Now that you have the list of my pantry basics (find that post here if you missed it), let’s go through a few things. I’m probably going to do this one in a few parts too so you’re not bored to tears. But hopefully this helps us understand how and why ingredients work together and once we have that, we can start getting creative with recipes. I’m giving you the cliff notes version (the “why you care” and “you’re standing in aisle 5 overwhelmed by options” or “I’ve run out, what can I substitute?”) part but there’s way more science that goes into all of this. I’m assuming. I’m not a scientist.
You can make flour from basically anything. As proven by my pantry which has two shelves just of flours with names I can’t pronounce. The most common, by far, is wheat. (Gluten-free and specialty flours are a whole different beast we’ll save for another time. Like 5 years from now when I’ve figured them out.) And not all wheat flours are created equal. The different additives and processing results in a variety of options from hard (higher protein content/best for crusty breads) to soft (lower protein content/best for cakes and cookies). You can decide where you stand on the bleached/unbleached topic but the softest, most wonderful cakes come from bleached flour. The most common type of bleaching is chlorinating which is exposing flour to chlorine gas during processing (science!–go here and here for informational articles.)
Here are the most practical flour types:
Cake flour: lowest gluten/protein content; chlorinated and has a high starch content; softest, most crumbly texture; meant for cakes.
All-purpose flour: like it sounds; has a mid level of gluten/protein and can be used for pretty much anything; it is usually bleached which makes for a softer product.
Self-rising flour: hard flour (high gluten/protein content) with chemical leavening agents mixed in; gives a consistent rise to baked goods; used for biscuits, scones, etc.
Bread flour: very high gluten/protein content; more elasticity and stronger rising; obviously meant for breads
Enriched flour: nutrients lost during processing are artificially replaced.
Unbleached flour: chemical bleaching didn’t occur during processing; slightly higher gluten/protein content than bleached flour; suitable for all purposes but best for things like cinnamon rolls.
Bottom line: stock your pantry with all-purpose flour. But if you want to take your cooking/baking to the next level, try branching out to harder and softer flours. You’ll see a difference!
Additives that cause reactions in baked goods to create little gas bubbles. Basically what makes things puffy and fluffy. These all work off of the same principle (creating CO2 bubbles) but are not interchangeable.
Keep these in airtight containers and they lose their potency after about 6 months so if you can’t remember how old yours is, it’s probably too old. It’ll still sort of work, but not as well.
Yeast: don’t worry, we’ll have a whole lesson on this. Considering I’m the worst at yeast breads you should probably never listen to anything I say on this topic.
Baking soda: also known as sodium bicarbonate; this is a base that, when combined with an acid, results in the quick release of CO2 (aka…you must have an acid to get it to work); common acids for creating this chemical reaction: dairy (sour cream, buttermilk, yogurt, etc), lemon juice, honey/molasses, cocoa; use when you need a quick rise and have an acid like in pancakes and muffins.
Baking powder: basically baking soda with the acid already incorporated (aka… you don’t need an extra acid); less “potent” than baking soda; in a pinch, you can make your own baking powder with 1 part baking soda and 2 parts cream of tartar; creates a double chemical reaction: once when mixed and another when heated; use when you need a slow, consistent rise like in cookies and cake.
Granulated sugar: aka the regular kind; made from either beets or sugar cane or a combo (if your package doesn’t say “pure cane sugar”, it’s probably beet sugar.) I only use pure cane sugar because I think it’s the best but you do you, boo. You can do your own googling if you desire but here’s a start .
Raw sugar: cane sugar in bigger grains and minimally processed; darker in color; adds a subtle flavor and more texture to baked goods; can be subbed anytime for granulated sugar; I use raw sugar in things where I want an extra sugar taste (duh-that sounded way more brilliant in my head) like snickerdoodle cookies.
Brown sugar: granulated sugar with molasses added; light brown sugar = less molasses; dark brown sugar = more molasses. Again, go pure cane. There’s a reason I write that in all of my recipes.
Powdered sugar: also called confectioner’s sugar; sugar is ground-up to turn it into a powder (also duh. I’m on a roll today); usually combined with a small bit of starch for consistency
Caster sugar: superfine granulated sugar; mixes/dissolves more easily so is great for drinks and meringues
You need them. (Insert science reasons.) There are solid (shortening, butter, lard-they can hold air so should be used in “fluffy” things) and liquid types (clarified butter and oil). You can generally substitute a liquid fat for another liquid and solid for solid but not liquid for solid or vice-versa due to the fat content.
As a general rule, I prefer cookies and pie crusts with shortening and cakes with butter due to flavor and consistency.
Eggs and dairy contribute fat to baked goods but aren’t considered fats for recipe purposes.
Temperature matters too! Most recipes annotate the temperature needed for fats and definitely follow those guidelines! A really good article with more detail can be found here.
Whew! Okay! Bored yet? I’m sorry if you are but hopefully a few lightbulbs went off or recipes are now more confusing than ever and we should scrap the whole project.
other culina practica lessons: