I’ll start this post off with complete honesty: I never do this. I never “sift dry ingredients together.” I consider it a waste of time and effort. My wife disagrees. She thinks that if a recipe tells you to sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, etc., you absolutely must do this.
Sift Together: What Does This Mean?
When a baking recipe says to sift together ingredients, it is always referring to dry ingredients like flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, etc. To sift these ingredients together, you place them into a sifter and then sift them all into a bowl. This is done using a flour sifter, like the one shown below, or by using a fine metal mesh sieve. Sometimes the word sieve is used as in “sieve the flour and salt together in a bowl.” This means the same thing and a sifter or sieve can be used. A sifter has a handle that turns a wheel which forces the dry ingredients through a metal screen, similar to a food mill for dry ingredients. With a sieve, you have to shake to get the ingredients to move through the mesh or push then through with a spoon or rubber spatula.
Why Sift Together?
What is the reason for sifting together dry ingredients? The usual reason given is to thoroughly mix together those ingredients. Otherwise, you would simply place all the dry ingredients into a bowl and stir them together. The idea, then, is that this is not adequate.
To be honest, the only time I sift flour is if a recipe calls for sifted flour rather than flour, sifted. Otherwise, I skip the sifting.
Sure, I’m not an expert baker but the idea that mixing dry ingredients together thoroughly is so difficult that you must run the ingredients through a sieve seems a little extreme to me. But, that is not the only reason I defy this baking rule. The real reason is that I do not think it actually “thoroughly mixes” the dry ingredients at all.
How do we sift together dry ingredients like flour, baking powder, and salt? We place them in a sifter or a fine mesh sieve (strainer).
So, you would put your flour into the sifter. Then your baking powder and/or baking soda. Then your salt. Then you’d sift them into a bowl. How does the baking powder and salt become perfectly distributed into the flour while you sift? What is causing these dry ingredients to thoroughly intermingle? If your baking powder is on top of a pile of flour, what do you think will end up in the bowl first? A perfectly even layer of flour and baking powder? It makes no sense. The ingredients will be mixed together somewhat, but that is all.
If you want to thoroughly mix together ingredients, you have to actually mix them. It is not rocket surgery to mix together some flour and other dry ingredients in a bowl. A spoon or a whisk will do. You just…stir. Thoroughly. That is if you don’t plan to skip this step entirely, which I often do, as for instance when I’m making pancakes.
Do you need to sift together dry ingredients, then? If you are using a pre-measured amount of flour that is supposed to be measured and then sifted, then sifting together the dry ingredients will probably serve little purpose. The only reason to pre-sift flour, to me, is if a recipe is developed using measured amounts of sifted flour. This is because if you don’t sift the flour in these recipes before you measure it, you’ll end up with the wrong amount of flour. Keep in mind that this post is not actually considering how to correctly measure out flour, or how it is more accurate to weigh it, and all of that.
You Don’t Need to Sift Together Ingredients
But in a recipe that calls for sifting ingredients for no other reason but to mix them, you can safely skip this step. If you want to mix together dry ingredients, mix them together. Sifting and mixing are two different things.
However, there is a time when sifting may help. If you wanted to thoroughly mix together flour and lumpy confectioners sugar, for example, you may want to remove the clumps from the sugar by passing it through a sifter, as in the image above (in this case an old-fashioned crank shifter) would be the best way. Even then, there is probably no need to sift the flour and sugar together, should you need to mix the two. Granulated sugar may have some lumps as well. And brown sugar is often lumpy. Of course, if your brown sugar has turned into hard clumps, you need more than a sifter.