No matter what your level of baking experience is, the right ingredients can make a big difference in your bread, cookies, cakes, pies, and pastries. For the best results, it’s important to know which ingredients you really need, choose them wisely, and store them correctly.
Flour, the backbone of the pantry, provides baked goods with their structure, crumb, and chewiness. Regardless of type, all flours should be stored in airtight containers once they’re opened, since exposure to air can cause flour's quality to deteriorate. Whole-grain flours (whole-wheat flour and cornmeal) are better off in the freezer because the fat contained in them, however miniscule, will rapidly go rancid at room temperature.
All-purpose flour is just that—all-purpose, meaning that it can be used for a wide variety of different baking applications. All-purpose flours can contain anywhere from 7 to 13 percent protein. The more protein a flour has, the more gluten—the specific material that gives baked goods structure—it can form. If you want to buy only one type of flour, you’ll be best off buying one with a moderate amount of protein, because it will be the most versatile for all baked goods. But if you bake a lot of bread with recipes that call for all-purpose flour, choose a higher-protein all-purpose flour, as it will allow you to produce loaves with more chewiness and a more open crumb.
RULES OF THUMB:
- For the most accurate and consistent results, measure by weight, using a digital scale. While the weight of a cup of flour varies from brand to brand, in the test kitchen we go by the metric that 1 cup is equivalent to 5 ounces.
- If you don’t have a scale, measure by volume, using the dip-and-sweep method. Dip a dry measuring cup into the flour and scoop up enough for it to overflow, and then use a butter knife to level the top.
Pantry (one year)
Best Overall All-Purpose Flour (moderate protein)
- Gold Medal Unbleached All-Purpose Flour ($3.39 for 5 pounds)
- Pillsbury Best Unbleached All-Purpose Flour ($2.99 for 5 pounds)
Best All-Purpose Flour for Bread (higher protein)
Cake flour generally has less protein than all-purpose flour (from 6 to 8 percent) and produces baked goods with a fine texture and tender crumb. Cake flour is usually bleached during processing; as a result, it can absorb more moisture, sugar, and fat, which overpower any off-flavors that might have been introduced by bleaching.
For every cup of cake flour, mix ⅞ cup of all-purpose flour with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch.
- In most applications, unbleached cake flour can be substituted for bleached cake flour with no change in texture—and some improvement in flavor.
- Note: Neither our substitute nor unbleached cake flour can be used for cakes with high ratios of sugar to flour, such as our Next-Level Yellow Sheet Cake. Bleached flour is essential to these high-ratio cakes, as the bleaching process not only whitens flour but also alters its starch in such a way that the cake doesn’t shrink or fall once it is baked.
Pantry (one year)
Whole-wheat flour is ground from the whole wheat berry. The bran and germ add nutty flavor and can contribute to a denser, chewier crumb in baked goods.
For most baked goods, you can reliably substitute up to 25 percent of the all-purpose flour in a recipe with whole-wheat flour.
King Arthur Baking Company Premium 100% Whole Wheat Flour ($5.95 for 5 pounds)
Bread flour generally has higher protein levels than most all-purpose flours; because it can thus generate more gluten, we use it for making bread that requires an especially chewy texture and a more open crumb.
Use gluten-free flours only with recipes specifically developed with them.
Refrigerator (three months)
King Arthur Baking Company Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour ($7.95 for 24 ounces)
The primary role of any sweetener is to add sweetness to a baked good. But it can also contribute to the baked good’s moisture, chewiness, and structure. We use honey, maple syrup, and other sweeteners when baking, but we reach for these four the most.
Granulated sugar is the most common and versatile sweetener. It’s made by processing either sugar beets or cane; the end result tastes the same regardless of the source.
Natural cane sugar (aka evaporated cane juice) can be substituted for granulated sugar in most baked applications, but avoid using it in caramel, where its darker color and natural impurities can make it hard to judge doneness.
Confectioners’ (Powdered) Sugar
Confectioners’ sugar is granulated sugar that’s been ground extra-fine, so it dissolves easily; cornstarch is added to prevent clumping. This sugar’s fine texture makes it perfect for frostings and for dusting desserts.
For 1 cup of powdered sugar, process 1 cup of granulated sugar with 1 teaspoon of cornstarch in a blender for 3 minutes. Use a fine-mesh strainer to remove any larger grains.
Brown sugar is granulated sugar with molasses added for flavor and extra moisture.
RULES OF THUMB:
- Light and dark brown sugars are interchangeable except when specified in a recipe.
- To revive hardened brown sugar, heat it in a 250-degree oven for 5 minutes. Or place the hardened brown sugar in a bowl with a slice of sandwich bread. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and microwave for 10 to 20 seconds.
For 1 cup of light brown sugar, pulse 1 tablespoon of molasses with 1 cup of granulated sugar in the food processor. For 1 cup of dark brown sugar, pulse 2 tablespoons of molasses with 1 cup of granulated sugar.
Corn syrup is a syrup made by breaking down cornstarch and water into glucose, a simple sugar. It’s used in candy making to discourage crystallization; it also helps baked goods retain moisture and brown better. Don’t confuse it with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is often used in processed foods. HFCS is made by converting the glucose molecules in regular corn syrup into fructose, resulting in a much sweeter syrup; it’s not sold directly to home cooks.
Dark and light corn syrups can be used interchangeably. Brown rice syrup can be substituted in equal volume. Avoid both dark syrup and brown rice syrup in applications where a darker color is undesirable.
