I have been so excited for this particular post in the Essentials Series. You can have great bakeware and great tools that you use in baking, but the ingredients you use can directly influence the quality of your baked goods. Good baking is a result of attention to detail as well as good ingredients. When I started using better ingredients, it was a huge “a-ha” moment for me. It was the exact thing I had been searching for in my baking to make that difference I was looking for. I didn’t just want a brownie or cookie that was just good, I wanted it to be memorable. Through trial and error I learned that the key to making great desserts is using fresh, high quality ingredients. In this post I will cover the main ingredients used in baking including everything from selecting the perfect one for you and how to store each one.
Flour is the most important structural ingredient in baking, and the type and quality you use will have a profound impact on your baked goods. For long-lasting freshness, store flour in an airtight container and away from light. Different flours contain different percentages of gluten ranging from low to high. King Arthur Flour is my brand of choice always and forever. They are the only flour mill that guarantees exact gluten percentages in each of their flours, which in turn gives consistent results. It is also the most widely used brand of choice for pastry chefs.
Unbleached All-Purpose Flour– is the most common flour used in baking. It is used in anything from cakes, pies, pastries and donuts.
Cake Flour – is a finely milled flour made with a softer wheat than all-purpose flour and with a lower protein level. Cake flour produces a very tender, fine crumb. It is essential for angel food cakes, chiffon cakes, and other sponge or foam cakes.
Self Rising Flour – is a flour that contains baking powder and salt. I rarely use this flour unless it is specifically called for in a recipe.
Bread Flour – has a higher protein content and a higher amount of gluten which enables bread and yeasted pastries to expand yet still hold their shape.
A sweetener or sugar in any form has several important roles in baking–including tenderizing, adding moisture and leavening.
Granulated Sugar – is the most common form of sugar and used in most recipes.
Brown Sugar – is simply granulated sugar with molasses added. The type of molasses added determines whether the sugar will be light brown or dark brown. Brown sugar is moist and doesn’t flow as granulated sugar does, so it is always measured by packing it tightly.
Demerara Sugar – is an unrefined cane sugar that has large crystals. I use this sugar to create a crunchy topping to cookies, cakes or breads.
Honey – I love the ability to use honey in recipes due to its wide range of flavors. If all you’ve ever tasted is the honey in plastic bears at the supermarket, it’s time to expand your palate. About 4-5 years ago, I started buying fresh, local honey. The health benefits alone of fresh honey are amazing. I like to store honey in the original container my local supplier provides, and keep it in a dark, cool place.
Maple Syrup – One of my favorite sweeteners to use in many different recipes. Not to be confused with imitation maple syrup. Actually, just avoid imitation maple syrup altogether. It’s usually composed of corn syrup, food colorings and sadly contains very little, if any real maple syrup. I’m very particular to certain brands of maple syrup and I prefer to use Grade B for cooking and baking. It has a greater depth flavor to me, over Grade A. Right now I am loving a Trader Joe’s Vermont brand of Maple Syrup.
When using dairy in a recipe, make sure to measure first, then allow about 30-40 minutes for it to reach room temperature.
Milk – I always use whole milk in every recipe. Whole milk is the best to use in baking. Recipes developed with milk require a certain level of milk fat. If you decrease the fat by using skim or 1-2% milk, your baked goods will suffer as far as tenderness goes.
Buttermilk – adds a wonderful, tangy flavor to your baked goods. If you are out of buttermilk, you can simply make your own by combining 1 cup of milk with 1 Tablespoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice or cider vinegar.
Cream – When a recipe calls for cream, it means heavy whipping cream (not to be confused with whipping cream). Heavy cream has anywhere between 36-40% milk fat. The higher the fat, the better. The best advice I’ve ever been given on choosing heavy cream at the grocery store, is to look for cream that is pasteurized not ultra-pasteurized. Ultra-pasteurized has been heated to a much higher temperature than required. This extends it’s shelf life quite a bit but it also kills nearly all the flavor, leaving it with an odd cooked taste. It also breaks down more quickly and is harder to whip up. Where I live, Meadow Gold is the only brand I have found that carries pasteurized heavy cream. Target is my go-to place to purchase it. I love Target 🙂
Sour Cream – I love using sour cream in my baking, it adds a nice bright, tangy flavor. Sour cream has milk fat content of about 18%. I always use regular sour cream in my recipes. Do not substitute it for light sour cream as it won’t turn out quite the same. Make sure that you also stay consistent with the brand you use.
