Baking gives the world great things: chocolate chip cookies, birthday cake, and all kinds of bread. Baking is more science than art compared to cooking, as ingredients should be precisely measured.
After all, when you bake, you’re initiating chemical reactions, and more or less one element can drastically change the outcome.
But what elements are they? Are there must-haves for every kitchen? There are. Here are 13 essential ingredients that every baker needs:
Essential Baking Ingredients
Each one of these ingredients plays a critical role in baking, and every baker should have them at the ready. Read on to learn more about the essential baking ingredients you should have on hand.
Unless otherwise noted, the flour you get in the grocery store is likely white, all-purpose flour made from a part of the wheat plant, the world’s most common grain.
While you can get all-purpose flour in bleached or unbleached form, this workhorse of the kitchen staples is still white, all-purpose flour made from the endosperm portion of the wheat kernel.
Flour is essential in baking because it contains proteins that bind with liquids, usually creating glutens.
While gluten has no nutritional value, it provides elasticity to dough and allows baked goods to maintain their shapes.
In addition to all-purpose white flour, other specialized flours include:
- Bread flour
- Cake flour
- Self-rising flour
- Soy flour
- Pastry flour
- Whole wheat flour
Each type brings specific qualities to the baked goods in which it’s used.
No serious chef, cook, or baker would be caught dead with a spice-free kitchen.
We use spices to add flavors to what we’re making, and creative people are always trying to find new flavors with novel combinations.
While you may have your oregano, cumin, and basil for cooking, baking is a different story. For the basics, you should have:
- Ground cinnamon
- Ground cloves
- Ground ginger
- Nutmeg (ground is fine, but you’ll get better results keeping the nutmeg whole and grinding only what you need when you need it)
Additional helpful spices include:
- Cayenne pepper
- Cream of tartar
- Vanilla beans
- Espresso powder
More than just giving cookies a sweet flavor, sugar in baking helps with the consistency of the final product.
The compounds in sugar (sucrose, fructose, and the like) attract water, which is why foods made from sweet dough tend to be moister than others.
By holding water in the dough, sugar keeps it away from the flour (to an extent), which prevents gluten formation. The fewer glutens in a product, the softer it’ll be.
In addition to white, granulated sugar that every kitchen should have, you might also want brown sugar and confectioner’s sugar, which is also known as powdered sugar.
Learn about other types of sugar to stock in your kitchen.
Extracts and Flavorings
When you throw some sage into a dish you’re cooking, you’re putting in ground-up pieces of the leaves of the sage plant.
In baking, we often use extracts and flavorings rather than the actual spices because they are more concentrated vectors of the flavor we’re after.
An extract, by definition, is a concentration of the desired flavor. The essential extract in your kitchen should be vanilla.
It’s not made by grinding up the beans, but rather by extracting their flavor by soaking them for months at a time in a medium (vodka is excellent for this process).
Other extracts you might want on hand are:
- Almond extract
- Anise oil
- Coconut extract
- Peppermint extract
- Rum extract
Sometimes, when a recipe called for milk, you might have watched your mom use heavy cream instead. She had her reasons.
Dairy products in baking help with keeping the dough moist and adding fat to the dough.
That fat helps thicken the dough, and let’s be honest, fat makes the cake taste better.
So when using dairy, whole milk is better than two percent milk (though the latter isn’t bad, just not as good), and when your mother used cream instead, she added even more thickness, texture, and fat to the cake she was baking for you.
If you don’t drink milk due to your vegan or otherwise dairy-free diet, check out the best milk alternatives.
Baking soda creates a chemical reaction in what you’re baking. In your dough, you’ve got liquid and acid, and those are what baking soda needs to do its thing.
Baking soda is also called sodium bicarbonate, so it may come as no surprise that when these three things meet and the chemical reaction begins, the baking soda releases carbon dioxide.
These tiny CO2 bubbles course through the dough and make it fluffy.
Without baking soda, you have fewer carbon dioxide bubbles and therefore a denser, heavier dough.
