About six weeks ago we were at our dear friend’s beach house. He was showing me a gift that he had recently received: a metal sifter. I saw it and said “Return it. You don’t need that thing.” Joey looked at me like I had three heads (which he often swears I do)! ”What do you mean, I don’t need this? You HAVE to sift.”, he cried. I explained the method I use and why. Joey scoffed at me and said, “I’m keeping it.”
More recently, I was a guest on Sirius Radio’s “Martha Stewart Living Today” with Mario Bosquez. A caller phoned in with the sifting question. Once again I explained my method and the reason why I aerate the dry ingredients my way. I believe I failed in penetrating her rock solid sifting stance.
So, I began thinking about sifting and sifters. Many of us have fond memories of seeing our mothers sift flour for baking. More than likely we remember her using a contraption like this, except maybe with a crank to turn (instead of the squeezy thing)
which always reminded me of an organ grinder and his monkey. With every turn of the crank, I thought I heard the familiar tinny music box notes of “Pop Goes the Weasel”. Instead of being greeted at the end of the song by a pop-up jester, my eyes followed the puffs of flour dust that floated down to the counter and floor.
In my opinion, this one trick pony of a culinary tool has its drawbacks. It’s messy. Messy when using it and messy when storing it. If it’s washed, it will rust, just like the one in the picture. If it’s not washed, the particles of flour still clinging to the insides of the sifter will draw bugs. Not scary ones, but who wants bugs of any sort in their cupboards? Here’s the brutal truth: the sifter is just not efficient. Yes, it aerates. It breaks up clumps. It produces a fine grained photo-finish of a mound of mise en place. BUT (THIS IS THE IMPORTANT BUT THAT IS KEY TO THIS POST), if you put all your flour, salt, baking powder and cocoa powder in at once and crank away, all those important ingredients will just fall and land in one spot. And, to compensate for this, when you’ve finished adding the dry ingredients to the fluffed up butter, sugar and egg mixture, you might just keep the mixer running a bit longer. Just to be safe. You’re not safe. You’re (gulp) overmixing.
Overmixing a cake will just develop the gluten structure equivalent to the Situation’s abs: overworked and good for nothing. Which just means you could be on the precipice of #bakefail. I’m not saying that this will happen every time, but it could happen, so why take the chance? I mean, you’ve done everything in your power to make sure there are no rogue bits of eggshell floating about, and to let all cold ingredients come to what you think is the perfect 72º that defines room temperature, right? So, why get caught in this trap when you can easily avoid it.
What’s a baker to do? Well, the first thing you do is eradicate the word ‘sift’ from your lexicon. Replace with ‘aerate’, because that’s essentially what you’re being instructed to do to the flour that’s been packed down in the package during shipping. Aerating the flour will result in a lighter baked good. Now, to the ‘aerate’ phrase, add ‘and incorporate’. Incorporate the salt. Incorporate the leavener Aerate and incorporate. Is there a gizmo for such a thing? Yes. There. Is. You don’t have to buy anything. You already own them.
A bowl and a whisk. Magic tools. Aerate the dry while turning the bowl and incorporating the ingredients. Voilà! Don’t believe me? Here’s what one of my baking heroes, Shirley Corriher has to say in her book “Bakewise”:
In a recipe that instructs “sifting,” you can get a more even blend of ingredients by beating them together for 30 seconds with the mixer, fork, or a whisk.
And, if you bake cakes using Rose Levy Beranbaum’s method, all you have to do is put the dry ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer and turn it on ‘stir’ for about a minute or so. Voilà again! Aerated and incorporated.
So, stop being intimidated by this nasty word. Take control and repeat after me, “Aerate and incorporate.”
NOW, will you please get rid of that sifter?