The most accurate way to measure your cooking or baking ingredients is with a kitchen scale. But if you’re not ready to purchase one of your own, it might help to know how the heck to properly use your measuring cups, no?
Enough of my friends have looked at me with shock in their eyes when I’ve mentioned that liquid and dry measuring cups are not, in fact, interchangeable, so it seemed time to do a public service and explain the difference once and for all.
Here’s the deal:
Liquid measuring cups are designed so that you will never have to fill them all the way to the top. This is because it’s very difficult to fill a container to the brim with liquid without sloshing some over the side, creating a mess and leaving you with a smaller amount of liquid than you intended. Liquid measuring cups have marks on the side so that you can fill them to the line, rather than all the way to the top. This eliminates the sloshing-over-the-side problem. Liquid measuring cups also tend to be bigger than dry measuring cups, but you can fill them to many possible volumes.
To correctly use a liquid measuring cup, place the cup down on a flat, level surface and pour your ingredient into the container until it reaches just below the intended line of measurement. Then, crouch down so that the measuring cup is eye level and continue to pour slowly. The top of the liquid will be slightly curved, rather than flat, due to surface tension. This curve is called the meniscus. You want the bottom of the meniscus to line up with the tick mark on the cup.
On the other hand, dry ingredients are tough to measure with a liquid measuring cup. It’s hard to be sure the ingredients are level with the cup, and it’s hard to make adjustments if you go over the intended amount. That’s where dry measuring cups come in.
Dry measuring cups are designed to be filled to the very brim. This means you can heap them with flour, then use a knife or other flat item to scrape off the excess, thus ensuring the most accurate possible measurement you can get from a volume measure.
Use is as simple as that—over-fill the correct measuring cup, use the straight back of a knife to scrape off any extra ingredients, and you’re good to go. Some ingredients, like brown sugar, might call to be tightly or loosely packed. If you’re meant to pack brown sugar, this means you’ll want to press down on the sugar to pack it tightly into the cup. When you’re packing a measuring cup, you can still use the fill-and-scrape method—just pat down the sugar first and do it again after scraping, just to make sure you still have the right amount left.
Measuring spoons are an outlier, because people tend to use those for both wet and dry ingredients. You should still use the heap-and-scrape method when measuring dry ingredients with measuring spoons. For wet ingredients, just do your best not to spill—measuring spoons are significantly smaller than measuring cups, so a small variation in amount won’t affect the recipe to the same degree. But if you’re nervous, you can always use a kitchen scale.