Every cookbook and every cook has a few words to say about ingredients and why one choice is better than another. I’m no different. I have my prejudices too. Since we’re heading into the holiday season, here’s a short rundown of some common baking ingredients.
Flour: Suppose you are robbed of all your money, then the robber feels sorry for you and gives you $5 back. That’s enriched flour: the nutrients are bleached out, but then the manufacturer throws a few select ones back. And that’s why I use unbleached white flour for most baking – not as many nutrients were removed to begin with. (Because it’s refined, it still is not as nutritious as whole-wheat flour, which didn’t have any nutrients removed to begin with.) I also like its texture, which seems slightly more firm and less powdery than enriched. I buy it in 5-pound bags (10 pounds if I’m planning a big day of baking) and store it in a very large glass jar with a tight seal.
I find that whole wheat flour is not as useful for most baking as white flour, but I do use it for breads. Because it has the bran and the germ intact, it has a higher oil content than white flour, and will turn rancid quickly if stored at room temperature. Store in the freezer.
Cake flour is lower in protein than other white flours and is ideal for making – duh – cakes. It doesn’t do as well for other baked products such as breads. Pastry flour is similar to cake flour and can often be used in its place.
As long as we’re talking about flour, here’s a word about gluten. Gluten is a component of wheat, barley, and oat flours. Gluten performs approximately the same purpose in baking as rebar does in building: it creates a strong internal structure that will contain the rising air pockets created by yeast, baking soda, etc. in reaction with the other ingredients. In other words, it holds everything up until the spaces are filled. Other flours such as rice flour, almond flour, chickpea flour, etc., do not contain gluten, and they cannot be substituted for wheat flour in recipes without significant changes to the core recipe.
EDIT: The above should read that gluten is a component of wheat, barley, and RYE flours. As noted below in comments, oats do not contain gluten but are very frequently cross-contaminated with wheat/wheat flour/barley. Rye is a member of the wheat (triticale) family. Thanks, Melissa!
Sugar: According to The Sugar Association, “There is no difference in sugar produced from either cane or beet. The chemical makeup of sugar from a sugar beet and from sugar cane is identical. By the time sugar reaches the package or sugar bowl, it is 99.9+% sucrose. Cane sugar and beet sugar taste, smell and behave exactly the same.” Oh, really?
in 1999 the San Francisco Chronicle food section did extensive testing of baked goods made with 100% cane sugar versus baked goods made with sugar not labeled as such. The results were quite interesting. Products made with 100% cane sugar were always more successful and consistent than when made with beet sugar or unlabeled sugar. Apparently, it’s that . 00+% that made the difference, which is, it turns out, quite profound. The Sugar Association does not seem to recognize this.
Therefore, despite the difference in price, I now always buy C&H Sugar – white granulated, brown, and confectioner’s – because it is made with cane sugar. If I’m going to invest time, money, and effort into making food for people, I want the very best, most consistent results. A few cents more spent on the best product will be worthwhile in the long run.
I buy granulated sugar in 4-pound bags and store it in a glass jar with a tight seal to keep out moisture and ants. I buy brown sugar and confectioner’s sugar in 1-pound boxes and store the boxes in zip-lock bags.
Butter: The best butter is made at home from heavy cream, but that’s something that isn’t really practical for most people. I use only unsalted butter; salt can disguise off-tastes or rancidity, as well as add to the total salt content of a recipe. Buy in one-pound packages and store in the freezer. Do not buy “diet butter,” butter mixed with yogurt or olive oil, whipped butter, or any other variation if you’re going to use it in baking; the results will be disastrous. The best commercially-produced butter I’ve found is Kerrygold from Ireland.
Nuts: The very best nuts are ones you buy in the shell and crack yourself. My family did just this for many years. In November we’d drive to a walnut-producing area and buy a few gigantic burlap bags full of walnuts, then spend winter evenings cracking and shelling nuts, which we’d freeze until needed. (The shells make excellent kindling, among plenty of other uses.) But this might not be practical for everyone. Buy nuts in bulk from a store with a high turnover, and only buy as many as you’ll use within a month or two. Health food stores are also good sources for a wide variety of nuts. Due to their high oil content, nuts can turn rancid rapidly, so store in the freezer or refrigerator. Those little cellophane bags of nuts in the baking section of the supermarket are grossly overpriced and are a last resort.
Dried fruit: Lots of holiday goodies require raisins, dried apricots, figs, and so forth. Again, buy in bulk if possible; keep wrapped tightly in the refrigerator. Most importantly, buy unsulphured fruit if possible. Sulphur is often used to keep dried fruit supple and soft, but it has a dark side. Not only can sulphur cause allergic reactions, but the taste is horrible and can ruin the final product. I well remember eating dinner at a restaurant with my mother and ordering rice pudding for dessert. At the first bite we knew something was very wrong. The waitress noticed we weren’t eating and asked what the problem was. “Did you taste this?” we asked. The chef had added sulphured raisins to the custard and the entire panful of pudding had to be thrown away because of the bitter, metallic taste throughout. If sulphured fruit is all that’s available, thoroughly rinse the fruit with boiling water before using.
Extracts and flavorings: I don’t think the brand of flavorings matters as much as getting a pure product. Pure extracts are made with alcohol and a flavoring agent such an vanilla bean, lemon peel/oil, etc. Yes, pure vanilla extract is expensive, but one bottle will last a long time. It’s worth it to pay extra instead of buying vanillin. Not convinced? According to Wikipedia, ” today most vanillin is produced from the petrochemical raw material guaiacol.” From Eurovanillin : “Our premium product, made from wood as raw material and with a taste that is closest to natural vanilla at lowest CO-2 footprint in vanillin.” Mmmm….Pass me a bowl of that vanillin ice cream with petrochemical sauce!
Baking soda, baking powder: The key here is freshness. If you’ve had a can of baking powder so long that the lid is dusty, throw it away and buy a new one. And if you’ve been using baking soda in the refrigerator to absorb smells, toss it too. Store both of these in tightly-covered containers and replace at least once a year.
Spices: Again, freshness is key. Open the jar on your shelf and take a sniff: if you can’t smell anything, toss it and get a fresh jar. Buy in bulk for cost-savings. Whole spices do not deteriorate as quickly as ground spices, but some of them are very difficult to grind at home (like cinnamon sticks and whole cloves). And don’t waste money on “apple pie spice,” “pumpkin pie spice,” and so on. You probably don’t make pumpkin pie more than two or three times a year; why spend five bucks on a jar of spices you won’t use again until next fall?
Canned fruit fillings: Other than pure unsweetened, unseasoned pumpkin puree, I never use these; they are too sticky-sweet and gooshy-soft for my taste. I found that making my own pumpkin puree from a real pumpkin is one of those rare things that isn’t an improvement over the commercial product. I use Libby’s because it has a consistently pleasing color, taste, and texture. Off-brands tend to be watery, flavorless, and unappetizing-looking.
Liqueurs, wine, liquor, etc: Alcoholic beverages are often used in holiday treats like fruitcake, bourbon balls, mincemeat, homemade liqueurs, and so on. I feel this is one of those you-get-what-you-pay-for categories: cheap booze tastes cheap. I’m not saying you should buy Martell Brandy to add to the eggnog, but don’t buy Wolfschmidt’s or Potter’s, either. And if it comes in a plastic bottle, it might be better used for taking old varnish off a table. Get the best you can afford.
Mincemeat: I bought mincemeat last year for the first time in many years and was shocked at how expensive it had become – nearly $8 for a quart jar. If you really love mincemeat, consider making it yourself – it’s rather fun to do and will last a long time in the freezer. (Recipe forthcoming.) I find that Crosse & Blackwell is a good brand but is also very, very sweet, so I add a couple of shredded Granny Smith apples as well as a very large glug of brandy before making anything with it. Leftover mincemeat will keep at least a month in the refrigerator.