The right way to measure ingredients for baking
When you're cooking dinner, it's usually fine to just eyeball it with regard to measurements. But certain baking recipes are just so sensitive. Measuring your ingredients correctly can make or break your baked goods if you're looking for a specific result.
If you've been making a recipe for years, it's not uncommon to just have a feel for it, but if you're trying a new recipe, it pays to measure it exactly, using the same standards the recipe developer probably did. Here's the right way to measure ingredients.
Volume vs. weight measurement
You can't talk about properly measuring for baking without discussing the pros and cons of volume and weight measurement. Volume is what most people are used to.
The problem is, some dry ingredients, like flour, are much more accurately measured by volume. Why? Because the amount of flour you actually end up with when you use measuring cups can vary based on the way you transfer it into the measuring device, the brand of flour and more. But 8 ounces of flour is always 8 ounces, whether you use a spoon, scoop it out with a measuring cup or use your kid's remote control dump truck.
The same applies to liquid ingredients being measured by ounces (rather than fluid ounces) in marked cups. If you fill it to the 8-ounce mark in a liquid measure, 8 ounces is a fairly accurate measure for water (that's what it was originally designed for), but that's not an accurate measurement for 8 ounces of honey, which is denser. Fill it up with honey to the 8-ounce mark, and you'll really have 12 ounces (otherwise known as a quarter of a pound). If it calls for fluid ounces (which is different from an ounce because it's a volumetric measurement), then you can use your liquid measuring cup.
Measuring by weight
The exact order of the steps varies based on how your scale's tare feature works. Tare just allows you to account for the weight of the container you're measuring into, whether it be a bowl, plate or piece of parchment. Some scales auto-tare if you put the container on the scale before you turn it on. Others have a tare button you press after putting it on the scale.
Once your container is on the scale and it's zeroed out, change it to the measurement you need (grams, ounces, etc.), and begin adding your ingredients until you get the correct amount. If you over-pour, you can always take some out and put it back (which is why it's important each ingredient is measured into its own container, but if you're careful, doing it all into the same one, using the tare feature again each time before measuring, is a really handy way to reduce cleanup!).
Dry ingredients (other than brown sugar) by volume
Volume measurement requires the use of measuring cups or spoons. If the recipe uses volume measurement, you should go with that. Use graded measuring cups, which come in a set, rather than a liquid measuring cup (which has a spout for pouring and hash marks indicating the amount) for dry ingredients.
Pour or gently spoon the dry ingredients into the measuring device until it's overfull. Never pack it down (and with flour or powdered sugar or the like, never scoop it out with the measuring cup, which will pack it down).
When the measuring device is overfull, grab something with a straight edge (I like to use the back of a butter knife just because it's always handy, but never use your finger, because it's not perfectly flat). Lay the straight edge flat on the measuring device about a third of the way from the back, and scrape backward, holding the measuring device over the original container or a bowl to reduce the mess. Then scrape forward in the same manner. The ingredient you're measuring should have a perfectly flat, even surface.
Brown sugar or creamy ingredients by volume
Brown sugar and creamy ingredients, like shortening, do need to be packed to get rid of air pockets (unless the recipe says otherwise). Just spoon them into a dry measuring cup, and use the back of a spoon or your palm to press it in really well. Then use the straight edge to scrape it flat. You should also use a dry measuring cup for thick, semiliquid ingredients, like applesauce.
Measuring liquid ingredients
For small amounts, you'll still use measuring spoons. Just fill them until they're full. I like to do it over the sink just in case I spill a little. Never measure over the bowl you're working in.
If it requires a quarter cup or more (or calls for fluid ounces), use a liquid measuring cup. Set the cup on a flat surface, and pour the liquid in until the surface of the liquid is even with the measuring mark you need. It's best to keep it on the counter instead of holding it, because you could tilt or jiggle it too much. If it's a low-density liquid (like water), wait until it settles to take stock of your measurement. Make sure you position yourself at eye level with the cup, or you're likely to get an inaccurate measurement.
Tip: If it's something sticky, like honey or corn syrup, spritz the measuring device with a little cooking spray, and it will come out (and clean up) a lot easier.
Measuring solids and fresh herbs
Many recipes call for ingredients like nuts, chocolate or fresh herbs. If they use ounces, just use your scale. If they call for cups or spoons, use those. But read the recipe carefully. Well-written recipes will tell you when to chop (before or after measurement). It's not a secret code, but many people just don't think about it.
Where the preparation (chopped, minced, etc.) appears in the ingredient list tells you what to do. If it's before the ingredient, you do that before measuring. If it's after the ingredient, you measure first, then prepare it. So "1 cup of pecans, chopped" means you measure the pecan halves, then chop them. But "1 cup of chopped pecans" means you chop them until you have a cup of chopped nuts. This is because the act of cutting the ingredients changes how they measure out by reducing the number of air pockets in the measuring cup. Of course, if you really like nuts, maybe ignore this tip.