Some reader recently asked me if I could do a post on kitchen basics–my favorite go to ingredients, tools and the tips and tricks I live by. I was intrigued and excited. If you spend enough time in the kitchen baking, you quickly begin to pick up the dos and don’ts. You learn which tools help and which just waste space. You even begin to find your favorite ingredients. I am far from a professional pastry chef but a big part of my chase has been learning the science behind baking. I purchased a few pastry and baking text books when I knew I wanted to be a foodie for life. I began working through these books, teaching myself as I went from one recipe to the next. One of the most important part of every recipe is understanding what a particular ingredients does for the structure of a dish and how it affects the flavor.
Because there is so much information, I am breaking this little “Baking 101″ series into three posts. One on ingredients (this one), one on tools and another one on tips, tricks and techniques. It may seem a bit backwards to start with ingredients, but they are truly the foundation for good baking. These are ingredients that are necessary for baking with a little bit of information on each, like what to look for and what impact it has on baking. With these basics you can bake just about anything.
Flour – Just about every baked good out there has flour. Flour gives a product structure; the gluten content in particular in flour determines if something is chewy and rubbery (high gluten content) or soft and cakey (low gluten content). That is why we have options like bread flour (high gluten content) and cake flour (low gluten content and high in starch). Flour also affects the taste and look. That is why we have options like whole wheat, semolina, graham flour, etc. In pies and custards, flour can be used as a thickener.
What should you keep in your pantry? I suggest having at least cake, bread and whole wheat flour in your pantry. These three flours will let you have complete control over the structure and flavor of your baked goods. What about all-purpose? The magic of that is you can basically make it by mixing bread and cake flour together. Ok. I guess it doesn’t hurt to have some all purpose flour on hand too.
Brands I buy: I buy Red Mills for specialty flours and HEB brand for cake, bread and all purpose flour.
Try this: Take your favorite cookie recipe and try it three times. First, try it with all bread flour. Second, try it with all cake flour. Notice the bread flour one will be chewier; the cake flour cookie will be softer and a bit airier. On the third try, try it with a mixture of both with a quarter of the flour replaced with whole-wheat flour. You will now notice a more earthy, wheaty flavor. Be careful with whole wheat flour though, too much can make a baked good tough and dry. Check out the encyclopedia for more information on the different kinds of flours: all-purpose flour, bread flour, cake flour, graham flour, whole wheat flour.
Butter – Butter is a fat, and like oil, shortening, or lard, it serves various vital roles in baking from affecting texture, taste and acting as a binding agent. The most important role butter plays here is flavoring. So, that means it is time to start buying good butter. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive at the store, but it probably shouldn’t be the discount variety that comes in 5 lb bundles either.
What should you keep in your refrigerator? Good UNSALTED butter. Yes, you should only cook with unsalted butter, period. Remember baking being a sciencey thing? That means you want to be in complete control over everything, including the salt content of your dish. You can keep one stick of salted butter for buttering your bread; the rest should be unsalted.
Brands I buy: I buy Falfurrias.
Try this: Next time you are at the store, buy one of each kind of unsalted butter they have. Take a week or two to try similar recipes with each kind–even taste a little on its own. You’d be surprised but you will probably notice a different taste with each butter and one of them will probably stick out as the best tasting. Use that one. Check out the encyclopedia for more information on using cold or room temperature butter.
Eggs – If flour is the steel of baking, then eggs are the welds… or rivots? Glue. There’s a better analogy. They hold everything together and add flavor (you’re probably beginning to notice everything adds flavor). They also serve numerous other functions. Egg whites–whipped and folded into a batter–can act as the sole aerator in a recipe giving it lift (versus using a chemical leavener). Egg yolks can act as an emulsifier bringing together two typically unmixable liquids such as oil and water. The problem is eggs only work well when they’re fresh.
What should you keep in your refrigerator? Eggs, white or brown, are eggs. The biggest difference is size and unless you have a penchant for baking with ostrich or quail eggs, the size shouldn’t affect your baking too much. Keep the eggs in the carton; this will help them from absorbing fridge smells.
Try this: Make sure your eggs are always fresh. Crack eggs into a separate bowl before adding it to the mixture. Bad eggs will smell horrible. Have two yolks, or a little blood spot in the egg? Don’t worry, neither is a bad sign and both can be consumed. A cloudy egg white is also a good sign, as it means your egg is extra fresh. Check out the encyclopedia for more information on egg washes.