Creme Fraiche – This is the french version of sour cream, but it is richer and creamier and oh so very good. It is priced quite a bit higher than sour cream, so I like to use it for special occasions or recently I used it to take my chocolate frosting up a notch.
Creme Cheese – The fat content of cream cheese is nearly 90% and it’s what gives cheesecakes and cream cheese frosting that wonderful melt in your mouth richness. I always use the Philidelphia brand and of course always full fat.
Mascarpone – This is an Italian cheese and has a soft creamy texture that resembles triple cream cheese in density. It’s amazing. When searching in the store for it, look in the specialty cheese section.
Unsalted Butter – There is no industry standard for the amount of salt that goes into a pound of butter. So there is no real way of telling how much salt you’re adding to your recipe and it also varies from brand to brand. Salt is also a preservative, so this means the salted butter on the shelf at the supermarket has a longer shelf life and there is no telling how long it has been there. Keep in mind though that unsalted butter goes rancid quickly, so it needs to be stored properly( below 40º in the refrigerator) or freeze it for longer storage, which is what I always do. Unsalted butter is the choice for most bakers and cooks so they can control the amount of salt in their own recipe. Grade AA has the mildest, sweetest flavor and Land O’ Lakes is my brand of choice. I can often find it at a good price and it has great flavor.
High-Fat Butter – Regular butter in the United States must contain 80% milk fat. High-fat butter has anywhere from 82-88% milk fat. In recipes where butter is the main ingredient, such as shortbread cookies, I use high-fat butter. That small percentage makes a huge difference. This style of butter can now be found at more and more supermarkets. A few of my favorite brands are Kerry Gold and Plugra. I also purchase a brand called Beurremont from a local french bakery every now and then. High-fat butter can be used interchangeably with regular unsalted butter, so feel free to make the substitution whenever you want to make something extra special.
The world of cakes, cookies, pastries and baking in general would not be possible without eggs. Eggs range in color from white to brown and beyond but please note that the shell of the egg does not affect the nutritional content or quality of the egg. This is such a huge misconception. All the color of the shell means is that it simply reflects the type of chicken that laid the egg. Most recipes call for using large eggs. There is a difference when using fresh, local eggs but I just always use a brand from my local Costco that carries eggs from a local farmer.
Growing up, the only salt I ever knew about was Morton table salt. When I began my pursuit in cooking and baking, I discovered there was a wide variety of salts. I never use table salt now but I do use kosher salt in two forms. I use Morton’s Coarse Kosher salt for all of my savory cooking both for flavoring a dish as well as finishing a dish. I use Diamond Crystal brand kosher salt in all of my baking because it has a slightly smaller and a more flaky grain. It dissolves better in baked goods than regular kosher salt. I also like to use a finishing salt on top of my baked goods like on cookies and brownies. I store my kosher salt in a salt cellar or with my baking salt, in a tiny ramekin for easy access. I’m including photo’s of the differences in each of the salt grains. The first is Morton’s Coarse Kosher Salt, the second is Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, and the third is Maldon sea salt flakes.
Vanilla is like the salt and pepper of the baking world. It is the most essential flavoring in the pastry kitchen.
Vanilla Extract – is made by combining vanilla beans and alcohol. The vanilla flavor is eventually extracted into the alcohol. I use a brand that is widely used among bakers and pastry chefs and known as the finest extract in the world called Nielsen Massey Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla. The company uses premium hand-selected beans that are run through a cold extraction process which preserves vanilla’s 300 flavor compounds. It is an exceptional all-purpose vanilla. Stay away from imitation vanilla as it has none of the same complexity of flavors as the original. Also, there is cheap vanilla that is sold in other countries to tourists that believe is the best vanilla. It is not pure vanilla and it typically contains chemicals that are outlawed in the United States.
Vanilla Beans – are cultivated in several parts of the world. My favorite ones are the Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans because they offer a a very classic, rich vanilla flavor. Vanilla beans should be shiny, flexible and very fragrant.
