Being able to bake cakes and cookies is something that even a novice cook can do with ease, provided the ingredients have been bought correctly, measured accurately and stored properly. Here is an explanation of the most common baking ingredients. Use these tips on your next grocery trip and stock up for baking that perfect chocolate cake.
How to Use Eggs
For baking, eggs should be at room temperature since that would allow maximum air to be held in the batter, making the cake light and also helping it to rise well. Using fridge-cold eggs would curdle the batter and also make the cake tough and heavy. Both organic and regular eggs can be used. The eggs, according to Nigella Lawson, should be large unless the recipe states otherwise.
Different Kinds of Flour
The two kinds of flours that are most often specified in recipes are self-rising and plain white flour. Self-rising flour is flour that has already been mixed with salt and baking powder as raising agents. This makes it extra convenient to use for baking cakes and cookies.
If a recipe calls for self-rising flour while all you have at home is plain white flour, simply add 2 ½ teaspoons of baking powder to each 250 grams of plain flour (1 ¼ teaspoons baking powder and ¼ tsp salt for each cup of flour). Sift well to ensure even mixing.
If a recipe calls for all-purpose (plain) flour and all you have is self-rising, you’ll want to NOT add the baking power and salt called for in the recipe. It is best to use the kind of flour given in the recipe.
Plain white flour is available in many grades and types. Nigella Lawson in How to be a Domestic Goddess recommends using cake flour since it is more finely milled and, hence, makes lighter pastries and cakes. However, ordinary all-purpose flour can be used for most recipes. It is important to sift it several times to get the proper lightness.
Types of Sugar
Caster sugar (superfine granulated sugar) is fine-grained white sugar that is useful for baking. Most granulated white sugar sold is this fine-grained type. If it is not easily available, it is possible to make your own by simply grinding a coarser granulated sugar in the food processor. If it is available, golden caster sugar is good to add a little color to plain cakes and sponges; this is similar to light brown sugar but with granules like refined white sugar.
Light and dark muscovado sugars are natural brown sugars which still contain much of their natural cane sugar or molasses. They are less refined than white sugar. This lends a unique taste and color to the baked product. Dark muscovado sugar is stickier and gives a cake a rich color and taste.
Soft light and dark brown sugars are refined white sugar which have had molasses added back to them to add a distinctive taste and color. These more refined brown sugars may be used instead of muscovado sugars although the taste will be lighter.
Demerara sugar (also called turbinado sugar) is another type of less refined sugar. It is brown in color and has larger crystals. It is often used as a topping to add crunch and texture to a cake or batch of cookies. Confectioner’s sugar (also known as icing or powdered sugar), as the name suggests, is used to ice cakes. It is too fine to be used for baking and, therefore, should not be substituted for ordinary sugar.
Different Types of Fats
Butter, margarine, shortening and oil are the most commonly used fats in baking. While it is possible to substitute one for the other, it is not always advisable to do so. Also, avoid substituting low-fat margarine for regular block margarine or butter because it has a high water content that alters proportions in a recipe. Hard fats should always be used at room temperature for cakes and cookies which would make it easy to cream them with the sugar.
Different Raising or Leavening Agents
Baking powder, baking soda and common salt are the most common raising agents. Baking powder is a mixture of cream of tartar and sodium bicarbonate while baking soda is pure sodium bicarbonate. Using these raising agents not only adds lightness but also improves the color of the cake. Both these ingredients should be kept in airtight containers and replaced after 3 months of opening, since they lose their freshness and strength.
Once it is clear how to buy the right ingredients, it will be extremely easy to get started on that first baking experiment. Cakes and cookies are easy to make once the basics are mastered. A helpful resource is the website The Cook’s Thesaurus which gives great descriptions of ingredients and food items.
Do also read Cake Baking Made Easy for more tips and ideas on acquiring and mastering this particular culinary skill.
US edition — Lawson, Nigella. How to be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking. Hyperion, 2005.
UK edition — Lawson, Nigella. How to be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking. Chatto & Windus, 2003.