Chocolate/Cocoa – Like butter, this is another ingredient where I don’t suggest skimping on quality. Chocolate is all flavor and because of that it is easy to notice the difference between good and bad chocolate, especially when the word chocolate is in the recipe. The same goes for cocoa powder.
What should you keep in your pantry? A variation of good chocolate bars (milk, semi sweet, bittersweet, or 50%, 60%, 70%, 80%, 90%, 100%). I avoid chocolate chips because they can have stabilizers in them that can affect flavor.
Brands I buy: I buy Lindt, Ghirardelli, and Scharffen Berger. They’re good but not holy-shit-look-at-that-price good, unless you’re use to buying chocolate at the 99cent store.
Try this: Do the butter test with chocolate. Buy a few brands and have a taste test. The best part here is you get to eat loads of chocolate. Once you have found a brand you like, buy different strengths and experiment in your recipes. I love dark chocolate so I tend to be heavy handed with the higher percentage cocoa bars. You may like sweeter chocolate, so try less bitter and more sweet chocolate bars. Check out the encyclopedia for more information on chocolate including what to look for in a good chocolate.
Vanilla – Like butter and chocolate, vanilla is there for flavoring and only flavoring a dessert. It is also in just about every single baked good out there. If you can’t use a vanilla bean in a dish then you should be using a good, high quality vanilla extract. Do not use imitation extract. Just don’t.
What should you keep in your pantry? Whole vanilla beans and good 100% vanilla extract.
Brands I buy: I use Nelson-Massey Vanillas.
Spices – Spices, like vanilla, can add a significant portion of a baked good’s flavor. Their quality also varies widely from brand to brand so it’s worth trying a few brands to see what you like best.
What should you keep in your pantry? Cinnamon is a must. Nutmeg, ginger and cardamon are also big time foodie favorites. Buy nutmeg whole. The rest can be powdered/pre-ground but use it quick as it can go bad. If you really want to do it right, but all spices whole and grind them only when you want to use them. Having a dedicated coffee grinder for spices comes in handy here.
Brands I buy: I use Simply Organic, The Spice Hunter, and Central Market Organics brands.
Try this: Take your favorite recipes and try adding a little cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom or ginger for an extra kick. I love cardamom, nutmeg and cinnamon in spice cookies and apple pies. You may notice in my recipes that I use cinnamon in just about everything, especially with chocolate and citrus.
More Basics – Sugar (granulated, brown and powdered), salt (I use kosher), corn starch, vegetable oil, milk, buttermilk, cream, baking soda and baking powder are the other items I always keep on hand. And you should too. They have a tendency to pop up in recipes often and many do not have substitutes. Having lemons on hand is helpful too as zest can brighten up any baked dish.
The Rest – Extras like nuts, fruits, honey, flavorings and what not should always be fresh. Avoid extracts when you can use the real deal. When buying nuts I always buy whole nuts so I can control the size of the chunks. If a recipe calls for a particular nut flour throw some of those nuts in a food processor and pulse until they are a fine powder. Be careful not to mix it too long otherwise you’ll get nut butter–which is a delicious mistake.
Because a foodblog is no fun without delicious recipes, I’ve decided to include a recipe for chocolate chocolate chip cookies. It uses each of the five main ingredients I broke down, plus a few of the “more basics” and “the rest”. Cookies can be mixed by hand, don’t require any specialized tools (except maybe a bowl, spoon, baking sheet and oven) and require one of the most basic mixing methods—the creaming method. This recipe will yield 32 medium cookies. Did I mention these cookies are delicious? They are sweet, rich and chocolatey. Bite into one and you’re met with a soft crunch from a walnut and rivers of warm melted dark chocolate in a chewy, soft chocolate cookie dough. Delicious.
Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cookies
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
4 ounces (1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons) granulated sugar
2 ounces (1/3 cup packed) brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
5 (1 1/4 cups) ounces bread flour
1 1/2 (1/2 cup) ounce unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
4 ounces 60% chocolate, chopped
4 ounces 70% chocolate, chopped (CD Note: corrected, thanks to Evan Thomas)
4 ounces walnuts, chopped
1. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Preheat an oven to 350°F.
2. Cream the butter and sugar together in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla, mixing until well combined.
3. Add the flour, cocoa powder, cinnamon, salt and baking soda. Mix until just combined.
4. Add the chopped chocolate and walnuts and mix in until evenly dispersed.
5. Spoon the dough onto the baking sheets and bake in a preheated oven for 10 to 12 minutes until they look set up. The cookies may begin to crack.