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A guide to baking ingredients and pantry staples

Whether you are new to baking or somebody who has been baking for a long time, it’s important to keep a well stocked pantry. Here’s a guide to the most common baking ingredients and baking pantry staples that you may need when you want to tackle a new recipe or baking project.

It’s important to understand the role of each ingredient before you embark on any baking substitutions in your next recipe, so this post will not only help you determine what to stock in your pantry and fridge for most baking projects, and also what each baking ingredient does in a recipe.

Most baked goods are made from the same ingredients and the ingredients can be broken down into two major categories:

  1. dry ingredients: flour, cocoa powder, salt, leaveners, spices
  2. wet ingredients: fats, sugars, eggs, dairy products

Measured out baking ingredients, including 2 large eggs, baking powder, baking soda, salt, brown sugar, butter, milk chocolate and chopped chocolate, and rolled oats in a scoop

Dry ingredients

Dry ingredients provide structure, texture, and the ability to absorb moisture, while also contributing to the rise and overall appearance of your baked goods. 

Flours

All-purpose flour, also known as plain flour is probably the number one flour used in baking. If you could only have one flour in your pantry, all-purpose flour is the flour to invest in. Most of my recipes are made with all-purpose flour. When I was studying at Le Cordon Bleu, we only used all-purpose flour and we used it for all our baked goods, whether we were making black forest cake, puff pastry, homemade croissants, or vanilla sablés. You can use it to make this cinnamon raisin no-knead bread too. This flour is called all purpose with good reason!

All-purpose flour can be bleached or unbleached flour and the bleaching process not only impacts the colour of the flour, but also the pH: bleached flour is more acidic than unbleached flour. I use bleached flour in all my recipes, unless I specify otherwise. All-purpose flour in North America has around 10 % protein and this is brand-dependant, but also dependant on the grain used and the country of origin.

Whole-wheat flour, also known as whole-meal flour, is made by grinding the whole grain so there’s more fibre in whole wheat flour than in regular plain flour. This is why whole wheat flour has a beige-ish colour to it and it can sometimes seem speckled.

Cake flour is a finer flour that is lower in protein and higher in starch (?). Cake flour is especially useful when you are baking cakes where you want a more delicate, softer crumb, a more tender mouthfeel, and where you want less gluten to form (which would otherwise make for a very tough cake if you develop too much gluten). Cake flour has roughly 7 to 9 % protein, but this is brand dependant.

Homemade gluten free flour mix in a measuring cup to show the layers of different flours and starches used to make the mix

Pastry flour is somewhere between all-purpose and cake flour on the spectrum of flours. Pastry flour has a little less protein than all-purpose flour, but more protein than cake flour. Where I live, it’s easier to find pastry flour than it is to find cake flour, so this is what I use for my layer cakes, like this Earl Grey cake or this classic vanilla cake with milk chocolate frosting. Pastry flour is closer to 10 % protein, where I live. Still it’s a little finer than regular all-purpose. 

Bread flour has a higher protein content therefore adds more structure to baked goods, up to 16 % protein! This is especially important when making bread where you want to develop as much gluten as possible to accommodate and trap all the air bubbles that form as the dough rises. Without gluten and a high protein content, the gas would escape and your breads wouldn’t rise properly.

Self-raising flour is a flour mix that is available in most grocery stores and is especially popular and common in Great Britain. Self-raising flour has baking powder and salt already added to it, so when you bake with self-raising flour, you don’t have to add any chemical leaveners or any salt. If you don’t have access to it, you can make your own self-raising flour:

  • combine 1 cup of all-purpose flour with 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/2 teaspoons of fine kosher salt (or 1/4 teaspoon of table salt) to make 1 cup of self-raising flour.

Other flours you may encounter in some recipes include oat flour (which you can make by grinding oats very finely in the food processor), buckwheat flour, rice flour, rye flour, corn flour (not to be confused with corn starch), semolina.

These alternative flours are not as commonly used in the average baking recipe so I recommend purchasing them in small quantities from your local scoop shop or bulk store. This way you can buy what you need, when you need it. On the other hand, you can easily invest in a 5 kilo bag of all-purpose flour because you will use it in most recipes you bake!

