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A lot of recipes stress that dry ingredients need to be spooned and leveled.

When I bake, I measure large masses with a scale.

Does that make the spoon and level requirement unnecessary?

4 Answers 4

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Weight (mass, if you prefer, but unless you leave Earth's gravity field not going to be much difference) is more accurate than volume in portioning ingredients, though if you are using recipes done by volume rather than weight then you are up against the accuracy of a volume to weight conversion factor.

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    Not quite, but I get what you say. The volume to rate ratio for a pure substance is density, a constant. What you are up against is errors in volume measurement, the accucy of the recipe maker's cups, variations in ingredient characteristics, moisture content ... Commented Jul 2 at 11:20
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    @ScottSeidman: density of dry substances is not a constant, it depends on how the particles are arranged and thus how much air is trapped between them. Like shaking a crate of apples to make a little room, this has a quite large influence on the density.
    – Pelle
    Commented Jul 2 at 11:51
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    @ScottSeidman What you're saying only applies to a solid block of a given substance. Powders do have different densities, even when it's the same substance.
    – rumtscho
    Commented Jul 2 at 12:08
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    @ScottSeidman The entire reason that someone would specify "spooned and leveled" (or "sifted") for a volume measurement is that the density of a powdered substance is quite different than when packed, or scooped with the measuring cup.
    – Ecnerwal
    Commented Jul 2 at 12:42
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    @ScottSeidman Salt, sugar, and plenty of other commonly used kitchen ingredients come in multiple grain sizes. There’s a very big difference in total volume occupied for 100g of salt with 0.1mm grains (such as you might use on french fries) versus 4mm grains (such as you might use for curing meat), because the amount of empty space between the grains is dependent on the size of the grains. You can mostly treat the 0.1mm grains as a solid substance. You definitely can’t for the 4mm grains. Commented Jul 3 at 1:43
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To answer the question as-asked: yes, it is entirely unnecessary.

When you bake by volume, you always have the problem that a cup of flour can hold different amounts of flour*, and this is mitigated by using the scoop-and-level method.

First, you have to know how to use your tools properly - and for a measuring cup, it means leveling it. Only a level cup contains exactly 236 ml, if you heap it up, you'll end up with more flour than intended.

Second, just the act of transferring the flour from a big container to the measuring cup can change its density. You have different options:

  • Scooping it up with the measuring cup
  • scooping it with something else
  • pouring it from a container
  • in any of the three above, additionally tamping it afterwards
  • scooping it into a sifter, sifting, then transferring into the measuring cup

That's why authors for volume-measured recipes have basically agreed on a "golden standard" which minimizes the user error of under- or overfilling the cup, precludes users from an unintended, density-changing transfer method, and is also efficient: you dip the measuring cup into your big flour container, scoop the flour, and level it, ideally against the wall of your flour container. This doesn't eliminate the error of baking by volume, but it reduces it a lot.

When you bake by mass, you always end up with the same mass of flour, as shown on the scale. The transfer method doesn't matter, because density doesn't matter. Leveling also doesn't matter, because there is no user error to be made with an under- or overfull scale based on the material's level. You can make other user errors with a scale, but not by not leveling. So, you are correct in that the scoop-and-level instruction is intrinsic to measuring by volume, and doesn't have to apply when you measure by mass.

* You can also use the scoop-and-level method for ingredients other than flour. It's both less effective and less necessary there, so I'm assuming flour for the rest of the post.

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    You say “scoop-and-level”, but the question talks about “spoon-and-level” which as far as I know is a different strategy. Afaik, the latter has you add spoonfuls of the ingredient into the measuring cup then level off after, not using the measuring cup to scoop and level against the side. Aside from that, I agree with the rest of the answer Commented Jul 2 at 18:25
  • Only a level American cup contains ~236 mL ;) Commented Jul 2 at 18:35
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The spoon and level approach is an attempt to standardize the amount of flour you get when measuring, assuming most people don't have gram scales*, but even this approach will produce different results between people and even between scoops with the same person.

  • there is no reason, IMO, for most people not to invest in a gram scale, a microgram scale, and an instant-read thermometer. You can purchase all of these for around $40 -- less than the cost of one dinner out for two.

The best way to measure depends on what you're doing. If you're making egg pasta or pie dough or bread, then you can probably grab your cups of flour by scooping and don't even worry about spooning and leveling. Why? Because you're going to have to adjust your hydration based on look and feel. Different flours (even different bags of flour from the same company) will have different amounts of moisture. AP flour or bread flour from one company will also have different amounts of protein than the same product from another company, which affects hydration. It's good to learn to do this anyway. Following the recipe blindly will not produce the best product.

Baking is seen as an exact science, and in some cases you do want to be pretty exact, but most baking recipes are more forgiving than you might think. I always write recipes by "each" for eggs, rather than by weight. Eggs are graded by the weight of a dozen. Large eggs, for example, are 24 oz/dozen. But if you weigh your eggs, each one will be different, and the ratio of yolks to whites will be different in each egg. However, a little bit more or less really isn't going to make any noticable difference in most recipes.

Having said this, I almost always measure by weight, and I write my recipes this way and teach my students to measure almost everything this way. Eggs are an exception, as I said, and liquids can be measured by volume (though I still always do them by weight for a number of reasons, one being efficiency).

Very tiny amounts (like with 1/8 tsp of something) are difficult to measure accurately by weight, even with a microgram scale, so those can be done with measuring spoons. Salt should always be done by weight rather than volume since different types of salt have vastly different densities. It makes me crazy that recipe writers usually don't specify weight in grams and also don't often specify the type of salt they use. Table salt has twice the density of Diamond Crystal kosher salt (e.g.), so if you don't know which they used, your salt can be twice or half as much as it is supposed to be.

If you are using flour, it's often a good idea to sift it before using, even with the spoon and swipe method. In some recipes this is vital, and it never hurts, so it's a good habit to be in. You can sift with a strainer over parchment paper and then pick up the paper by grabbing both sides with one hand and then use that to carry it and pour it easily.

For what it's worth, I'm a professional chef and baker, and I teach baking, cooking, and food science at two colleges.

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Using weight measures is going to make your measurements more accurate, but there is one small thing that could be a problem:

Spooning will help to aerate powders

Depending on exactly what technique you are using to transfer your ingredients, it’s possible that you might not aerate them. If your recipe comes out different than what you’re expecting, I would try spooning the ingredients onto the scale to replicate it, or you might take a whisk and use it to stir up all of the dry ingredients after measuring.

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  • What ingredients is aerating relevant for?
    – Ivana
    Commented Jul 3 at 9:45
  • @Ivana : flour and other really powdery stuff, or stuff that might end up clumping on you (like white sugar that’s been sitting for a while in a humid climate). If the recipe calls for sifting the ingredients at some point, you probably don’t need to worry too much, as it will be dealt with then.
    – Joe
    Commented Jul 3 at 18:04

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