Baking is my life. On top of doing it professionally for almost 15 years, I can most often be found in my home kitchen experimenting with new recipes or tweaking old ones; making birthday cakes for friends or bread for tonight's dinner. It's a problem, really. But my love for baking has also blossomed into a love for teaching others to bake. One of the things that I love most about teaching is having the opportunity to interact with people of all ages, skill level, and background. And despite the differences among my students, or the wide variety of classes I teach, there are some questions that are asked in every. Single. Class. And those questions revolve around ingredients.
The ingredients you use and how you use them in baking are incredibly important. Baking is a science! There is an exactness to it. And for some, that's a huge turn off. But if you're a science geek or a control freak (like me), baking is perfect! Unlike cooking, you can't always substitute a little of "this" for a little of "that." Substituting ingredients in baking can sometimes have disastrous results. It can alter the flavor, the texture, and the appearance of your product, not to mention induce panic attacks and/or nervous breakdowns in the baker! So today we're going to go over some ingredient basic knowledge that everyone should learn.
Butter: Unsalted! This is the number one question that I get in my classes. In baking, you ALWAYS want to use unsalted butter! The main reason for this is so that you can control the amount of salt that is going into your product. I can't even tell you that last time I actually purchased salted butter. As for brands, I have no allegiance to any particular brand; I buy whatever is on sale! European style butters are slightly more expensive because they have a higher fat content/lower water content and a richer, more buttery taste. These are perfect for laminated doughs like croissant or danish, or for rich, buttery shortbread cookies. I would, however, skip using them in buttercream or something that doesn't require that butter taste to be front and center. And, while most people seem to be surprised by this, I tend to have a few pounds of butter sitting out on my countertop at home at all times! Yes, I assure you, this is completely safe. And, it helps me out because when the mood to bake strikes (pretty much always), my butter is room temperature and ready to go!
Flour: There are a wide variety of flours out there, and sifting (haha) through all of them can be daunting. All purpose flour is the flour you are most likely to have around your kitchen. I also generally have some bread flour and some cake flour in addition to my go-to all purpose flour. Each of these flours is named according to the best use for each one, but that doesn't mean they can only be used for those certain products. But knowing a little about each flour will be helpful for you in deciding whether you can substitute different flours in different products. All purpose flour contains a moderate amount of protein, so it can be used in a variety of applications. It can be used in bread baking and also makes great cakes and cookies! Bread flour contains a high amount of protein, which results in more gluten. I know we've been told recently that gluten is bad, but in bread baking, gluten is great! Cake flour is on the lower end of the protein spectrum, usually milled from a softer wheat, and is higher in starch. Cake flour creates a lighter, tender product. The starch helps create structure that is light and airy, vs. using the protein to create structure using the formation of gluten. Again, as for brands, I'm not 100% loyal to any, though I tend to prefer King Arthur because their product is consistent and their company is awesome.
Sugar: Regular old granulated sugar, not the superfine stuff, does the trick in most recipes! I generally buy mine from Aldi, it's cheap! The same goes for light brown sugar. I never use dark brown sugar; if a recipe calls for it, I just use light brown instead. Light and dark brown sugar are just white sugar with molasses added, or sugar that hasn't been completely refined. Molasses is the product that is left during the sugar refining process. Sometimes, I like to use a little bit of molasses in place of sugar in a recipe to add some added depth of flavor and a little color to my product. Confectioners' sugar/powdered sugar is simply granulated sugar that has been ground into a powder, sometimes with the addition of a little cornstarch. I know some people claim that powdered sugar with cornstarch tastes weird or affects the outcome of products, but I don't really find that to be an issue I have ever had. Like the other sugars, I buy mine from Aldi.
Salt: Salt is SO important in baked goods. While in most sweets, a salty flavor is bad (except salted caramel. YUM.), the salt is absolutely needed to provide balance and make the other flavors really pop. And use Kosher salt! I know folks are concerned about the larger size of Kosher salt, but ultimately that is not a big deal! Kosher salt is what the professionals use, and it's what I use for all my cooking/baking/seasoning needs at home. Iodized salt has a weird flavor, and it looks so much like sugar! Mix-ups can (and will) happen. Just go for the Kosher salt, it's better! Also, sea salt flakes are a must have for me! I don't use them in my food, but more as a garnish. They look beautiful sprinkled on top of a tart, and they give you that nice salty/sweet combo that everyone loves. Just be careful not to go overboard!
Eggs: When recipes call for eggs, they are usually referring to large eggs. I LOVE using fresh, local eggs if possible. The flavor of fresh eggs is so much better than the grocery store stuff. When it comes to buttercream, though, I cheat and use the carton egg whites. It's cheaper and easier than separating tons of eggs, plus you don't have to figure out how use up all of those leftover yolks. Be warned, though, that the carton whites don't work well when you need a stiff, stable meringue (i.e. French macaron). And remember, it's best to use your eggs at room temperature when baking!
Milk: Midwesterners have a love affair with skim and non-fat milk that I will never understand. I am from the Midwest, and I grew up with skim milk, but YUCK. Look, I won't judge you if you choose to drink it or use it in your cereal, but PLEASE, use whole milk when you're baking! Fat is very important in baking, and it provides good flavor! Products just won't turn out the same if you're using non-fat milk. You can even buy small, individual sized bottles of whole milk at the supermarket if you are worried about having left over milk going bad! Like eggs, fresh and local is best, but the supermarket stuff is fine (as long as it's whole!).
Chocolate: Here is another product I tend to get soap-boxy about. There are some kinds of chocolates out there (I won't name any names) that are not REAL chocolate. They have additives and wax and oil and whatever else in them. It affects the flavor and the mouthfeel and even how they melt. So, while I am all about saving money by buying the brands that are on sale at the supermarket, chocolate is where I implore you to spend the extra money and buy the good stuff! There are a lot of different brands available at the supermarket, and hey, Amazon often sells it in bulk, which is usually a better deal than the supermarket has. Check out Ghirardelli, Valrhona, Cacao Barry, Barry Callebaut, Guittard, Tcho....plus many more. It makes a huge difference! I even use these for my chocolate chunk cookies. Also, cocoa powder! Again, spend the extra money for the good stuff. I like Dutch processed cocoa. Dutch process means that the cocoa has been treated with an alkali to neutralize its acidity. It results in a smoother, richer flavor, and it's much darker in color. This is also available at most supermarkets, but I really like Penzey's!
Vanilla: Like chocolate, you shouldn't skimp on your vanilla. And whether you prefer Mexican, Tahitian, Indian, Bourbon, Madagascar... a good quality vanilla can be expensive. I really like Nielsen-Massey vanilla bean paste. Vanilla paste tends to have a truer vanilla flavor. It also contains the little bean flecks, so it's great (and cheaper) to use in any recipes that ask you to scrape out an actual vanilla bean. I also really love Penzey's double strength vanilla extract. Vanilla extract is also pretty easy to make on your own! You just need some liquor (like vodka), some new or used vanilla beans, and patience!
Okay, so I think I've waxed poetic about ingredients for long enough. I hope that this answers some of the questions you may have! I understand that purchasing ingredients can get expensive, which is why I recommend usually buying the brands that are on sale or available at Aldi. The few items that I beg you not to skimp on are the important ones that will really elevate your baked goods, I promise! Remember, if you start with bad ingredients, you will end up with bad product! Leave a comment if you want to learn more about these or other baking ingredients!