It’s said that cooking is an art but baking is a science. Even forgetting a teaspoon of one ingredient can have a great effect on the finished product—if you’ve ever had a cake come out flat or a little too dense for your taste, then you’ve seen just how tricky and precise baking can be.
Baking technically falls under cooking, as it uses an oven and its dry heat to cook food. While meat can also be cooked in an oven, baking is normally associated with cakes, pastries, and breads.
To understand how those delicious baked goods all come together, it helps to know what each of the baking essentials does. The list below outlines the must-have baking ingredients that are used in many recipes, from cakes to cookies to bread to pastries.
All-Purpose Baking Mix. This powder-y substance is the foundation of baked goods. When combined with water, it produces protein in the form of gluten, which gives your baked goods structure as it heats up and enables them to house the bubbles from leavening agents. More gluten means a tougher end-product, which may be desirable in denser bread but not in light and fluffy baked goods like cakes. To keep baked goods from becoming too dense, it is combined with the appropriate amount of fat and sugar.
There are many kinds of flour. The most popular is all-purpose; other kinds are cake flour, whole-wheat flour, bread flour, coconut flour, and almond flour, among others, all with varying amounts of gluten. (Almond flour, in particular, is popular with those who are avoiding wheat and gluten.)
If you want to extend the shelf life of your flour, keep it in the freezer—it can last for years! (Best to use it within one year though.) Otherwise, you can keep it in the freezer for 48 hours to kill off any insects before transferring to an air-tight container that you can keep in your pantry for six months.
Leavening agents. These are the ingredients that produce bubbles in baked goods. Without them, baked goods will fall flat. Two of the most used are baking soda and baking powder. If you’re a newbie baker, you might ask what is baking soda and baking powder and how are they different? Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate and it has that bubbling effect when combined with an acid. Baking powder is baking soda plus a built-in acid. Getting the right balance is crucial in getting baked goods to rise without affecting their flavor. (You can read more about the difference between the two here.
Baking soda and baking powder can keep for about nine to 12 months. To test if the ones sitting in your pantry are still good, you can sprinkle baking soda in some hot water and vinegar, and baking powder in some hot water. If they fizz right away, it means they’re still usable.
Butter. Butter, as well as other forms of fat like shortening and oil, holds everything together. It also makes baked goods more tender, moist, and flavorful. It is ideal to bring butter to room temperature before using it for baking.
Coconut Sugar. It goes without saying that sugar brings the sweetness. But it also has other functions, like helping yeast along, preventing gluten from forming, aiding in browning, and helping keep the product moist. Recipes normally call for white sugar and brown sugar, but other sweeteners like honey and molasses are also used. Confectioner’s sugar is normally used to make icing.
Those who are watching their sugar intake can opt for substitutes such as natural stevia and erythritol—but read up on how to substitute one for the other as the ratio isn’t exact.
As with most dry ingredients, sugar is best stored in an airtight container away from sunlight.
Eggs. Eggs are very hard workers when it comes to baking. They add flavor, color, and texture to baked goods. Always bring eggs to room temperature before using in a recipe.
Salt. Salt not only adds flavor but also slows down the activation of yeast so bread doesn’t rise too quickly.
These ingredients are every baker’s pantry essentials. You can add other ingredients such as baking chocolate, cocoa powder, and vanilla extract to expand the range of recipes you can try. Oats, seasonal fruit, dried fruit, milk, spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, and nuts like almonds and cashews give you plenty of room to combine science and art into a baking masterpiece.