This is most likely because, due to the sticky nature of the sugar, it’s likely to form air holes. To pack brown sugar, fill the measuring cup and then smoosh the sugar down with a spoon. You don’t need to use a lot of force. Repeat until the measuring cup is full.
Flour measurements can vary greatly when using cups, since it’s a very light ingredient that can be easily compressed. Unlike brown sugar, you typically don’t want to pack the flour into the cup. Some people measure by scooping the flour with the measuring cup and then running the flat side of a knife across the top to level. The other common method is using a spoon to fluff up the flour in the container and gently spooning it into the cup before leveling. I prefer the second method, which results in a little less flour in the cup. Many baking recipes will end up dry or overly dense if you add too much flour, and you can always add more if the consistency isn’t quite right, but you can’t take it out.
Measuring Liquid Ingredients
There are actually different measuring cups you’re meant to use for liquid ingredients. I only have one large one, and so for smaller amounts, if I’m not measuring by weight, I just use my dry measuring cups. The Joy of Cooking says you are not supposed to do this, but I have not encountered any problems so far!
I do prefer measuring by weight, because then I don’t have to deal with transferring a full measuring cup of water or milk to a bowl (I am clumsy).
Measuring Sticky Ingredients
For measuring sticky ingredients such as honey or molasses, I often just eyeball it if it’s only a tablespoon or so. But if you need to measure it out, grease your measuring cup or spoon first with a spray of cooking oil. Add your ingredient, and you’ll find it slides more easily.
It’s always useful to know how much certain ingredients weigh so that you can convert cups to grams or vice versa. I can’t remember everything though, so I use this chart from King Arthur Flour. It’s useful for most ingredients you’ll use in baking, which is when accurate measuring is most important.
It’s good to keep in mind that, although this chart and others like it are good for a basic guideline, they are not always going to be 100% accurate because the actual weight of any one person’s cup measure will often differ, even when using the same method. For example, when I measure flour, I find a cup usually weighs closer to 130g than the 120g indicated on the King Arthur Flour chart (and I am using both their flour and their measuring methods!) This is just another reason why you should get used to measuring by weight. It’s the only way to ensure you are using the exact right amount.
Buy a Scale!
If you are really serious about baking, I do suggest you get a kitchen scale. You don’t have to spend a lot of money; I have this one which only cost me $25 and still works well after a few years of constant use. The only downside is it’s sometimes hard to read if I have one of my bigger bowls on it, but I think it’s great for getting started.