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Baking staples like eggs, milk and butter are always a good idea to keep readily available in your kitchen.
Some of your fondest childhood memories might have taken place in the kitchen, spatula in hand, helping your grandmother whip up a batch of something so good it barely made it out of the oven. The tradition of baking bridges the gap between generations and transports us to a time when food was uncomplicated and homemade. What contributes more to pure and simple dishes than pure and simple ingredients?
From regional ingredients to universal basic ingredients, most of what you’ll need easily can be found in the baking aisle of your local grocery store. Before going shopping, however, read the recipe carefully. The dish might require specific components or call for an unusually large quantity of a certain ingredient.
When it comes to your ingredients, buy the best you can afford and, like your grandmother, opt for real, pure and natural ingredients. The quality of your ingredients will transform meals into memories.
Not all eggs are created equal. The quality of the eggs you use will enhance the final outcome, and the secret lies in the hen.
If possible, use organic eggs from cage-free hens; even better are local eggs, fresh from a farm. When hens are allowed access to fresh greens, bugs and grubs—all of which comprise their natural diet—their yolks glow a vibrant orange and the egg becomes packed with larger quantities of vitamins A and E, double the omega-3 essential fatty acids and less saturated fat. Rich and creamy, the egg’s yolk emulsifies (binds fats and liquids), and it provides structure in the forms of gel and foam to your cake batter.
Extracts are concentrated flavoring agents, made when the main ingredient gets dissolved in alcohol. Extracts are very potent, so recipes might call for only a teaspoon or so. When properly stored with the lid securely fastened and in a cool, dark place, extracts will keep for long periods of time.
When choosing extracts, aim for pure extracts—not imitation. “I never use anything imitation, fake, packed with preservatives or with food dyes—never ever,” says Ashley English, author of Homemade Living (Lark Books). Synthetic extracts will not have the same bold taste or full flavor in your final dish, and they might contain undesirable additives.
3. Baking Soda and 4. Baking Powder
The jobs of baking soda and baking powder are to get your baked goods to rise. Sodium bicarbonate, the fancy name for baking soda, is combined with an acid and a moisture source, ultimately releasing carbon-dioxide gas that causes dough to expand. Without an acid, baking soda tastes a bit soapy.
Baking powder is essentially baking soda with the acid included—usually in the form of cream of tartar—and it requires only moisture to begin working. Depending on how much acid it contains, a manufacturer might label the baking powder as fast-, slow- or double-acting. Baking powder lasts about six months once opened.
Although it’s easily overlooked, salt is essential to baking. A well-placed salt will enhance the flavor of butter, marry with fruits and accentuate chocolate in your dessert.
There are three main types of salt. Iodized table salt, the most common salt in the United States, includes the added element of iodine, as the name implies. Kosher salt is free of additives and available in a fine or coarse texture. Sea salt, harvested from evaporated seawater, is as varied in flavor as the many seas it comes from. Sea salt can be found in a variety of grain sizes.
You would need a particularly refined palette to distinguish between varieties of salt embedded in pastry, so use whatever you prefer that is easily available. Ultimately, you want the salt product that will sift with your flour and rising agents seamlessly and then contribute to the leavening process. Note that a fine-grain salt is easier to measure precisely (instead of rock salt, for example, which will leave air pockets between grains when you measure it). To that end, search for a salt product with fine texture over a large, coarse grain.
6. Dried Fruits and Nuts
When baking, use unsalted nuts to keep your sodium level measurable and your flavor consistent. English recommends sourcing organic dried fruits whenever possible, as crops such as grapes, currants and apples are heavily sprayed with pesticides when conventionally grown. Rehydrate dried fruits by soaking them in water overnight, and drain well before use.
If the process of baking were like playing in a band, then flour would be your lead singer. The marked difference between the various flours is their gluten content. Gluten is the protein that assists yeast in rising. Different flours produce different results, and flours are very specific to the baked goods that you want to produce. Read your recipes carefully, and follow with the recommended flour; swapping one type for another might have unpleasant consequences!
This “plain flour” is the most common in the kitchen. This flour is available bleached or unbleached, and it has a protein content of between 8 and 12 percent. All-purpose flour might contain a maturing agent called potassium bromate, a known carcinogen, so opt for the organic kind to avoid such additives. Good for breads, cakes, pastries and cookies, all-purpose flour can be stored dry at room temperature for up to eight months. Refrigerate or freeze for storage up to a year.
This flour is softer and chlorinated (bleached), and it has a fine grain and a protein level of about 6 percent. Bleached flours produce a thicker batter as they soak up more moisture, and in recipes that call for a high sugar-to-flour ratio, cake flour usually will hold its rise like a champ.
Good for pies and pastries, pastry flour is similar to cake flour but is unbleached and contains a bit more gluten. It has a protein content of about 9 to 10 percent.
As its name implies, bread flour is best for yeast products, such as bread, and it has a high protein content of 12 to 15 percent. Bread flour is unbleached and milled from hard wheat. Store as you would all-purpose flour.