Most flours are sold in paper bags that aren’t ideal for storage, especially once opened. Transfer dry ingredients in air-tight, sealed containers to store them. Label them with the date you purchased and/or the expiry date.

I like the OXO POP containers for small to medium bags of flour.

Cocoa powder

Cocoa powder is not to be confused with hot cocoa mix (which contains a mixture of cocoa powder, dried milk powder, and sugar), so these two cannot be interchanged. Cocoa powder is 100% cocoa, a by-product of chocolate making that is an excellent source of intense chocolate flavour in baked goods and it’s one of the essential types of chocolate in baking recipes.

Cocoa powder can be replaced with dark chocolate in some recipes, but since chocolate has fats as well as sugar, whereas cocoa is 100 % chocolate and mostly fat-free, it’s important to make adjustments when you try to replace cocoa with dark chocolate in a baking recipe.

a yellow container of magic baking powder, an orange box of Arm & Hammer, and 3 packets of Fleischman's Active dry yeast

Leavening agents

Leavening agents are added to recipes to make your baked goods rise. They open up the crumb of your baked goods, forming gas bubbles that are trapped within. Leavening agents include baking soda, baking powder, and yeast. 

Chemical leaveners

Baking soda 

Baking soda is a chemical leavener, specifically pure sodium bicarbonate, and it’s a base (alkaline), meaning it has a pH above 7. Baking soda is a source of carbon dioxide gas, and when it comes into contact with moisture and an acidic ingredient, the baking soda reacts to form carbon dioxide gas, which helps your cakes, cookies, and even breads rise.

Baking soda is a key component in Irish soda bread with raisins. In this recipe, it reacts with buttermilk, an acidic dairy ingredient. This is why you don’t need yeast. The baking soda combined with buttermilk are sufficient to replace yeast in this bread recipe. 

Baking powder

Baking powder is a chemical leavener that is actually a mixture of several ingredients: baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), an acidic ingredient, and some cornstarch or other starches to keep the product dry and prevent clumping.

Baking powder doesn’t require additional special ingredients to work. All you have to do is hydrate it, like when you mix it into a cake batter, and once wet (and with heat), the baking powder will react to release carbon dioxide to help your baked goods rise.

Store chemical leaveners in the pantry, sealed, in a cool dry place to avoid clumping and any humidity.

Biological leaveners—Yeast

Active dry yeast

Yeast is a unicellular organism that we use to bake bread. When hydrated, the yeast are revived from their dormant state, so they start eating and replicating, and generating carbon dioxide gas, which helps your breads and cakes rise.

Active dry yeast must be dissolved before adding it to your recipe. It’s also best to proof the yeast by mixing it with warm water and a pinch of sugar. Not only does this allow you to check to make sure your yeast are alive, but it also helps them get a gentler start by letting them come back to life in a small, confined environment on a small scale, before adding them to a large volume of other ingredients.

Instant yeast

Instant yeast is faster to dissolve and faster to rise than active dry. For this reason, it’s called “instant yeast” and it’s also the type of yeast you would use if you use a bread machine to bake bread. Instant yeast doesn’t require dissolving or proofing and can be added directly to the dry ingredients and mixed in. Honestly, I still dissolve instant yeast in water with a pinch of sugar and let it soak for 10 minutes to make sure it gets properly incorporated into doughs. But technically, you don’t have to do this.

Store yeast in a cool dry place, but once the package or packet is opened, store the product, sealed, in the fridge.

Salt

Table salt is what most people keep on hand at all times for cooking. Table salt is very salty and may contain iodine. The iodine added is to prevent iodine deficiency which leads to serious health issues, so it’s actually a good thing and a necessary part of our diets. Most table salts have around 580 mg of sodium, which is high. For this reason, you would add less of it to your recipes.

Fine kosher salt (Diamond Crystal or Morton’s) is less salty than table salt. Fine kosher salt has around 270 grams of sodium, which means you add more of it in recipes.

Flaky salt (like Maldon, fleur de sel, etc.) are more coarse so they are slower to dissolve. For this reason, flaky and coarse salts are great finishing salts, like on pretzels or cookies.

