9 Essential Ingredients Every Baker Needs
Build your baking pantry with the nine essential ingredients you'll use for everyday baking recipes. Get ideas for adding next-level baking ingredients, too.
Truth: The vast list of baking ingredients you can keep in your cupboard, fridge, and freezer is limited only by the space available. But if you're new to baking or you're setting up your first kitchen, you'll be glad to know you can narrow the list to just nine essentials you need to keep on hand for everyday baking such as cookies, muffins, cakes, pies, and pancakes. Everything after that is icing on the cake, so to speak.
You'll see that the following list is broken out by category, such as flour, leavening, sugar, salt, etc. These are the essential building blocks of your baking pantry. Each category is then divided into basic needs and next-level ingredients. Of course, one baker's next-level ingredient could be another's basic need. As you gain more baking experience, you'll start to refine what's essential for you.
All-purpose flour is aptly named because it's your baking jack-of-all-trades that can turn out everything from cookies to pancakes to muffins. Made from a blend of hi-gluten hard wheat and low-gluten soft wheat, its light and fluffy texture comes from being milled to remove all of the wheat germ and bran.
Add specialty flours to your basic pantry depending on what kind of baking you like to do. It's often smarter to buy small quantities from bulk bins to avoid having to store unused products that can spoil. For best results, use the kind of flour specified in your recipe until you get a feel for how it behaves.
- Whole wheat flour retains the wheat germ, and is often used to replace a portion of all-purpose flour in a recipe to boost the nutritional profile.
- Whole grain flour also retains the entire kernel of grains such as wheat, oats, rye, millet, quinoa, barley, or a combination of grains.
- Bread flour contains more protein, and therefore more gluten, and is ideal for baking chewy yeast breads.
- Cake flour is lower in protein and gluten than all-purpose flour, and is chemically treated and finely ground to produce cakes with a lighter texture.
- Pastry flour is a medium-protein flour that's ideal for tender pie crusts.
- Self-rising flour has baking powder and salt already mixed in. Here's how to make your own self-rising flour.
- Alternative non-wheat flours are milled from other grains, nuts, and seeds.
- Cornmeal is for cornbread, crunchy waffles, pancakes, etc.
- Cornstarch is finely ground corn flour used for thickening sauces and pie fillings.
How to Store Flours
Store flour in airtight, moisture-proof containers on a cool, dark shelf or in the fridge. Whole wheat flour and whole grain flours spoil faster than all-purpose flour because they contain more of the wheat grain components. Store these flours in the fridge or freezer to extend shelf life. Alternative flours often contain more plant oils as well, so they should be stored in the fridge or freezer after opening, or follow manufacturers' recommendations for safe storage.
Leaveners cause chemical reactions that fill batters and dough with the tiny gas bubbles that make baked goods rise. Thank you, science! There are two kinds of leaveners: chemical and biological.
- Baking soda is a alkaline chemical leavener (sodium bicarbonate) that works when you combine it with acid and heat. Acidic ingredients that activate baking soda include fermented dairy products like buttermilk, sour cream, and yogurt; molasses, brown sugar, cocoa powder (not Dutch-processed), citrus juice, vinegar, or cream of tartar.
- Baking powder is baking soda ready-mixed with a powdered acid and cornstarch. When you see "double-acting" on the label, it means the baking powder forms carbon dioxide bubbles when it's mixed into the batter or dough, and again when its heated. When baking powder is the only leavener in your recipe, you don't have to add an additional acidic ingredient.
- Yeast is a biological leavener that works much more slowly than chemical leaveners because it takes time for yeast cells to naturally metabolize and create carbon dioxide. Basic bread bakers can store active dry yeast or instant yeast in their pantries for months.
- Cake or compressed yeast is alive, ALIVE! It produces a greater amount of leavening gas than dry or instant yeast, but it's also highly perishable. You can store it in your fridge for one to two weeks.
- Sourdough starters are live yeast colonies that give sourdough bread its distinctive flavor. The same sourdough starter yeast colony can be kept alive indefinitely by using some and feeding the rest so it replenishes itself.
Related: Learn about different kinds of yeast and how to use them, and get more tips and tricks for using and substituting baking powder and baking soda.
- Granulated sugar is what they mean when recipes list sugar as an ingredient. Made from the juice of sugarcane or beets, this kind of sugar has been stripped of its natural molasses and can be further refined to look white. Raw sugar retains its tan color.
- Confectioners' sugar, aka powdered sugar, is ground into ultra-fine particles and combined with starch so it doesn't cake up in its package. Bakers use confectioners' sugar in frostings and icings. And a quick dusting of confectioners' sugar always makes everything a little prettier, too.
- Brown sugar is refined sugar with molasses added. The amount of molasses in the mix accounts for the range of color and flavor in light, medium, and dark brown sugars. Because of its molasses, brown sugar can clump up and even form crystalized lumps. Storing brown sugar the right way can help prevent this. To measure out brown sugar for a recipe, press it very firmly into the measuring cup or spoon until it's fully compacted and level.
- Superfine sugar, aka castor sugar, is granulated sugar ground into tiny crystals that dissolve very quickly. Because of that, some bakers like to use it to make meringues and sweeten whipped cream. You can substitute it 1:1 for regular granulated sugar.
