Words by Anneka Manning
Have the following ingredients on hand, and you will be well equipped whenever you wish to bake.
1. Butter. When it comes to baking, butter is a key ingredient. It adds richness and flavour, and is used to add tenderness (such as the “tender” crumb of a butter cake) and shortness (such as in a shortcrust pastry), as well as colour. You can buy butter that is salted, reduced-salt or low-salt, unsalted or cultured (salted and unsalted), and which you choose is up to you. Personally, I generally like to use unsalted butter, which is slightly “sweeter” than salted butter and gives me greater control over the amount of added salt in a recipe.
2. Eggs. Eggs that are a few days to a couple of weeks old are best for baking. It’s especially important for eggs to be a little less than fresh when whisking the whites, because week-old or so eggs have the ability to hold a greater volume of air than very fresh eggs. I always use 59-60g eggs in my recipes. For all other recipes always opt for this average size if the egg size isn’t stated.
3. Milk.Often used in baked recipes to help bind and moisten the dry ingredients, milk also adds flavour and a little richness (as opposed to using water). Unless a recipe specifies, always use full-cream milk.
4. Sugar. Nowadays, there is a vast range of sugars available to sweeten your baking. Here are the most commonly available and versatile but, by no means, not the only ones suitable for baking:
- Caster sugar is generally the most versatile of sugars as its small granules dissolve more readily than regular granulated sugar when combined with other ingredients, which gives cakes and biscuits a more even texture.
- Brown sugar, which is basically fine white sugar with added molasses, is also a good one to have on hand. It will add a slight caramel flavour to your baking as well as a little moisture. You can also buy dark brown sugar, which has a higher molasses content and a richer flavour. If you want to give a subtle caramel flavor to your baking, just substitute brown sugar in place of white sugar in weight (not by cup measure).
- Icing sugar is available as both pure icing sugar and icing sugar mixture, the only difference being that icing sugar mixture has a little cornflour added to prevent it from forming lumps if it gets moist. Pure icing sugar is the best choice if you are making icing such as royal icing, which you will want to set hard.
- Honey and golden syrup are liquid forms of sugar and impart their own unique flavour. If wanting to replace granulated sugars with these liquid sugars, use the equivalent in weight but also reduce the amount of liquid ingredients (such as milk) by 1 tablespoon per every ½ cup of sugar in the original recipe.
5. Flour. The main purpose of using flour in baking is for structure. This is particularly so when using a flour with a high protein content, such as wheat flour, because of its ability to develop gluten strands that form the framework for so many baked products, especially in breads.
Many different flours are used in baking, including white (wheat), wholemeal, semolina, rye and spelt. For a start it is good to have both plain (known as all-purpose in the US) and self-raising white flour in your pantry. If you only have plain flour, you can make it into self-raising flour by adding 2 teaspoons baking powder to every cup (150g) plain flour, and then sifting this mixture a few times until it is evenly combined.
Cornflour is simply another type of flour and, like arrowroot and rice flour, it is used in recipes, often alongside wheat flour, to add lightness, such as in a sponge cake.
6. Cocoa powder. Cocoa powder is a bitter, fine-textured powder that is made by grinding cocoa solids, which are what is left when most of the fat component (cocoa butter) is removed from cocoa liquor (a product of cocoa beans). It adds an intense, rich flavour to baked products and is a must in your pantry if you love anything chocolatey. Always sift cocoa powder before using to remove any lumps.
7. Vanilla essence or extract. Quality and intensity of flavour does vary between brands, so find the one you like and stick with it. The word “natural” is the key here when buying. Be wary of “imitation” essences or extracts, which are simply a chemical combination that also contains artificial vanillin – that is, not real vanilla. Take a quick look at the ingredient list on the label and it will soon tell you if it is the real thing – vanilla beans, alcohol, sugar and water are all normal ingredients in a natural vanilla extract or essence. The imitation ones don’t have the quality or intensity of flavour that the natural ones do.
8. Bicarbonate of soda and baking powder. Both baking powder and bicarbonate of soda are known as chemical leavening or raising agents (yeast is also a raising agent but it is a natural one) and are the most common type used in baking to make mixtures rise as they bake.
Bicarbonate of soda (also known as baking soda or sodium bicarbonate) is activated when it comes into contact with an acidic ingredient, such as buttermilk, sour cream, yoghurt, golden syrup or molasses. The reaction is immediate and obvious – air bubbles will start to form and the mixture will become foamy (something that always amazed me as a child). It is important to get these mixtures into the oven quickly to make the most of this leavening ability.
Baking powder is usually a mixture of bicarbonate of soda, a little of a moisture absorber such as rice flour or cornflour (to prevent it being activated while being stored), and a combination of acids that are activated at different stages – one such as cream of tartar at room temperature when liquid is added and another such as sodium phosphate when the mixture is exposed to heat in the oven. This composition is often referred to as “double-acting” as it triggers the leavening process at two stages.
Always use a dry spoon when measuring either bicarbonate of soda or baking powder to avoid activating them prematurely.
9. Yeast. Unlike baking powder and bicarbonate of soda, yeast is a natural raising agent. While baking powder and bicarbonate of soda rely on a chemical reaction to create the carbon dioxide that makes baked goods rise, yeast, because it is a living organism, produces carbon dioxide by ‘feeding’ on the other ingredients in the mixture.
Dry yeast, which comes as dehydrated granules in sachets, can be bought from the supermarket in the baking section. Fresh yeast, which comes in compressed blocks and is available in some health food stores and delicatessens, needs to be “activated” by dissolving it in lukewarm water and allowing it to stand until it becomes frothy– it is then mixed with the dry ingredients. Dry yeast is the no-fuss option (the one I always recommend for beginner bakers) that can be added directly to the other ingredients without being activated first.
10. Chocolate. I may be including this one purely for personal reasons but in my eyes it is an essential! Choose good-quality chocolate (try to avoid the compound stuff if possible) and use it grated, chopped and/or melted to embellish your baking (and make you oh so popular!)
If you already have these basics in your kitchen, here is a great Classic Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe you will be able to whip up right NOW!
Until next week… happy baking!
For more posts by Anneka Manning, click here.
Anneka Manning is a food author and the founder of exciting new Sydney-based cooking school, BakeClub. Visit her website at www.bakeclub.com.au to join the club, book into a BakeClass, download delicious no-fail recipes and be inspired by baking videos. You can also find BakeClub on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. To find out more or ask about private BakeClub classes, call (02) 9399 7645 or email email@example.com.