Measuring Specific Ingredients
If a measure specified in a recipe includes no adjective before the quantity, as in "1 tablespoon sugar" or "1 cup sugar," then a level measure, one even with the rim of the tablespoon or cup, is understood. In contrast, a heaping measure, such as "1 heaping tablespoon sugar," is generously rounded above the rim. A rounded measure, such as "1 rounded tablespoon sugar," calls for a slightly rounded dome above the rim, or slightly less than heaping. Finally, a scant measure, such as "1 scant tablespoon sugar," means slightly less than full—the ingredient is not level with the top of the measuring spoon but is just below it.
The following guidelines for some specific ingredients will help you obtain the most accurate measures.
Pack moist brown sugar into the measuring cup firmly enough for it to retain its shape when it is tapped out of the cup.
Lightly coat the measuring cup with oil or butter before pouring in corn syrup, so it will slip out easily and cleanly. This also works for honey, molasses and other sticky ingredients.
Weighing flour is the most accurate way to measure it, but most American recipes are not written with flour specified by weight. Instead, they specify volumes for dry measurements. There are two ways to obtain volume measures for flour. For the spoon-and-sweep method, lightly fill the measuring cup with a separate scoop or spoon. Level off the flour with the back of a knife, making it flush with the top edge of the cup. Do not tamp down the flour. For the scoop-and-sweep method, fluff up the flour in your package or bin with a fork or whisk, dip the cup into the flour to scoop it up and then sweep the top level with the back of a knife. With the latter method, you will end up with slightly more flour in the cup. Unless a recipe indicates which method to use, pick one and use it every time for consistent results in your baking.
Although all-purpose flour is commonly sold presifted, check the ingredient list of your recipe. If it specifically states sifted flour, sift it again for accurate measuring since volume varies greatly between sifted and unsifted flour.
Fill a large (2-cup minimum) measuring cup with cold water to the 1-cup level. Add shortening in large spoonfuls until the water level registers the required amount plus 1 cup. Pour out the water and you will have the exact amount of shortening you need. (Gently pat the shortening dry before using it in a mixture or for panfrying.)
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion: The A to Z Guide to Everyday Cooking, Equipment and Ingredients (Time-Life Books, 2000)