Sometimes called “graham” flour, whole-wheat flour is made from the whole kernel of hard wheat (though occasionally milled from soft wheat) and higher in dietary fiber than all-purpose flour. Due to the presence of germ, whole-wheat flour contains fat that will cause it to go rancid rather quickly. Store whole-wheat flour tightly sealed in the refrigerator or freezer for a longer shelf life.
Durum wheat produces coarse flour called semolina. It is the hardest type of wheat grown and typically works best when making pasta.
Specialty flours—such as buckwheat, rice, rye, barley, almond and oat flours—do not contain the necessary gluten to have a consistent rise and a stable final product, unless combined with wheat flour. Specialty flours are available for those with gluten intolerances.
8. Sugar and Sweeteners
In addition to sweetening your pies and cakes, sugar functions by tenderizing, leavening, browning and preserving baked goods. Sugar is refined from sugar beets or sugar cane, and it is primarily sourced from Florida, where sugar cane thrives in the tropical climate. Like salt, types of sugar vary by granule size.
Also called table or white sugar, granulated sugar probably has a place in your pantry at this very moment. It is the most common type of sugar and the most frequently called for in recipes.
Confectioner’s (Powdered) Sugar
This sugar is ground to a superfine grain and available in three degrees of fineness. Most commonly used for icings or whipping cream, powdered sugar also makes a sweet decoration—the kind you might find on funnel cake at the county fair.
At the other end of the spectrum, coarse sugar, with its large texture and distinct sparkle, shines as a garnish on baked goods.
Available in light or dark, brown sugar retains a percentage of molasses syrup, which provides its distinctive, full flavor. “Dark brown sugar works great in something that contains lots of spices or molasses, as it darkens the mixture,” English says.
Light brown sugar contains less molasses but still retains the taste. Both brown sugars have a tendency to clump, so store them in airtight glass or plastic containers. If the brown sugars harden, place a slice of apple or a few drops of water in your storage container.
Nonsugar sweeteners, such as honey, agave or stevia, might suffice in your desserts. When attempting to bake with a sugar alternative, find a recipe that specifically calls for your preferred sweetener. Substituting a moister sweetener, such as honey, in place of table sugar will alter your liquid content and might have undesirable results in your final product.
Glorious butter, is made from the cream of a dairy cow—though sheep’s milk, goat’s milk or even yak’s milk will produce butter. As the cream is churned, two products result: one is a solid, the fat, which becomes butter. The other is the liquid that drains from the fat, which is called buttermilk. Butter adds a unique flavor to baked goods, but it can go rancid rather quickly, so store it tightly wrapped and freeze if necessary. Unsalted (“sweet”) butter will last a few months in the refrigerator. Salted butter, which utilizes salt as a preservative, can last up to five months.
Named because it works to shorten the strands of gluten, shortening is 100-percent fat, compared to butter’s 80 to 85 percent (the rest is water). Shortening doesn’t brown like butter does, nor does it have as complex a flavor, but it is easy to work with. Furthermore, a shortening might contain emulsifiers that produce quick batters and dough.
Unlike butter, vegetable oils are pure fat and contribute to the crumbly moistness in your final product. If you use vegetable oil in a sweet recipe, opt for one with a neutral taste, such as canola. Olive oil typically has too strong of a flavor for sweets, though some bakers like to use it as a health-conscious alternative. Steer clear of partially hydrogenated oils, and as with all of your ingredients, look for organic options whenever possible and affordable.
As mentioned above, buttermilk is the liquid that remains after churning cream into butter. Buttermilk has a distinctly piquant punch and contains no less than 3.25 percent fat, the same as whole milk.
Made by fermenting light cream with certain kinds of lactic acid bacteria, sour cream sometimes can be substituted for buttermilk or yogurt. Sour cream contains approximately 55 percent maximum moisture and a minimum of 33 percent milkfat by weight.
When it comes to baking, not just any candy chocolate will do. Semisweet and bittersweet chocolates are dark, which means they are high in cocoa, and one often can substitute for the other. Even darker is baking chocolate, which at nearly 100 percent cocoa solids, is bitter. White chocolate, not actually a chocolate, is a concoction of sugar, cocoa butter and flavorings, and it contains no cocoa solids. Milk chocolate, popular in candies, is used less frequently in baking, though it shines in cookies and brownies—often in chip form.
When using chocolate for baking, follow your recipe. Opt to use a double-boiler method when melting chocolate; keep it on low heat, stir frequently, and watch carefully. Once chocolate is burned, it’s ruined—and we can’t have that!
While many staple baking ingredients can be found in your cupboard, pantry or refrigerator, make sure to have everything your recipe calls for on-hand before preheating the oven. When shopping for produce, take advantage of tailgate markets, farmers markets or U-pick farms, as they will yield some of the freshest items available. Also, steer clear of synthetic or imitation products. When it comes to your ingredients, buy the best you can afford, and opt for real, “whole” foods. Always store your bounty properly for longevity and freshness.
Treat your baking ingredients like the superstars they are, and you’ll be halfway to a knockout sweet dish that would make your grandmother proud.
Excerpt from Pies & Cakes, part of the Popular Kitchen Series, with permission from its publisher, BowTie, Inc. Purchase Pies & Cakes here.