The Basic Ingredients Every Home Baker Should Always Have on Hand
What you need to know about flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and other baking essentials.
A few key ingredients are used in virtually every recipe for baked goods. Here, a list of the essential baking ingredients our food editors always keep in their pantries. With flour, butter, eggs, cocoa, and more always on hand, a delicious baked good is just a few steps away.
Most of our recipes call for unbleached all-purpose, but we keep cake and bread flours in our pantries, too. The former gives the most tender results (if you only have all-purpose, substitute by replacing two tablespoons per cup with cornstarch). Whole-grain kinds, like whole wheat and spelt, lend different flavors and textures; for a healthier take on a recipe, mix half of either type and half all-purpose.
We pledge allegiance to unsalted American butter when developing recipes. European butters are higher in fat, which alters texture, and cultured butters have a tang that affects taste— neither of which is bad, but you'll want to keep the distinctions in mind if you substitute. Use softened for creaming and cold for cutting into a piecrust. The best way to soften a stick is to let it sit out for an hour or two; however, here's a shortcut: Stand it on one end on a plate, and microwave in very small bursts—five to ten seconds each—until, when you press a finger into it, it holds the indentation but still feels cool.
White and brown sugars each supply sweetness and structure in baking. But brown sugar—which is white sugar with molasses added in—is acidic, and it reacts with baking soda to pro- vide the rise. Most recipes that call for brown sugar do so for a reason, whether it's flavor or texture—you can substitute with white, but the result won't be exactly the same. To keep brown sugar from drying out, transfer it to an airtight container after opening. Too late? Microwave it, covered by a damp paper towel, for 20 seconds; repeat until soft.
Buttermilk and sour cream give baked goods tenderness and a subtle tang. If you only have regular milk, there are two ways to make "buttermilk:" Add two tablespoons of vinegar or lemon juice per cup and let sit for five minutes, or thin plain yogurt with milk (of any fat content) to a consistency slightly thicker than whole milk. Another tactic: Keep dried buttermilk in your pantry, and just add water.
First, some fun facts: Eggs are easier to separate when cold, but have better volume warm or at room temperature. If you're making meringue, separate cold eggs, then let the whites stand at room temperature before beating. In general, we reach for large eggs at room temperature. In some recipes (like these brownies), eggs are the only leavening, so adding them one at a time allows them to incorporate and offer a bit of lift. To bring refrigerated eggs to room temp quickly, place them in a bowl, cover with warm water, and let stand for 15 minutes.
Recipes rely on baking soda when there's an acidic ingredient it can react with—this creates carbon dioxide, which helps baked goods rise. Baking powder contains baking soda plus an acid, so it works on its own. In some recipes, we use a little of each, because baking soda supplies better browning and spread, while baking powder excels at puffiness. If you're out of powder, make your own: substitute 1⁄4 teaspoon baking soda combined with 3⁄4 teaspoon cream of tartar per teaspoon.
There are no standard definitions for the terms semisweet, bittersweet, and dark, so choose by cacao percentage. The higher it is, the more bitter the chocolate (unsweetened is 100 percent cacao). For recipes using semisweet, 61 to 66 percent is a nice range; for bittersweet, we like 70 percent. If chocolate has white spots, it hasn't spoiled; it's just been stored at a too-warm or too-cold temperature and the fat has pushed to the surface. It's fine to use in recipes where it gets melted.
We default to Dutch-process in most recipes that call for cocoa; it's alkalized, which renders a darker color and milder flavor. Regular cocoa powder is more acidic (and sour-tasting); it works best in recipes with baking soda, which reacts with it to offset the acidity.
They help fruit fillings gel, both in the oven and while cooling. When fully activated, corn- starch sets clear, while flour sets a bit cloudy. Tapioca flour also sets clear, and is interchange- able with all-purpose.
This flavor amplifier works wonders in baked goods, even in small quantities. The test kitchen's go-to is Diamond Crystal kosher salt. If you have Morton's, use 3⁄4 teaspoon for every one teaspoon of Diamond Crystal; if you have table salt, use half the amount.