The main difference between baking soda and baking powder? Baking powder has an acid mixed in with it already and only needs liquid to kick off the chemical reaction.
Even your sweetest birthday cake needs some salt in the dough. It enhances the flavors around it, sure, but it also helps keep the yeast in check.
Acting as a sort of governor to keep the yeast from acting too fast, salt slows the fermentation process engendered by the yeast.
Without the salt, your dough will likely rise too fast. The result will be a different flavor to the final product, but also oddly shaped cakes and loaves of bread.
Use table salt, sea salt, or kosher salt in any of your baking projects for fine results.
Leaveners kick off chemical reactions in the dough that make it rise.
While you need the carbon dioxide produced from the baking soda, it’s not enough in the amounts most baking recipes call for.
Cue the leaveners. The most popular leavener is yeast, a biological leavener.
Yeast is a single-celled organism that feeds on sugars and, as a by-product, produces carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol.
These by-products make the dough rise until the heat of the oven kills the yeast, stops the reaction, and causes the bread to stop rising.
It takes a village of ingredients to bake just about anything, each working with the others.
Fats appear in baked goods as a way to add flavor and richness, but also to assist with the leavening process and with slowing the production of glutens. Again, fewer glutens mean a softer baked good.
Fats often get a bad rap, but they are necessary, as they get calories into our bodies as well as essential vitamins our bodies must have.
Fat in baking often comes from butter or shortening.
Aside from having antidepressant properties, chocolate adds flavoring and sweetness to baked goods.
But it also helps absorb moisture as the dough bakes. While we want a moist cake, we don’t want it too moist lest we have to rebrand the final product as some sort of soup.
It also helps with creating structure in the cake or bread.
You have many choices, and the recipe often specifies what kind of chocolate you need, which will be one of the following kinds:
Since chocolate is one more degree of separation from the cacao plant than cocoa powder is, it makes sense that cocoa powder delivers a more concentrated flavor in baking.
It also absorbs moisture better. It absorbs better than flour, too.
Cocoa powder has much less fat in it than chocolate, so it’s not as sensitive to temperature as chocolate.
On the other hand, since the cocoa powder is so absorbent, a conscientious baker knows to keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t render the cake or pastry too dry in the end.
Butter, when mixed with flour, coats the individual flour particles with a layer of fat.
First, this helps spread the fat throughout the batter or dough. Second, this prevents the flour from getting too much exposure to moisture and generating too many glutens.
When it’s mixed into a batter with sugar and an egg, the resulting solution is an emulsion.
It has water trapped in it, and when the dough goes into the oven, the heat causes that water to turn to steam.
The transformation helps the batter rise and keeps the cake or cookie moist. Butter can help create a fluffy or flaky texture in baking.
Eggs add moisture, as the egg white alone is 90% water.
But also, we’ve mentioned carbon dioxide getting released into your dough, and you may have wondered what keeps that CO2 from leaking out into the atmosphere. The answer is eggs.
Egg whites contain proteins, and these act much like glutens in that they can provide structure.
The yolks bring richness and flavor to the batter.
The final color of cookies and cakes can be influenced by eggs, as they lend a golden hue to baked goods.
When a recipe calls for eggs, it means chicken eggs unless it says otherwise. Even in that category, though, there are many kinds:
- White eggs
- Brown eggs
- Free-range eggs
- Organic eggs
- Omega-3 eggs
Few recipes will specify a free-range egg, for instance, so which egg you use will be a personal choice.
Essential Baking Ingredients
- Extracts and Flavorings
- Baking Soda
- Cocoa Powder
Preparation is a huge part of success in the kitchen, and baking falls into that category.
Your pantry exists for you to store things so you have them on hand when you need them. So be sure you stock yours with the vital ingredients that every baker needs.
From leaveners to different types of fat, each of these essential baking elements plays a part in making your cake dough rise, bake to a beautiful color, remain fluffy and moist, and taste delicious.
Make sure you have all of these essential baking ingredients in your pantry to make the most out of your culinary endeavors!
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