For many types of cooking, measurements such as a “handful,” a “pinch,” or a “dash,” are a-okay, because in the end, a bigger pinch than a smaller pinch is not going to make a big difference in the outcome. Knowing how to measure ingredients without measuring cups can be part of the creative fun in the kitchen.
Baking is not one of those types of cooking. Knowing how to measure ingredients correctly can mean the difference between flat and thick cookies, sunken or domed cakes, and airy or dense bread. Baking is a science. Chemistry. And chemistry likes exact measurements. Don’t even get me started on how much I wish a kitchen scale was a staple kitchen tool in the United States. When possible, I highly recommend recording the weight of ingredients in your favorite recipes and using a scale for consistency. But! Not all of us have a scale, and I sure didn’t until I was an old married fuddy duddy. Knowing how to measure ingredients without a scale can keep you as consistent as possible when recreating your favorite recipes!
When I started baking with my mom (at about yay high), one of the first things she taught me was how to measure dry and liquid ingredients. Therefore, I cannot take credit for any of the concepts below! Lol. Straight to you from Mama Ray’s kitchen . . . how to measure ingredients.
1. How to Measure Dry Ingredients
The Rule – No Packing & Don’t scoop.
Dry Ingredients — the usual suspects:
- flours (all-purpose, bread, almond, coconut, etc.)
- white granulated sugar
- coconut sugar
- baking soda
- baking powder
When measuring any of the above ingredients, use something other than your measuring cup (or measuring spoon) to put the ingredient into the measuring cup. I’ve always just kept a scoop in my dry ingredient bins. When you use the measuring cup to scoop flour, this is applying pressure to the flour and packing it into the cup. A scooped cup of flour will actually have much more flour in weight, than a properly measured cup of flour.
Fill the measuring cup slightly over-full. Then, using something with a flat edge (e.g., a knife, spatula, or scoop), level off the top of the measuring cup, being careful to not press into the cup or make an indentation in the flour in any way. Voila! Dump your dry ingredient into your mixing bowl.
The Exception – Pack the Brown Sugar.
Brown sugar is not a typical dry ingredient, because the molasses content causes it to be more “wet” than other dry ingredients. You’ll notice from the picture above that when you spoon brown sugar into a measuring cup, the sugar is sticky and can trap air pockets between bunches of sugar. This can throw off your baking recipe even further, by shorting you on the amount of brown sugar in the mix.
When measuring brown sugar, spoon the sugar into the measuring cup or measuring spoon. Using the back of your scooping spoon, press firmly on top of the brown sugar to pack it together and ensure no air pockets. If you press it below the level of your measuring cup, repeat the method and spoon more sugar into the cup. Press firmly again.
Again, use something with a flat edge to level off the sugar. I like to use the back of my spoon to push any excess brown sugar over the edges, while making sure that it doesn’t pull up on any of the packed down brown sugar. Ta da! Add to your mixing bowl.
2. How to Measure Liquid Ingredients
The Rule – Get Level.
Liquid ingredients – the usual suspects:
- maple syrup
- oils that are liquid at room temperature (*for oils that are solid at room temperature, see #3, below)
Knowing how to measure liquid ingredients correctly is pretty straightforward. Use a liquid measuring cup (not a dry measuring cup). A liquid measuring cup is more accurate, because water’s surface tension will allow water to build above the edges of a dry measuring cup–making it slightly more than the actual measurement.
When you start getting close to the measurement you need, GET LEVEL. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. Look at the pictures below. Standing above my measuring cup, looking down, it looks like I’ve got the 3/4 cup of chocolate milk I wanted. But when I drop down level to my liquid, it is clear that I am quite short of the 3/4 cup line. Drop down so you’re level with your liquid and finish measuring out your liquid ingredient.
TIP: The surface of liquids appear curved through glass. You should be matching your measurement line with the liquid arc’s meniscus. (I.e. – the tip of the curve. The bottom of a concave meniscus/arc, which is what water/milk/honey/etc. will have.) Presto! You have your exactly measured 3/4 cup chocolate milk. (Here is looking at you, oh great fitness pal that sees all.)
3. How to Measure Shortening & Other Solid Oils
The Rule – it’s a pain. Grab some water.
The oils which are solid at room temperature include:
- vegetable shortening (e.g., Crisco)
- coconut oil
- bacon fat (or other animal fat/lard)
For solid oils, the most accurate method for measuring is the water displacement method. (PS – Fortunately, most butter is sold in pre-measured pre-labeled sticks. Don’t reinvent the wheel and measure again. You only need to use this method for butter if you’re buying in bulk.) Solid oils are incredibly hard to measure in a dry measuring cup, because it is possible for the oil to have lots of cracks and crevices that we can’t possible smush out perfectly in a measuring cup.
So we use the water displacement method. Fill a liquid measuring cup with cool water. (If you use warm water, you risk melting your oil.) Multiply the measurement you actually need (e.g., 1/4 cup coconut oil) by two and measure out that much water (e.g., 1/2 cup water). Use a knife or spoon to add oil to the cool water, using the tip of the knife or spoon to submerge any oil sticking out of the water. (But don’t push your spoon into the water, or you will get an inaccurate reading!) Continue adding oil until the water raises in an amount equal to the measurement you need. (So the water level would rise to 3/4 cup.) Use the knife or spoon to hold the oil in the measuring cup while you pour out the water. Add the oil to your recipe!
The Exception – Chocolate No Likey Water.
Often, recipes call for adding oil or butter to chocolate. Melted chocolate DOES NOT LIKE water. Adding even a smidge of water to a bowl of melted chocolate will have your chocolate seizing faster than you can say fondue. And bringing chocolate back from the seized dead is next to impossible.
Therefore, if you are going to be adding your oil to melted chocolate, measure the oil in a dry measuring cup, being sure to press the oil into the measuring cup to fill in all of the space. Use a knife or spoon to scoop the oil out of the cup and add to the recipe.
Yay – congrats! You know how to measure ingredients when you are baking!
4. My Tools
Knowing how to measure ingredients properly does not require specific baking tools! Any measuring utensils will work. But here are the tools that I use:
- Sur La Table copper measuring cups
- Sur La Table copper measuring spoons
- Pyrex 1 cup glass liquid measuring cup
- Pyrex 4 cup glass liquid measuring cup
- Taylor basic kitchen scale (mine is older, but here is their closest current kitchen scale)
Disclaimer: Note that the above links may include affiliate links, from which I make a small percentage. However, I personally use the above products and will only recommend something I continue to use, myself. My opinions are 100% my own. Check out my full policies here.