If you want the most accurate measurements, try going by weight.
When you measure out ingredients, you more than likely trust the accuracy of your measuring cups without a second thought. After all, you precisely measured out a full cup of flour and a half cup of sugar, and there’s no way the mass-produced items you used would be in any way inaccurate. But when you take your baked creation out of the oven something just feels… off.
Well, if you’ve ever wondered why you’re not a star baker despite following all of your recipes perfectly, it turns out that your measuring cups could be to blame. A few different (admittedly unscientific) tests by The Washington Post have shown that when you take what various manufacturers consider to be “one cup,” you can often end up with different weights of ingredients. In one example, Food52 found that the weight of “one cup” (which corresponds to 6.98 or 7 ounces depending on who you ask) actually ranged from 6.81 ounces to 8.08 ounces. When you’re measuring out cups and cups of ingredients like flour, those unexpected deviations could bedevil even the best bakers.
Watch: You're Measuring Flour Wrong (Sorry!)
The idea of imperfection in measuring cups seems preposterous, but starts to make sense the more you think about it. Manufacturers play around with a variety of different shapes ranging from functional to whimsical, which can contribute to inexact measurement by complicating the geometry. There’s also a margin of error inherent in any manufacturing process that contributes to inaccuracy. After all, applying the same level of quality control that’s used for important laboratory equipment would be unreasonably expensive for the general public.
So what are we to do besides accept the inaccuracy of our dry and liquid measuring cups as the inevitable byproduct of living in a universe governed by random chance? If you’re truly concerned about nailing those measurements, the first thing you’re going to want to do is invest in a food scale.
Seriously: measuring by volume (especially with solid ingredients) is a bit outdated, and this is just going to make your life so much easier. Measuring by weight can even work with liquid ingredients, too. Though technically it’s a measure of volume, the weight (in ounces) of a liquid usually corresponds very closely with its volume in fluid ounces, so you shouldn’t have too much to worry about.
Not only does measuring ingredients by weight have an advantage when it comes to accuracy, it also might make your baking process easier. You just have to tare the scale. For the uninitiated, that means tapping a few buttons to “zero out” the weight of what you don’t want the scale to measure as you go. You’re always going to want to put the bowl on the scale and then tare it out so you can isolate the weight of an ingredient. But you can repeat the taring process with each new ingredient, which could save you from cleaning up a bunch of different dry and wet measuring cups.
Too lazy or cheap to buy a scale? There are some other precautions you can take to at least give yourself a fighting chance when it comes to accuracy. Measure your liquid ingredients so that they hit the bottom of the desired line, not the top. For dry ingredients, some bakers believe they get better results with a “dip and sweep” method, which involves sticking your measuring cup into a bag of flour, for example, rather than pouring that flour into a cup. This helps to make sure that the flower is more compact, letting you get closer to what a cup is supposed to weigh.
Nothing is perfect in this life, not even the things we use to measure our ingredients. But with knowledge of our measuring cups’ imperfection and the use of a scale, a better world is possible. Go forth with renewed confidence.