Vanilla Paste – is a sweet, concentrated vanilla bean and extract mixture. It’s a great substitute for either form of vanilla. I love using it in my vanilla cake recipes for both flavor and for a bit of the bean flecks to show.
I could probably write a whole separate post in regards to chocolate. But I will keep it basic and straightforward. The percentage with chocolate refers to the percentage of its cocoa butter and cocoa solids. The higher the percentage, the lower the percentage of sugar and the darker, more intense-tasting the chocolate will be. When choosing what chocolate to use, it’s fairly simple. You should choose the one you love the flavor of the most. I read in an old cookbook of mine that it’s best to just have a taste test when choosing chocolate chips. And so I did just that. As far as brands that come from the supermarket, my preferred brand is Guittard for every type of chocolate chips. To store chocolate in all forms whether it be chips, discs or blocks, always store in a cool, dark place (50-65º). Either wrap well or store in an air-tight container. When stored properly, chocolate can last at least 1 year and up to three years.
Milk Chocolate contains about 37-41% of the cocoa butter and solids. Milk chocolate is my absolute favorite of all chocolates, though that might be admitting that I’m not a sophisticated baker. Regardless, the brands I love to use and recommend are Guittard for chocolate chips and Callebaut from a block chopped up, the standard one I use in all of my recipes. And when I want to make an impression, I love to use Valrhona Carmelia Milk Chocolate.
Semi-Sweet/Bittersweet/Dark Chocolate is the most commonly used in baking. Semi-sweet contains about 50-65% cacao. Bittersweet has a bit of a higher percentage. Brands that I always use are again Guittard chocolate chips, Callebaut, Scharffen Berger and Valrhona.
White Chocolate has about 31% of cocoa butter and solids. When choosing white chocolate make sure that cocoa butter is the main fat. My preferred brands are Guittard chips, E.Guittard discs, and Callebaut.
Unsweetened Chocolate is pure (99%) chocolate cacao with no sugar added. The only brand I use is E.Guittard discs.
Cocoa Powder – There are two kinds of cocoa powder, Natural and Dutch processed. I don’t like to get too caught up on the debate between the two, it gets too confusing. Instead I pay more attention to the color and smell of the cocoa powder. When I discovered Valrhona cocoa powder, it took my recipes to a whole new level. It’s deep, dark and delicious and the only brand I use. It has quite a high price point in comparison to any store brand but it’s worth the extra cost to me.
It’s important to use a good quality spice in your baking. With cinnamon I like to use Saigon Cinnamon. I buy mine from Williams Sonoma but it is available at various stores. When using nutmeg, I like to buy fresh, whole nutmegs and grate it when needed. The aroma alone of freshly grated nutmeg is worth the extra work of grating it. It’s great to purchase spices that are fresh. Make sure you switch out your spices every so often, as they can go stale and affect the taste in your baked goods.
9. OTHER BAKING INGREDIENTS
Fruits – Always use fresh fruit and buy it when it’s in season for best results . In a recipe that calls for lemon juice, please use freshly squeezed lemon juice and never…ever the one you buy in a bottle from the store.
Nuts – I recommend toasting nuts before you use them in any recipe, it helps bring out their flavor. Heat your oven to 350º and spread nuts on a baking sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes.
Molasses – is a by-product of sugar refining and it comes in three grades which is related directly to the refining stages in sugar making. Any of the grades can be sulfured or unsulfured. Unsulfured has a lighter, cleaner flavor. I have tested a few brands, and the one that has the best flavor for me is Grandmas Original Unsulphured Molasses.
Oils – Grapeseed Oil is a great choice for its pleasing, light, neutral flavor. It can be used in baked goods like quick breads and cakes. Olive oil is generally used specifically when a recipe calls for it. Olive oil cakes and quick breads are widely popular. Make sure you choose a good brand. Peanut Oil is my number one frying oil. It is mild in flavor and odor and produces crispier, less greasy fried desserts.
I could probably go on writing about a lot of other ingredients but I wanted to give a basic overview of the main ingredients used in most recipes and the brands that I recommend and use in the recipes I share on this blog. I hope the information was useful and that it helps you succeed in your kitchen.