Store salt in the pantry, in a cool dry place to avoid clumping.

Spices

In North-America, I suspect the number one spice used in baking is ground cinnamon. But other popular spices include ground nutmeg, ginger, cloves, allspice, and cardamom, which has grown significantly in popularity over the last decade, influenced by the Nordic baking trends (think cardamom buns) and also the growing popularity of Middle-Eastern and North African recipes, Remember, cardamom is a key ingredient in Turkish coffee, and I’ve even added it to make cardamom banana bread.

Store spices in the pantry, in a cool dry place and away from any heat sources and in the dark to avoid degradation and loss of flavour.

spice cake ingredients featuring butter, eggs, cinnamon, flour in a blow and a measuring cup with milk and vanilla extract

Wet ingredients

Wet ingredients contribute water in most cases, but also the ability to absorb and retain moisture. Some wet ingredients don’t appear wet when you look at them, quite the contrary actually, but they act like a wet ingredient by capturing moisture. 

In baking recipes, some wet ingredients also contribute fat, which adds moisture, or at least they give the impression of moisture. The fats also prolong the shelf-life of baked goods: the fats postpone drying along with the other wet ingredients.

Fats

Butter

Fats, specifically butter, which is a solid fat, is also essential for incorporating air in recipes that follow the creaming method where you whip the butter with the sugar until it’s light and fluffy. If you skip this step, like if you follow the muffin method where you just stir all the ingredients together, you will end up with a more dense product at the end. That’s okay! But it’s something to keep in mind when you are following a recipe.  

Most grocery store butter has about 80 % fat in North America, but nowadays, you may be able to find some European butters or higher fat butters with as much as 84 % fat.

Higher fat butters are especially useful when making homemade croissants where the extra fat is especially helpful during the lamination process where the butter is rolled and folded into a yeasted dough to create those signature flaky layers. Higher fat butter would also be great in your favourite pie crust to make it more flaky, as well, like in this rhubarb lattice pie.  

Butter should be stored in the fridge in the paper wrapper it was sold in.

Butter can be frozen. When you want to defrost it, do so in the refrigerator, not at room temperature: frozen butter defrosted at room temperature will sweat and those beads of water may promote mold on the surface of the butter, especially if the butter is unsalted. For this reason, defrost frozen butter for a full 12 hours in the refrigerator before you do anything with it. 

And if you are debating over whether to bake with salted or unsalted butter, both work! But if you are baking with salted butter, you may have to adjust the amount of salt added to the dry ingredients accordingly or else you may end up with baked goods that are too salty. The amount of salt in salted butter can vary.

Oil

In baking, most recipes will call for a neutral tasting oil, like canola oil or even grapeseed oil (like in the Milk Bar birthday cake recipe). Cooking oils are 100 % fat, which is something to keep in mind if you want to substitute butter for oil.

Oil actually makes baked goods seem more moist than butter does because most oils, like canola oil, are liquid at room temperature, which means you will end up with a softer mouthfeel at room temperature. 

Some recipes will call for olive oil, even extra virgin olive oil which has a pronounced olive flavour. Sometimes you may want that flavour to come through in your baked goods: olive oil pairs especially well with certain fruits like oranges in desserts so you will probably come across many Italian orange olive oil cakes. 

Nut oils can be used to make cakes too. Take this blackberry almond cake, a riff on a Milk Bar recipe: almond oil is added to the cake batter to enhance the flavour and add even more almond flavour to the dessert. The main drawbacks is that nut oils are more expensive than other oils.

Oil should be stored in dark, air-tight bottles in a cool dry place away from any light or heat sources.

Baklava ingredients featuring ground pistachios, lots of melted butter, with a pastry brush for layering, and in the back a 9x13 glass pan where phyllo is layered with the other components

Vegan butter

Vegan butters are plant-based, coming from oils that were transformed from a liquid fluid into a solid product that greatly resembles butter. Some may be hydrogenated in order for the fats to solidify at room temperature. Most will contain more saturated fat than plant oils, which is why vegan butter is solid. And unlike margarines, which may contain dairy for flavour, vegan butter is, of course, dairy-free. 

