Do you want to start baking, but don’t know where to begin? This is a list of what I consider to be the ingredients that are the backbone of baking. Chances are that most ingredients on this list will be called for in the recipes that you come across.
For baking equipment, refer to Baking Essentials I: Hardware
The Bare Necessities / Budget Baking: (A-Z)
All-Purpose Flour– King Arthur is nice, but generic brands have also worked fine for my family and me. I only buy unbleached flour because I do not like the things added in the bleaching process. Bleached flour is supposedly better for tender/loftier or fluffier goods like muffins or cakes, but unbleached flour and proper mixing technique have always still yielded excellent lighter goods, in my experience.
Baking Powder– Sodium Bicarbonate with weak acids. Look at the ingredients list and try to find one without aluminum, to avoid the tinny taste. Rumsford and Trader Joe’s brand definitely fall in the non-aluminum-containing category.
Baking Soda- Sodium Bicarbonate – NaHCO3 for the nerds. This is a basic (! had to do it) ingredient that promotes browning and lift (CO2 production) in foods.
Butter- unsalted butter lets you control the salt content in your baked goods. If possible, get butter without “natural flavoring” on the ingredients list, but those are pretty rare, sadly =/
Salt- I just use Kosher salt- I like Diamond brand because it doesn’t have non-caking agents, and is less salty per crystal than Morton’s kosher salt.
Sugar- Brown and White- you better keep your brown sugar in an airtight container, otherwise you will regret it and have a hard time (heh) trying to measure it out.
Vanilla Extract- I make my own vanilla with vanilla beans and vodka. Much much less expensive than buying it from the store!
Extras: There are so many potentials here, so this is just a small list that includes my personal favorites!
Almond Extract– nice for adding a little something to cakes and some cookies. I really like the one I got at TJ Maxx (!!?) by Sonoma Syrup Co because of the sweet and pure almondy smell!
Chocolate Bars and/or Chips– Some chocolate chips are made with less cocoa butter and aren’t as good for melting, hence the requirement for both. See this article. For chips, I like Ghirardelli’s 60%, but most recently I’ve been cutting up bars to give irregular shapes of chocolate. For non chips, I like Trader Joe’s Pound Plus 72% Chocolate and Aldi’s Moser Roth 70% Chocolate.
Cocoa powder– I have both natural cocoa and Dutch-processed cocoa powder on hand. I love the Cacao Barry cocoa powder, which IS Dutch-processed. It’s a good price for a great item!
Quick lesson on natural vs Dutched; let’s quote David Lebovitz: “If a recipe calls for either, the main different is that Dutch-process cocoa will give a darker color and a more complex flavor whereas natural cocoa powder tends to be fruitier tasting and lighter in color”.
Natural cocoa powder- “typical” cocoa powder that is always sold in grocery stores. Dutch-processed, not so much…gotta look online or in specialty shops for that. Light brown in color.
Dutch-processed cocoa is what you see used in most hot cocoa mixes and chocolate ice cream labels: “Cocoa powder (processed with alkali)” – Alkali, meaning something basic (in this case, a potassium carbonate solution). Hence, Dutch-processed cocoa has a higher pH than natural cocoa powder, meaning that it would require less baking soda than a recipe with natural cocoa powder. Dark brown in color, almost black sometimes!
Cinnamon– For snickerdoodles, pumpkin bread, and carrot cake. If you can get one spice, get this one, as it is probably the most called-for baking spice, after vanilla (if that counts as a spice).
Cream/Half and Half/Milk – for most cakes, and anything custard based- pastry cream, puddings, ice cream. Cream is essential for caramel making!
Cream Cheese- Cheesecakes, danishes, etc etc..
Fruit/Jam- used in muffins, tarts, pies, cakes, cookies, etc..
Molasses- use with white sugar to make emergency brown sugar, or add to recipes like gingerbread.
Nuts- walnuts, almonds, and pecans are the most common baking nut, but hazelnuts, pistachios, and peanuts also make the cut! I try to have at least walnuts on hand for baking at all times.
Other Grains– whole wheat flour, cornmeal, non-wheat flours such as Kamut, buckwheat, rye, teff, barley, etc etc..
Other Spices- nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and ginger are often seen in the fall and winter months, when pumpkin, pear and apple desserts reign supreme! Try to get these spices as you need them, and buy them whole and grate fresh if possible, like for nutmeg.
Powdered sugar– essential to lemon bars, glazes, and perfect for sifting over cakes to make them look fancy.