Baking Ingredient Guide
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Baking relies on the chemistry of carefully considered and properly measured ingredients to create culinary magic: light-as-air biscuits, chewy cookies, flaky crusts and moist cakes. Besides good measuring spoons, the key to baking success is fresh, good-quality ingredients. With this guide, you'll be ready to stock your pantry and bake like a pro.
All-Purpose Flour: This basic flour is a pantry staple and can be used in most baked goods, from chewy breads to light biscuits and scones. It is sold bleached or unbleached. It's best to store flour in a tightly sealed canister. It should be good for about eight months in the cupboard and about one year refrigerated.
Cake Flour: This flour has the lowest protein (gluten) level of all the types of flour, making it great for tender cakes, biscuits or scones. Keep it in the pantry for up to eight months.
Pastry Flour: Pastry flour has a gluten level between that of cake flour and that of all-purpose flour; it's great in pie dough because it leads to a tender crust that isn't extremely fragile.
Bread Flour: This flour is super-high in gluten, so it’s ideal for yeasted breads where you want a good amount of structure and chew. It can be found in white or whole wheat, and bleached or unbleached. Store in the pantry for up to eight months.
Self-Rising Flour: This is all-purpose flour to which baking powder and salt have been added. Don't substitute it for other flours because the added ingredients might affect your recipe outcome — use it only if the recipe calls for it. It's best to keep this in the original box, tightly wrapped; keep in mind the shelf life is only about six months.
Whole-Wheat Flour: This flour still contains the outer kernel of the wheat — also known as wheat germ. If you want to add whole-wheat flour to a recipe, substitute up to half of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat; any more than that and your baked good might be too tough. Store whole-wheat flour in the freezer — it contains fat from the wheat germ and can become rancid at room temperature. Whole-wheat flour is good for about six months in the freezer and only a couple of months at room temperature.
Gluten-Free Flours: There is a wide variety of gluten-free flours available today, made from all sorts of grains, nuts and starches. When it comes to baking, most people blend a few different non-wheat flours to mimic all-purpose wheat flour. A small proportion of xanthan gum is sometimes added to help simulate the chewiness normally associated with gluten. Consult the specific recipe or packaging for information on how to substitute it for wheat flour in your favorite baking recipes.
Granulated Sugar: Whenever a recipe just calls for "sugar," it means this. This is plain white sugar, refined from sugar cane or beets. When stored properly in a tightly covered canister, it will last for years.
Superfine Sugar: Since it is more finely granulated than table sugar, it dissolves almost instantly and is useful for meringues and cool liquids.
Confectioners' Sugar: Also called 10X or powdered sugar, this is granulated sugar that has been ground into a powder with cornstarch. Confectioners' sugar is commonly used in cake and cookie icings and is often dusted on desserts. It's best to store it in the original box.
Brown Sugar, Light or Dark: This soft-textured, hearty-tasting sugar is white sugar flavored with molasses. Light and dark are generally interchangeable, and which one you choose depends on your fondness for the rich flavor of molasses. Keep it very well wrapped in the original packaging or in an airtight container. If the sugar hardens, leave a slice of apple or a piece of bread in the container for a few hours or overnight.
Decorating or Coarse Sugar: The granules are about four times larger than granulated sugar and come in myriad colors. This is best used for decorating to add some sparkle and provide a crunchy texture. Another type of sugar you might come across is sanding sugar, about halfway between granulated sugar and decorating sugar in size.
Turbinado or Demerara Sugar: Whereas brown sugar is fully refined white sugar with molasses added back to it, turbinado is a less-refined sugar from which only the surface molasses has been removed. It is light in color and usually has a larger crystal. Demerara is the English name for turbinado sugar and denotes where the sugar originally came from, the Demerara district of Guyana.
Molasses: This dark, viscous syrup is the liquid that is left behind from refining sugar. Light molasses is from the first boiling of the sugar syrup; dark is from the second; and blackstrap, the strongest, is from the third. If you have a choice of sulphured or unsulphured molasses, unsulphured generally tends to have a cleaner flavor. Molasses can be stored in the pantry, but make sure you wipe the bottle well after using to prevent stickiness and pests.
Honey: For baking purposes, select a light-colored honey for a more delicate flavor. Store tightly sealed in a cool, dry place for up to one year. If the honey crystallizes, microwave it for about 30 seconds or melt it in the jar in a pan of hot water over low heat.
Maple Syrup: Make sure you buy pure maple syrup, not pancake or table syrup. The grading of maple syrup is a measure of its color — the darker the syrup, the stronger and more robust the flavor. Darker syrups (grade A dark amber or grade B in the United States) are recommended for baking and cooking. Store opened maple syrup in the refrigerator.
Agave Nectar: Agave nectar is made from the sap of the same plant that produces tequila. It tastes similar to honey and can be interchanged with it in your baking recipes. It can be stored at room temperature.