These clementine snowballs were made with vegan butter. One thing to note is many vegan butters contain a fair amount of salt so be sure to check that before substituting regular butter with vegan butter. As a rule, you should be able to use it cup-for-cup where you would use regular butter. Adjust the salt accordingly if your vegan butter is salted. 

Vegan butter should be stored in the fridge in the wrapper it was sold in.

Shortening

Shortening is made from hydrogenated vegetable oils. The hydrogenation process transforms the fluid unsaturated fats in vegetable oils into saturated fats, which are solid at room temperature. Store shortening in the wrapper it was sold in, in a cool, dry place.

Basic banana bread ingredients: butter, sugar, eggs, bananas, flour, baking powder, and salt (cardamom for flavour)

Sugars

The funny thing about sugars is that, though many sugars look like a dry ingredient, they can act as a wet ingredient in that sugars lock in moisture and improve the texture and shelf-life of baked goods. 

Granulated or powdered sugars

Cane sugar is the same as granulated sugar and the two can be used interchangeably without causing any differences in baked goods.

Brown sugar is made by adding molasses to white sugar so it is made from refined sugar. A lot of people think brown sugar is less refined, but that’s not true. Brown sugar is as refined as granulated sugar. On the other hand, coconut sugar is much less refined and the flavour is very strong!

Muscovado sugar is brown sugar that is only partially refined. It’s the real deal when it comes to brown sugar and therefore baking with muscovado adds a ton of flavour. Muscovado is what many will refer to as “natural brown sugar.” I used muscovado to sweeten this plum tart with muscovado.

Super fine or special fine sugar is very fine granulated sugar so it dissolves faster than regular granulated sugar. It’s especially useful when making jams because you need to make sure the sugar is completely dissolved. Otherwise, you may run into issues where the sugar crystallizes.

Icing sugar, also known as confectioner’s sugar or powdered sugar, is the finest powder form of sugar sold commercially. Note that most icing sugars contain a starch, like corn starch or tapioca starch, to prevent clumping.

Turbinado sugar is cane sugar that is golden and more coarse than granulated sugar. It’s a lovely finishing sugar for sprinkling on pie crusts or over baked goods. It’s a crunchy sweet topping that doesn’t melt in the oven. I’ve used it to garnish a rhubarb lattice pie, to garnish pear chocolate scones, among other things.

Demerara sugar is more coarse than granulated sugar, but less so than turbinado, though it does have that same golden hue as turbinado.

Most sugars are sold in paper or plastic bags that aren’t ideal for storage because they can’t be sealed again once opened, especially once opened. Transfer them into air-tight, sealed containers to store them. Label them with the date you purchased and the expiry date.

Note that to keep brown sugar moist and to prevent it from drying out, you can try adding any one the following to the sealed container with the brown sugar (being sure to change them periodically to keep the it fresh):

  1. a marshmallow
  2. a slice of white sandwich bread (the moist, soft grocery store kind, for example)
  3. a slice of apple
  4. a hydrated terracotta brown sugar keeper



 

Liquid sugars

Maple syrup is my favourite liquid sugar, partly because I am from Quebec, a Canadian province that supplies much of the world with maple syrup, but also because the flavour is incredible. Recipes made with maple syrup have a unique flavour, but remember, this syrup is sucrose, just like regular granulated sugar, so don’t be fooled!  Use it to make maple syrup pie, maple apple pie, maple butter, maple fudge, and more! 

In Quebec, maple syrup is sold in 540 mL cans and we have to decant it into a bottle to store it in the fridge. Always store opened maple syrup bottles in the fridge.

Honey is a liquid sugar produced by honey bees. Honey bees collect nectar from flowers and their saliva breaks down that nectar into a syrup that is a mixture of fructose and glucose. Honey is also referred to as an invert sugar, for this reason, because the complex sugars of the nectar have been broken down to smaller sugar building blocks.

Because honey is an invert sugar, it can be used as an anti-crystallizing agent in candy making, though it will impart a flavour, unlike glucose syrup or corn syrup.

