Most old-fashioned recipes call for sifting flour and other dry ingredients when baking, but many modern recipes skip this step. Do you really need to sift flour? Occasionally — but for the most part, not anymore.

What is sifting? 

A sifter is a tool that agitates and pushes dry ingredients like flour, cocoa powder, or confectioners’ sugar through a mesh sieve, eliminating any clumps or lumps. The same effect can be achieved by tapping the ingredient through a fine-mesh strainer.

Sifting flour used to be an essential first step for home cooks, as flours ground in small mills varied a lot in texture and quality and sometimes included extraneous chaff, seeds, or even insects. Today’s commercially milled flours, however, are very finely ground, refined, and well-inspected (no bugs here!). In other words, you don’t need to sift them to guarantee successful baking.

Sifting flour with a sieve Photography by Mark Weinberg; food styling by Liz Neily
You can sift flour through a fine-mesh strainer.

Benefits of sifting flour

While sifting flour isn’t as necessary today, there are some situations when sifting can improve your baking: 

  • Along with eliminating lumps, sifting also aerates flour, rendering it easy to mix. If you store your flour in its bag and/or it has been sitting in your pantry for over a month, it might be compressed and dense. Giving it a quick sift will incorporate air back into the flour. 
  • For baked goods where a light texture is the goal, like Angel Food Cake or Genoise, sifting your flour before mixing will yield an extra-light, fluffy, airy crumb. Sifted flour is easier to incorporate into whipped egg whites or other mixtures where you don’t want to knock out much air, requiring less mixing and therefore forming less gluten. It also prevents flour clumps in the batter. 
  • Measuring flour accurately is essential for success. When recipes call for flour, they are generally calling for aerated flour, not compressed. If you’re measuring by volume, one cup of densely packed flour will yield much more than aerated flour, which can skew the balance of dry and wet ingredients in your dough or batter. This is why we recommend a “Fluff, Sprinkle, and Scrape” technique when measuring flour by volume; sifting before measuring is another way to ensure the same outcome. (Though, of course, the most accurate way to measure any ingredients when baking is with a kitchen scale!)
Whisk in bowl of homemade self-rising flour Photography and food styling by Liz Neily
You can use a whisk to approximate a sifter.

How to sift flour without a sifter

If you don’t have a sifter or sieve, you can approximate sifting by using a whisk. Add your flour to a large bowl or other container, then use a balloon whisk to mix it well until light and fluffy. This will achieve the same goals of breaking up any clumps and aerating the flour, though the results won’t be quite as fine as with a sifter or fine-mesh strainer.

A Scoop & Sift Sifter is handy for any sifting in your future baking, like if you're making this Lemon Chiffon Cake.

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Lemon Chiffon Cake
Lemon Chiffon Cake
4.6 out of 5 stars 45 Reviews
1 hr 40 mins
one 10" tube cake
Filed Under: Tips and Techniques
Afton in a turquoise top
The Author

About Afton Cyrus

Afton Cyrus is a food writer and editor, recipe developer, and culinary instructor based in the Boston area. Her areas of expertise include home canning and preserving, baking, kid- and family-friendly recipes, and seasonal New England cuisine. As a former elementary educator, she specializes in tea...
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