The Baking Ingredients You Should Always Have On Hand
If you have some key ingredients on hand, you'll always be able to pull a cake, cookies, bread or brownies together at the spur of the moment, without a special trip to the grocery store.
You don’t need a pantry bursting at the seams with specialized ingredients to turn out delicious, delectable baked goods. Yes, our options have widened over the years, but the basics remain the same. Look at the ingredients for a classic pound cake (butter, sugar, flour), a pie crust (butter, flour) and shortbread (butter, sugar, flour) and you’ll see a pattern. So what should you have on hand in your baker’s pantry?
There are lots of different flours out there: Frequent cake- or bread-bakers will usually have cake flour, bread flour, self-rising, or whole-wheat flour on hand. (Check out the different types of flours here.)
A good-quality all-purpose flour is all most home bakers need. Plus, you can also use it to make more specialized flours. (Here’s how to make your own self-rising flour.) Store your flour in an airtight, moisture-proof container on a cool, dark shelf. Corn starch, a finely ground corn flour, is another core requirement. It’s great for thickening fruit-pie fillings, as well as mixing with all-purpose flour to make pastry flour.
Must have: All-purpose flour, corn starch
When it comes to fats in baking, you’ve got choices, and they’re fairly swappable. The essentials are unsalted butter and either oil (vegetable or canola oil) or shortening. You can do some substitutions here—trade butter for an equal amount of shortening, or even use 3 Tbsp. olive oil in place of each ¼ cup of butter. Oil won’t work in place of solid fat (butter or shortening), but you can use shortening in place of oil—just melt it in the microwave and then measure it just as you would the oil. With the exception of butter, these fats are all shelf-stable and can live in your pantry.
Must have: Unsalted butter, vegetable oil
Two things that any baker’s pantry should never be without: baking powder and baking soda. Yes, you should have both, because they work in different ways. Long story short: Baking soda works in recipes with an acidic component (sour cream, buttermilk, vinegar or citrus), while baking powder contains its own acid. Cream of tartar is also good to have on hand. If you want to bake bread, add yeast to your list. All these can be stored at room temperature on your pantry shelves.
One more essential leavener: eggs. Obviously, eggs have a shorter shelf life, but they’re so versatile they should be on your regular shopping list anyway. For baking, stick with large eggs, and (of course!) keep them in the fridge.
Must have: Baking soda, baking powder, cream of tartar, yeast, eggs
Lots of delectable baked goods call for sour cream, yogurt or buttermilk, but the must-have dairy for baking is plain old milk—2% or higher (whole milk is preferable). With milk as a base, you can replace lots of other dairy ingredients. For example: in place of a cup of buttermilk, make soured milk by mixing 1 Tbsp. vinegar or lemon juice with enough whole milk added to equal 1 cup, then let stand for 5 minutes to thicken.
Cream cheese isn’t precisely a must have, but is good to keep in store because it’s useful in many different recipes, doesn’t have a readily available substitution, and has a long shelf life. It’s also nice to keep a can of evaporated milk in your cupboard; it can work as a direct substitute for heavy cream in most recipes (although it can’t be whipped!).
Must have: Milk
Ah, you’ll need something to sweeten your recipe! The most common sweetener is granulated sugar; other essential sweeteners are brown sugar (either light or dark; they can be used interchangeably) and confectioner’s sugar. Confectioner’s sugar is useful for sweetening whipped cream, icings and frostings, and is an easy way to finish off plain cakes and brownies—a light dusting gives even the simplest dessert a polished look.
A liquid or syrup sweetener (or more than one!) is also great to have. Corn syrup, molasses and honey can be used in place of each other—the flavors will be different, but the recipe will still work. The corn syrup you find on supermarket shelves is not the dreaded high-fructose corn syrup (that’s the industrial product) and actually has less fructose than honey—so feel free to use it without guilt!
Must have: granulated sugar, brown sugar, confectioner’s sugar; corn syrup, molasses or honey
Taste of Home
The most frequently used flavoring in baking is pure vanilla extract. Whether you prefer Madagascar, Mexican or Tahitian—or make your own—make sure it’s always in your cupboard. Although it does go into nearly every kind of baked good, it’s pricey now and getting ever more expensive: here are some tips on how to make it go further!
For spices, the true essentials are the classics: cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. Spice preference is personal, so add to that list however you like—allspice, cloves and cardamom are nice to have, too! But always make sure you have salt. It’s tempting to cut the salt, but it adds lots of depth to the flavor of baked goods and shouldn’t be left out. Either regular table salt or kosher salt will be fine.
Must have: vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, salt
Yes, chocolate gets its own entry! Lots have been written on different chocolates and how each should be used. Check out a rundown of chocolate varieties here. Some kind of cocoa and bar chocolate should always be ready to be pulled off the shelf. Natural baking cocoa is versatile and all-purpose. Bars of bittersweet or semisweet chocolate are also essential. They can swap out for each other in recipes and can be chopped into chunks when chocolate chips are needed. If you have the storage space, a bag of chocolate chips is never a bad idea, as is a bar of unsweetened baking chocolate. (But if you don’t have it, you can use 3 Tbsp. of unsweetened cocoa plus 1 Tbsp. of shortening or vegetable oil as a substitute.)
Along with all that chocolate goes a recommendation for a jar of instant espresso granules. This isn’t an essential item, but a little bit of coffee teases out a surprising depth to chocolate recipes. It often appears as an optional item, as in these Ultimate Fudgy Brownies, but even adding it to a boxed cake mix makes a difference!
Must have: baking cocoa, bittersweet or semisweet chocolate bars
The Fun Stuff
Beyond the must-haves, there are some core ingredients that are versatile, useful and just for fun. While no one will turn up their nose at brownies that don’t contain nuts, having walnuts and pecans does make things better! Dried raisins and cranberries are great instant add-ins and have a seriously long shelf-life. And speaking of raisins… a bag of rolled oats is great for making all kinds of cookies and bars. A couple of jars of fruit preserves in different flavors provide a quick filling for a cake or sandwich cookies, or make a lovely addition to brownies. A can of pumpkin puree opens up lots of options for cookies, breads, cakes and muffins. Throw in a jar of peanut butter, and a couple of lemons (which will keep for a surprisingly long time in the fruit drawer in your fridge), and you’ve expanded your potential flavor palate by yards.
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