Honey can be stored in the pantry, in a cool dry place in a sealed container. Note that honey will crystallize with time and that’s normal. You can melt down crystallized honey to make mini honey lavender cakes.

Corn syrup is mostly maltose with some glucose (contrary to popular belief). It too is added to prevent sugars from crystallizing in candy making. The corn syrup sold at grocery stores is not to be confused with high-fructose corn syrup (used in the production of soft drinks, among other things).

Golden syrup is a British sugar syrup also called light treacle (the most well known brand is Lyle’s golden syrup). Not only is golden syrup used in cooking and baking, but like maple syrup in Quebec, golden syrup is also served at breakfast to top pancakes and waffles.

Molasses is concentrated sugarcane juice and therefore quite flavourful. It’s the key ingredient in gingerbread (like gingerbread people, and slice-and-bake gingerbread cookies). And don’t forget the British cousin of molasses called black treacle, which you use to make these lemon-glazed soft gingerbread.

Grapefruit curd ingredients (grapefruit juiced, egg yolks, sugar, and cubes of butter

Eggs

Eggs add protein, structure, moisture, fat, and emulsifiers to baking recipes. They are essential in most baking recipes, though you can make great substitutions to replace them in many recipes (flax eggs, chia eggs, mashed fruit, etc.).

All the recipes on this website were tested with large eggs, like most baking recipes in general. Large eggs weigh 50 grams each, of which 30 grams is the egg white and 20 grams is the egg yolk. It’s important to keep these numbers in mind if you have a recipe that calls for 3 large eggs, but maybe you only have small eggs. This way, you know that 3 large eggs is 150 grams of eggs, so you can easily weigh out 150 grams with small eggs.

And if you’ve run out of eggs, you can still make this eggless banana bread recipe.

In North America, eggs are washed before packaging and they have to be stored in the fridge. In other areas of the world, some eggs are unwashed and are sold with their natural protective coating that preserves them and these can be stored at room temperature.

 

Dairy products

Milk provides tons of moisture and a certain amount of fat, depending on the percentage of fat in the product used. Most bakers recommend baking with whole milk (at 3.25 % fat), but you can bake with whatever milk you normally buy for your home and it will be fine. Just know that if you bake with fat-free milk, you will be adding less fat to your recipe, which can have an impact on perceived moisture, texture…

You can also use cream in baking, whether un-whipped (to make a chocolate ganache for Earl grey chocolate truffles or for a raspberry chocolate tart), or whipped/sweetened (to make the whipped cream to fill and frost a black forest cake, for example). You can also use cream to make scones or biscuits, and you can brush these (or even pie crusts) with cream before baking to promote browning. 

Buttermilk is usually non-fat (or very close to fat-free) and the buttermilk sold in grocery stores is cultured, meaning inoculated with lactic acid bacteria. The bacteria transform lactose sugar in milk into lactic acid, transforming milk into an acidic dairy product. It’s the same principle used in yogurt-making.

Buttermilk is added to pancake batters, muffins, biscuits, as well as cake batters. The acidity reduces gluten-formation when these batters are mixed. It also acts as a tenderizer in baked goods, as does yogurt and sour cream.

Store all dairy products (milk, cream, buttermilk, yogurt, sour cream, etc.) in the fridge in a closed container.

Compost pound cake on a cooling rack, overhead photo, featuring the ingredients of the topping, pretzels, oats, coffee grinds

Other baking ingredients you should have in your pantry

Flavouring elements

There are many types of vanilla that you can work with, from vanilla beans, to vanilla extract, vanilla bean paste, vanilla powder, vanilla sugar, and even imitation vanilla (or vanilla essence).

Choose wisely because while vanilla beans are great when you are cooking a vanilla pastry cream or a vanilla bean panna cotta, they aren’t appropriate in a chewy chocolate chip cookie or in a flourless peanut butter cookies, among others, because there aren’t any steps taken to extract the flavour from the beans!

Vanilla beans and extracts, as well as any other flavour extracts, should be stored at room temperature in sealed containers.

Coffee flavour can be added to baking recipes via ground coffee (coffee grinds), like in the Milk Bar compost cookies and Christina Tosi’s compost pound cake. Another option is espresso powder, like in this chocolate espresso pound cake. Brewed coffee or espresso is another way of adding coffee to recipes, but this brings a lot of water to your recipe, which is something to consider.