- Sanding sugar, aka decorating or coarse sugar, is simply larger crystals of granulated sugar used to give baked goods a crystalline finish. Decorating sugar comes in every color of the rainbow. Collect them all!
- Other natural sugars and sweeteners you might stock include date sugar, coconut sugar, maple sugar, honey, molasses, maple syrup, cane syrup, and agave syrup.
- Granulated table salt is what you'll use in everyday baking. Some bakers prefer to use table salt that hasn't been iodized because they can sometimes detect an unpleasant flavor in plain baked goods. Use table salt when you're measuring salt for a recipe.
- Sea salt has been harvested from evaporated sea water and can have a grainy or flaky texture, depending on its source. Crunchy, flaky sea salt is often sprinkled across sweet baked goods to give your taste buds more than one reason to love what's going on in your mouth. Use flaky sea salt as a finishing salt, not as a measuring salt.
Related: Learn the difference between table salt, sea salt, kosher salt, and rock salt.
- Unsalted butter is the default choice for baking, unless your recipe specifies salted butter. If you're not going to use it all the time, you can easily freeze butter until you need it. You'll use butter in batters, pastry dough, and cookie dough, as well as in frostings and icings for that rich texture and flavor that makes your baked goods absolutely irresistible. Find out why butter is better than margarine for baking.
- Large eggs help bind ingredients together. When recipe writers list eggs as an ingredient, it's almost always safe to assume they're talking about large-size eggs. Store eggs in the fridge. Find out more about eggs and what their labels really mean, and learn how to DIY egg substitutes.
- Milk gives batters their moisture. You'll want to keep a quart of milk in the fridge for pancakes and waffles. Whole milk gives a richer flavor than low-fat milk, but you can make 1:1 substitutions to suit your preference.
- Buttermilk reacts with leaveners to make fluffier, more tender pancakes and biscuits. If you don't want to keep it in the fridge all the time, look for shelf-stable powdered buttermilk. Find out what's actually in buttermilk, plus 5 ways to fake it if you don't have it.
- Alternative milks are made from soy, rice, coconut, or nuts. Read more about plant-based milks and how to bake with them, and learn how easy it is to make your own almond milk.
- Cream cheese could go on the Basic pantry list if you plan to make a steady output of cheesecakes and cream cheese frostings. (I am so going to friend you!) If not, just pick it up when you need it. Same goes for sour cream.
Related: Get tips and techniques for making the best butter cakes and pound cakes.
6. Fats: Oil and Shortening
- Vegetable oil in a neutral flavor, both for recipes and for oiling baking pans.
- Butter: (see above)
- Shortening is a solid vegetable fat used by some cooks either to replace butter or in combination with butter to make tender baked goods like pie crusts. Shortening has a higher melting point than butter, so cookies made with shortening tend to keep their shape better.
Related: Learn how to bake with olive oil, and how to swap it in for some or all of the butter, shortening, or other oils in recipes.
7. Extracts and Flavorings
Basic extracts and flavorings
- Pure vanilla extract gives baked goods a warm, spicy aroma and flavor. It's available both as liquid and paste, and a little goes a very long way. Because vanilla makes a huge difference in your baking, don't bother buying the imitation stuff. Read more about pure vanilla extract and why it's worth it to get the real thing.
Next-level extracts and flavorings
- Almond extract, lemon extract, mint extract, rum flavoring, brandy flavoring...the point is, there's a whole world of pure extracts and flavorings to explore. Don't go out and buy them all at once, though. Just add to your collection as you expand your baking horizons.
- Whole vanilla bean for a more intense vanilla flavor in frostings and sugars.
- Ground cinnamon seems to top the list of the one ground spice every baker has on hand. What else you stock depends of what you like to make. For example you might like ground cloves, allspice, and ginger to go along with the cinnamon. (Think pumpkin pie.) If nutmeg is on your basic list, you should always buy it whole and grate it yourself right before you use it. A smart way to buy spices in in bulk: You're only getting a little at a time so they don't get stale and lose their flavor.
- Ground spices are convenient, but for the absolute freshest flavors, you might explore grinding your own whole spices yourself using a mortar and pestle, a coffee grinder, or a microplane grater. To amp things up even more, toast the spices briefly before grinding.
Related: Get tips for the smartest ways to buy, store, and cook with spices.
This is where your basic bakers' pantry gets really personal. Love chocolate? Stock up. Want to start baking with matcha powder? It's your new basic. And so on.
- Chocolate in its many forms. Keep bar chocolate, chocolate chips, unsweetened cocoa powder and Dutch-process cocoa powder on hand for cakes, cookies, frostings, and glazes. Read more about how to choose and use the right chocolate for the right job.
- Dried fruits such as raisins and cranberries.
- Rolled oats to bump up nutrition in batters and cookie doughs.
- Nuts can be stored in the fridge or freezer to extend shelf life.
- Jams, jellies, and fruit preserves for cakes and cookies.
- Peanut or almond butter for cookies and pies.
- Food coloring to make colorful food, obviously.
- Sprinkles for decorating all your sweet things.
- Crystalized ginger gives spicy baked goods an extra sweet and snappy tingle.
- Matcha powder to add green tea goodness to your baking.
- Chia seeds for extra fiber and nutrition.
- Coconut, shredded or flaked, because you like coconut.
Related: Bookmark this link: Common Ingredient Substitutions. Because we've all run out of something, sometime.