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Why do we separate dry and wet ingredients?

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Any baker, novice or not, has come across the part in a recipe that specifies putting dry ingredients in its own bowl and mixing that around before adding it all to wet ingredients or vice versa. And if you’re anything like me, you might have straight up ignored that instruction either to save time or dirty less dishes, or both. Since my baking style is more about taste over finesse, I’d say most of the time skipping the separation step doesn’t matter, but deep down I know that’s not true.

But why does it matter? Reasonably, we all must be thinking it’s going into the same mixing bowl eventually, so let’s just cut out the middle man here and get to mixing. Why do these ingredients need to spend time apart before they can come together to make something warm and deliciously comforting? With some internet research coupled with the expertise of resident recipe guru and fellow staff writer Allison Robicelli, I tried to solve the mystery.

The chemistry of it all

Baking is science in action and since I’m a writer not a chemist, I figure it’s best to start with an understanding of how wet and dry ingredients work (or don’t work) together. In Robicelli’s cookbook Robicelli’s: a love story, with cupcakes, an adorable comic book-style illustration explains why sifting is so important.

The illustration shows tiny stick figures with “S” and “F” shirts representing bits of sugar and flour. The comic demonstrates how when flour, a starch, gets wet, it sticks together in clumps. By sifting dry ingredients like flour separately first, you allow for an even distribution of the ingredients in the mixture which in turn prevents the clumping. If you don’t do this and just toss everything in at once, the ingredients won’t be mixed evenly. Robicelli elaborates on this saying, “You’ll end up with large lumps with hydrated starches on the outside, which creates a barrier, and bone-dry flour on the inside that has no access to any wet ingredients.”

Throwing everything together in one bowl is not the end all because it can technically be fixed, but you won’t end up with what you intended and you’ll need to put in extra work. Robicelli says, “You’ll need to beat the hell out of your batter to break up the lumps, which can make your baked goods tough and rubbery.”

The mixing order

Does the order in which you mix your ingredients matter? For example, should flour and sugar get mixed into butter and eggs or does the other way around make the final product turn out better?

Julia Sklar, of the popular recipe website Allrecipes, writes that the order doesn’t matter all that much except when it comes to the cleanup step in baking. Sklar notes that while you can pour wet ingredients into a bowl in a steady stream, dumping powdered items into a bowl will generally end in a puff of flour and a splash all over your counter. While this is an accurate observation, it’s not the whole story.

In certain recipes, the order of dryness into wet ingredients or the other way around does in fact matter, says Robicelli. “When I’m making something that begins with a liquid fat like oil or melted butter, it’s safe to add your dry ingredients first, because the fat coats the flour and prevents clumping,” Robicelli explains. She adds, while addressing the potential mess, that in a recipe that begins with creamed butter and sugar, it’s best to alternate adding wet and dry while mixing on low speed. This method allows things to mix gradually without hopping out of the bowl.

On the off chance a recipe does call for all the ingredients to be added to a one bowl, there are still things you can do to make the mix for your bake be the best it can be. Another pro tip from Robicelli: mix the dry ingredients together, make a well in the center, pour in the liquids, mix the liquids together well, then gradually pull in dry ingredients while mixing.

Thanks to shows like Nailed It!, and The Great British Baking Show, I really should know by now that baking means sticking to the recipe. Good rule of thumb: if the recipe says mix dry ingredients alone and then add in the wet stuff, don’t improvise. Just do what the recipe says.

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