Tea and matcha powder: you can infuse baked goods with tea, like in this Earl Grey cake, these Earl Grey panna cotta tarts, these matcha passion fruit tarts, or these matcha almond cakes.

Ingredients for chewy chocolate oatmeal cookies with salted peanuts, milk chocolate chunks, and a scoop of rolled oats

Add-ins

These ingredients are the “add-ins” that you might need when you are baking. After all, you can’t make honey blueberry muffins without… blueberries. And you can’t make chewy oatmeal cookies with chocolate and peanuts without… chocolate and peanuts! Duh!

These are some of the major categories of ingredients you might add to a recipe, usually folding them in at the end, just before baking.

  • Berries: some recipes will call for fresh raspberries, but you can also use frozen berries in many cases, like in this recipe for chocolate cupcakes with raspberry frosting. Frozen berries are especially useful when you want to fold them into thick muffin cake batter so that you can do this without the berries bursting (like in these honey blueberry muffins, gingerbread cranberry muffins, cranberry chestnut cake
  • Nuts:
    • Whole almonds, slivered almonds, sliced, almonds, ground almonds
    • Pistachios: pistachios have to be shelled and then the green nut is covered in a brown skin. Peeling pistachios does suck but it’s worth it because the green really pops when they’re peeled, as you can see in this pistachio baklava recipe.
    • Walnuts and pecans
  • Seeds: these can be added whole to your favourite recipe for granola clusters or you can grind them to make this a cake like this moist rhubarb cake
  • Coconut, either shredded or flaked, are the base for macaroons and make a great addition to many cookies and cakes
  • Chocolate, cocoa nibs, and chocolate chips: Remember there are different types of chocolate that you can bake with. Choose wisely and read the labels carefully so you are baking with the best chocolate! Store chocolate in a cool, dry place in an airtight container away from any heat sources and away from the sun.
  • Candied and dried fruit (crystallized ginger in gingerbread granola or crystallized ginger cookies, dried cranberries in cinnamon rugelach, candied citrus peel in white fruitcake, etc.
  • Oats: most baking recipes are developed with large flake oats, also known as rolled oats or old-fashioned oats. 
  • Sprinkles (rainbow sprinkles and chocolate sprinkles are always great for a little cheer)

different types of chocolate, dark, milk, and white chocolate, as well as chocolate chips, cocoa nibs, and cocoa powder.

Acids in baking

Baking has a lot to do with acid-base chemistry, believe it or not. When you add baking soda to a recipe, your ingredients list probably has an acid in it, whether you realize it or not. That acid is essential for the baking soda to do its job and to help your cakes rise.

Acidic ingredients can also act as tenderizers by reducing gluten development when you are mixing a recipe (like cake batter). Acidic ingredients also reduce browning reactions as your recipes bake in the oven.

Knowing what ingredients are acidic in a baking recipe is really important to better understanding how the recipe works and this will guide you if you ever need to make an ingredient substitution. Here’s a list of the most common acidic baking ingredients used in recipes:

  • citrus juice, usually lemon juice
  • vinegar, like white vinegar or cider vinegar
  • buttermilk (whether cultured buttermilk you buy at the store or homemade buttermilk made by combining 15 mL (1 tablespoon) of vinegar or lemon juice with 250 mL (1 cup) of milk
  • sour cream
  • yogurt and Greek yogurt
  • cream of tartar—this acid can be used to make homemade baking powder, and it’s also an acid used when you whip egg whites in a meringue, like if you are making Italian meringue buttercream.
  • honey is more acidic than most sugars, but even regular granulated sugar is slightly acidic. Molasses is in between the two and that’s why brown sugar is more acidic than regular granulated sugar.
  • natural cocoa powder is slightly acidic, especially when compared to Dutch-processed cocoa, which is treated with a base to enhance the flavour and darken the colour, thereby rendering it alkaline. It’s important to know the difference between the types of chocolate and cocoa powders you are working with.

 

ingredients, new, pantry staples

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