Whether you’re baking chocolate chip cookies or a fancy three-layer cake with lemon curd and whipped cream frosting, the quality of ingredients can make a huge difference in the final product. By following a few tips from fellow pastry chefs, and splurging on a few ingredients (which is easy thanks to online specialty stores), your baked goods will go from amateur to professional quality in no time. Here are five ingredients that will up your baking game:

1. Salt. It’s a secret ingredient all bakers and pastry chefs like to use. Just a little sprinkle of kosher salt into your cookie dough, cake batter, or tart dough not only enhances the sweetness of a dish, but also makes citrus taste fresher, brings out the fragrance in spices, and adds overall complexity to a dessert.

2. Salted butter. Some pastry chefs insist on using unsalted butter, so they can control the amount of salt that is going into a recipe. But since many novice bakers tend to undersalt their baked goods, using salted butter is a good way to bring out the sweetness and help refine the other flavors present. Taste recipes before adding additional salt to make sure the flavor is balanced and not super salty.

3. Vanilla beans or vanilla bean paste. Vanilla extract is featured in many baking recipes, but using fresh vanilla beans or vanilla bean paste means stronger vanilla flavor and scent. Both can be pricey, but a little goes a long way. Fresh vanilla bean can have the seeds scraped out to use in a recipe, and the pod can be used to flavor syrups and sugar. Vanilla bean paste (thickened extract with bean specks) is the best of both worlds, and will last longer than fresh beans.

4. Lemon zest. Whether you are making a lemon-flavored dessert or something with berries, a little lemon zest can give your dish a punch of fresh flavor. The tart flavors in berries, like strawberry and blueberry, can often be masked by the sugar content of a baked good recipe. Lemon zest retrieves the tartness without adding any extra liquid to the mixing bowl.

5. High-quality chocolate. Depending on the brand you use, a high-quality chocolate can make your basic brownie or chocolate cake taste more nuanced, with floral, bitter, or even smoky flavors. Here are a few brands (but by no means all of your options) that can blow Hershey’s chocolate out of the water: Ghirardelli, Scharffen Berger, Valrhona, Guittard, Callebaut, and Michel Cluizel. Be sure to taste before using to find your favorite brand.

What are your favorite ingredients to kick your baked goods up a notch? We want to hear your thoughts! Please share them below in the comments.

Photos by Chris Rochelle

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