Baking Soda: Also known as sodium bicarbonate or bicarbonate of soda, baking soda is used as a chemical leavener to make dough and batter rise. When dissolved in liquid and combined with an acid such as buttermilk, molasses, sour cream or yogurt, a chemical reaction occurs that produces carbon dioxide to leaven baked goods. Because this reaction happens immediately, it is important to bake your recipes shortly after the batter has been mixed. Baking soda also helps with the browning of your food, which is why some recipes might call for it even when there isn't an acid present for leavening to occur. Baking soda can last quite a while when stored in a cool, dry place. You can test to see if your baking soda is still active by mixing some with vinegar. If it bubbles up, you're good to go.
Baking Powder: This leavener is composed of baking soda, an acid (usually cream of tartar) and a moisture absorber, like cornstarch. The majority of baking powders available are "double-acting," meaning that they react first when dissolved in liquid and then again when exposed to heat. Check the date on the bottom of the container before purchasing to make sure it hasn't expired; once you open it, it will be effective for about six months. You can check to see if your baking powder is still active by stirring 1 teaspoon into 1/3 cup of warm water. If it still fizzes, it's OK.
Active Dry Yeast: This is yeast that has been dehydrated into tiny granules. Before using it must be reactivated or "bloomed" by being mixed with warm water (about 110 degrees F) and sometimes a small amount of sugar for the yeast to feed on. You've most likely come across it in the grocery store packaged in small envelopes, but it is also available jarred. This form of yeast has the longest shelf life and can last for years stored in the refrigerator.
Instant Yeast: Also called "quick rise," "rapid rise" or "fast rise" yeast, it is produced similar to active dry yeast, but with more porous granules that don't require the reactivation step. This leavener works in about half the time of active dry yeast. It can be used interchangeably with active dry yeast when baking in an oven. Be sure to check the expiration date before purchasing and using in any recipes.
Fresh Yeast: Fresh yeast is moist and very perishable. It must be used by the expiration date listed on the package, which is usually within two weeks of purchase. Fresh yeast can be stored longer by keeping it in the freezer, but before using it should be defrosted at room temperature and then used immediately. Fresh yeast is sometimes sold in individually wrapped 0.6-ounce portions, which are equivalent to a 1/4-ounce packet of active dry or instant yeast.
Unsweetened Chocolate: This is also called baking chocolate and, as the name implies, doesn't have any added sugar. Store this chocolate securely wrapped, away from sunlight and dampness, for up to three years.
Dark Chocolate: Dark chocolate can be labeled bittersweet or semisweet. Bittersweet chocolate is less sweet than semisweet, but can often be used interchangeably when baking. Store this chocolate securely wrapped, away from sunlight and dampness, for up to three years. Any surface discoloration you might come across in any of your chocolate is a result of improper storage, but don't fret — the chocolate is still safe to eat.
Milk Chocolate: This is dark chocolate with at least 12 percent milk solids added. The milk solids make it creamier and mellower than semisweet and bittersweet chocolate, but also give it a shorter shelf life — it keeps for four to six months.
White Chocolate: This is technically not chocolate, since there is no chocolate liquor, but it does contain cocoa butter along with sugar, vanilla and lecithin. Store white chocolate securely wrapped, away from sunlight and dampness, for four to six months.
Chocolate Chips: These contain less cocoa butter than chocolate bars, which is why they can retain their shape when baked. It's best to use these where you want the chocolate-chip shape. Store tightly wrapped.
Unsweetened Cocoa Powder: Cocoa powder is made when cocoa butter is removed from the chocolate liquor (cacao beans that have been fermented, dried, roasted, shelled and ground into a paste). Unsweetened cocoa powder is either "natural" or "Dutch-process" — natural cocoa powder has a deep chocolate flavor, and Dutch-process cocoa powder has been treated with an alkali, which neutralizes its acidity and makes it mellower. Recipes are often written for one type or the other, as they react differently with chemical leaveners. Dutch-process is always labeled as such on the box; if there is no mention of the type, it is natural. Store it in a tightly sealed container for up to two years.
Ground Chocolate: This is a blend of cocoa, chocolate, sugar and vanilla, and is occasionally used in recipes. It can easily be mistaken for cocoa powder in the store or your cupboard, but it gives very different results.
THE OTHER ESSENTIALS
Butter: Recipes are written for unsalted butter, unless otherwise stated. If you have only salted in the house, omit any salt that might be in the recipe.
Cream: Heavy cream (also called heavy whipping cream) has the highest fat content of creams available in your grocery store, with at least 36 percent. You need at least 30 percent fat in order for cream to whip properly, and ultra-pasteurized cream will not whip well unless it contains additives.
Eggs: Recipes are written for large eggs, unless otherwise noted.
Vanilla Extract: For the best flavor, use pure vanilla extract, but artificial can be used in a pinch.
Salt: Most baking recipes are written for a fine-grain salt, unless otherwise specified. Also, larger granules are sometimes desired for added texture and crunch. Store it tightly sealed, away from dampness, and it will last forever.