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 11 ingredients that will up your baking game exponentially.
In all cases, even when it comes to plain old baking soda and baking powder, be sure you’re using fresh products (not the boxes that have been in your cupboard since last year’s holiday baking jam!), and as always, the higher the quality, the better.
Salt is a maybe-not-so-secret ingredient all bakers and pastry chefs like to use. Just a little sprinkle of 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. So if you’ve ever skipped over the dash of salt in a sweet recipe because it sounded weird or unnecessary, stop that!
Table salt will be just fine for most baking recipes. You can use kosher if you like, but per Joy the Baker’s advice, beware: Coarse kosher salt will not disperse as evenly throughout the dough or batter, so it’s better if you have fine grained kosher salt.
Related Reading: All the Salts That Deserve a Spot in Your Pantry
Also, a sprinkle of flaky sea salt to top off sweet cookies and other baked goods is a perfect finishing touch.
2. AA Butter (Bonus If It’s Browned)
Butter is butter, right? Wrong. There are many different styles and grades of butter available in most supermarkets, and which one you choose affects the structure and flavor of your baked goods. According to the experts at King Arthur Flour, you should be sure to choose a higher-fat AA butter; it contains less water so will give you more tender results, and flakier pastry when making pie dough. You don’t necessarily need (or want) a European style butter for baking, though they’re tops on warm bread and rolls.
But what about salted vs unsalted? 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—with the obvious caveat that it’s easy to go overboard if you add additional salt per your recipe. If you use salted butter, take a small taste of your dough (caveat #2: raw flour can be dangerous) before adding any more sodium.
If you prefer to adjust salt levels strictly by adding a sprinkle (or two), consider nutty browned butter as another secret weapon in baking. Any recipe that calls for melted butter will be even better if you take it further and brown the butter before cooling slightly and adding to your batter. (This 1:1 swap won’t work so well in recipes that call for creamed butter.)
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) will last longer than fresh beans—but also has added sugar (check the label to make sure it doesn’t contain corn syrup). It can be swapped in at a 1:1 ratio in place of extract, or use about a tablespoon in place of one fresh vanilla bean.
Madagascar Vanilla Beans, 10 for $30.99 on Amazon
The purest vanilla flavor possible.
If you do go with extract, spend more on a high-quality brand, or consider taking on an extra project and make homemade vanilla extract with vanilla beans and the booze of your choice.
Vodka creates the most pure vanilla flavor, but using rum or bourbon creates an extract with more nuance and depth. Try making smaller batches of both kinds to compare and see which one you prefer. This also makes an amazing homemade gift.
4. Lemon Zest
Whether you are making a lemon-flavored dessert or something light and fruity with berries, a little lemon zest can give your dish a punch of fresh flavor. The tartness of berries, like strawberry and blueberry, can often be masked by the sugar content of a baked good recipe. Lemon zest revives the pleasant pucker without adding any extra liquid to the mixing bowl.
Microplane Premium Stainless Steel Zester Grater, $11.99 on Amazon
The ideal tool for finely zesting any citrus fruit.
Try other citrus zest, or for another dimension of flavor and texture, cut the zest into thin strips (avoiding as much of the bitter white pith as possible), then candy them and use to garnish cakes, cookies, and more.
5. High-Quality Chocolate
Depending on the brand you use, a high-quality chocolate can make your basic brownie, chocolate ganache, 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.
If you’re not melting the chocolate, buying féves (flat, oval discs of chocolate) or solid bars also allows you to chop it by hand so you get both bigger pools of melted chocolate and finer flecks that freckle the dough—a huge step up from uniform chocolate chips.
Callebaut Belgian Dark Chocolate Semisweet Callets, 5.5 pounds for $39.99 on Amazon
Callets are like wider, flatter chocolate chips designed for melting; look for feves or bars if you want chopped chocolate.
Cocktail bitters come in so many complex flavors, and often include baking stalwart spices like clove; they make an interesting substitute for vanilla extract in baked goods. As the name suggests, however, they are bitter, so you may need to increase the sugar slightly in the recipe—or, only replace a small amount of the vanilla or other flavored extract with bitters (up to a 50/50 mix).
Scrappy's Bitters Exotic Sampler Pack, $22.75 on Amazon
This set includes chocolate, grapefruit, lavender, and cardamom bitters.
7. Unusual Jams
If you’re making thumbprint cookies, split second jam cookies, or the lovely linzer sablés above—or swirling jam into a Danish or cheesecake—level up instantly by grabbing a jar of something more interesting than the usual raspberry preserves. Whether you make your own jam or seek out store-bought, there’s a whole world of intriguing flavor combos to try.
V Smiley Blackcurrant Shiro Plum Jam, $16 on Mouth
These all-natural preserves are sweetened with wild honey instead of white sugar.
BRINS Small Batch Jam Trio, $30 on Food52
Banana jam with vanilla bean; cherry chai; and strawberry lemongrass flavors.
8. Freshly Ground Spices
No matter how fresh your purchased bottles of ground spices are, their flavor will never quite compare to the taste you get from grinding your own whole spices at home (obviously, the whole spices should also be freshly purchased, from a supplier with high turnover). You can use an inexpensive coffee grinder to handle spices, but it’s best to have one dedicated to that purpose so they don’t taste like coffee (or vice versa).
Frieling Cast Iron Spice Grinder, $39 on Food52
This small, manual cast iron grinder is another nice option.
Bonus points if you lightly toast them first; just toss them over medium heat in a dry pan (one of those mini cast iron skillets if you have one!) for a few minutes until you smell their fragrance wafting over you, then pulverize in a grinder and use in your recipe. Even simple snickerdoodles will never be the same.
9. Alternative Flours
We’re not talking about experimenting with gluten-free flours like almond meal or cassava flour in place of conventional flour—though that’s certainly another worthy kitchen pursuit. In this case, we’re talking about bumping up the flavor of conventional baked goods by using something like rye flour or coffee flour in place of some of the all-purpose.
Bob's Red Mill Dark Rye Flour, $3.49 on Instacart
Price and availability varies.
Try this Chocolate Chip Rye Cookie recipe for starters, or these Gluten-Free Coffee Flour Coconut Cookies (don’t expect an espresso taste, though; coffee flour is more nutty, slightly bitter, and faintly fruity).
Halvah in desserts is sweet-savory-sesame perfection, so using straight-up sesame paste (aka, tahini) is an obvious extension. Since it’s rather runny, tahini blends well into batters for everything from banana bread to chocolate chip cookies. The rich, roasty, slightly bitter flavor it adds is fantastic. While it pairs exceptionally well with chocolate, try showcasing it in something like this simple Tahini Cookie recipe too.
11. Flavorful Decorations
Sprinkles and sanding sugars are classic and we use them liberally to jazz up royal icing, but consider incorporating other, more flavorful decorations for your sugar cookies too. Think finely crushed peppermint candies, pulverized toasted nuts, dark chocolate grated on a Microplane, shredded coconut, and light dustings of matcha or freeze dried fruit powders. They all stick to wet icing just as well as specks of colored sugar, and add their own flavor and texture to the mix in the bargain.
Related Video: Dorie Greenspan’s Genius Trick for Perfectly Round Cookies
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