Fats add richness to baked goods; they can also add flavor and vary the baked goods’ structure.
Butter is the fat of choice for most baking; it has great flavor and can be used at different temperatures to produce very different textures in the final product. We use unsalted butter for most of our baking needs; this allows us to control the seasoning of the final product, as sodium levels vary between different salted butter products. On rare occasions, we’ll use European-style butter for applications such as croissants, where a higher fat content is integral for success.
RULE OF THUMB:
To soften butter, cut into 1-tablespoon pieces and let stand on a plate for 20 minutes; with more surface area exposed to the air, it’ll warm faster.
We use vegetable oil when we want an even, moist texture in our baked goods. This liquid fat can be made from corn, canola, soybeans, sunflower, or a blend of these. For baking, use whichever type you prefer—we’ve found that cakes taste the same regardless of type.
Pantry (three months); buy only as much as you’ll finish in three months and store the oil away from direct light, which can make it go rancid faster.
Lard or Vegetable Shortening
Both lard (pork fat) and vegetable shortening are fats that are solid at room temperature. They’re great for keeping pie crusts tender; unlike butter, lard and shortening don’t contain water, so less gluten forms as you work the dough, potentially minimizing toughness. Both also have higher melting points than butter; as a result, doughs that include them are less likely to get overly soft as you roll them out and shape them. Like shortening, the best lards for baking are neutral in flavor—they don’t taste like pork.
Vegetable Shortening: Pantry (eight months unopened, three months opened)
For baking, we use several types of chocolate bars. Most of the time, we use a 60-percent cacao dark chocolate bar; we’ve found that it has a good balance of sweetness, earthiness, and richness, which makes it perfect for brownies and pots de crème alike. In some brownies or fudge sauces, we use unsweetened chocolate bars to add rich chocolate flavor without extra sugar. And we use milk chocolate bars whenever we want a milder, milkier flavor.
RULE OF THUMB:
To melt, microwave for 30-second intervals, stirring between intervals.
Pantry (six months for milk chocolate, two years for dark and unsweetened chocolates)
- Best Dark Chocolate Bar: Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Premium Baking Bar ($2.99 for 4 ounces)
- Best Unsweetened Chocolate Bar: Baker’s Unsweetened Chocolate Baking Chocolate Bar 100% Cacao ($2.99 for 4 ounces)
- Best Milk Chocolate Bar: Endangered Species Chocolate Smooth + Creamy Milk Chocolate ($3.49 for 3 ounces)
Chocolate chips hold their shape when baked, so they’re great for cookies, muffins, and bars—wherever we want distinct morsels of chocolate speckled throughout.
An equal weight of chips can be substituted for bar chocolate in baked goods, but not for smoother desserts such as mousse or pudding, where their lower fat content can produce overly grainy results.
Cocoa powder provides big chocolate flavor in many desserts. Natural cocoa powder is lighter in color, with a reddish tint and bright, fruity flavor. Dutch-processed cocoa is natural cocoa powder that has been treated with an alkali in order to neutralize its acidity; it’s darker in color and has an earthier flavor.
RULE OF THUMB:
For the moistest baked goods, look for Dutch-processed cocoa with a higher fat content (at least 1 gram of fat per 5-gram serving).
Pantry (up to three years)
Droste Cacao ($9.99 for 8.8 ounces)
A leavener adds gas to a dough or batter, creating lift and a more open crumb. Without leaveners, baked goods would be dense and squat.
Yeast is a microorganism that gives rise to baked goods by releasing carbon dioxide as it consumes sugars in the batter or dough. We use two types in the test kitchen. Generally, we prefer instant yeast, which comes in a fine powder that hydrates quickly upon contact with the liquid in dough or batter; active dry yeast is coarser. Contrary to what you might have heard, both types of yeast can be added directly to dry ingredients—there's no need to dissolve active dry yeast in liquid before use.
RULE OF THUMB:
¼-ounce packet of instant or active dry yeast = 2¼ teaspoons
To substitute active dry yeast for instant yeast, use an extra 25 percent more by volume (1.25 times the instant yeast).
Freezer (up to two years)
Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, is an alkali that releases carbon dioxide upon contact with an acidic ingredient such as citrus juice or sour cream. It also improves browning.
Pantry (six months)
This chemical leavener blends baking soda (an alkali) with a powdered acid and some cornstarch, which keep the first two ingredients dry so that they don’t react. The alkali and acid react to create carbon dioxide when the baking powder becomes wet (say, in a batter) and again when heated, hence the “double acting” you’ll see on the label.
RULE OF THUMB:
Buy only what you’re likely to use within six months, as that’s when baking powder’s leavening power starts to fade. Date the container when you open it so that you know when to toss it.
For every 1 teaspoon of baking powder, substitute a mixture of ¼ teaspoon of baking soda and ½ teaspoon of cream of tartar. Use immediately.
Pantry (six months)
Argo Double Acting Baking Powder ($1.73 for 12 ounces)
Vanilla is an essential flavor for many baked goods. There are two types. Pure vanilla extract is made from vanilla beans, and it can be expensive as a result. Imitation vanilla is less expensive and gets its flavor from synthetic vanillin, which is commonly derived from petroleum. In a recent tasting, we liked both types; ultimately, the choice of which to buy depends on your personal preferences and budget.
Bourbon, heated until reduced by half, can replace vanilla.