Sure, you can easily mix butter, flour, sugar, and eggs into something sweet and tasty. But what makes baking really special are the less obvious ingredients — maybe it's a high-quality extract or flavoring, or maybe it's splurging on that fancy bar of chocolate you've been eyeing in the store.
Here are five easy-to-find ingredients that will give your baked goods and dessert recipes extra-special oomph, making them well worth the small investment.
1. Espresso powder
Instant espresso powder is the unsung hero of deep, dark chocolate cakes. A little of the intense coffee powder brings depth to chocolate recipes without being overwhelming, but you can also up the amount if you're inspired to take a mocha route instead. It's also great to keep on hand for recipes calling for brewed coffee, especially if you're not the type that typically drinks a lot of it at home.
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2. Chocolate baking bars
While chocolate chips are a handy pantry staple to have around, nothing beats a real chocolate bar. Unlike chocolate chips, which have additives and stabilizers to help them keep their shape, pure chocolate bars have unrivaled flavor and versatility.
You can shave a bar for decoration, or cut them into irregular pieces to stir into chocolate chip cookie dough — odd-shaped pieces create random small and large pockets of chocolate and distribute widely and melt beautifully here.
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3. Real extracts
You can't replicate the flavor of real vanilla extract. Period. It may seem like a costly purchase, but you can easily make a big bottle at home with some cheap liquor and a few vanilla beans instead.
Fake extracts contain chemicals that almost but don't quite replicate the flavor of the real stuff, and the gap there will really throw off the taste of what you're making. The real stuff will infuse it with natural flavor. So ditch the imitation and invest in real vanilla, almond, or even coconut extract to really enhance your next batch of sweets.
4. Turbinado sugar
Coarse, natural cane sugar is baking's secret weapon. It's less refined than white or regular brown sugars, so it has a more robust flavor, and it's beautiful and sparkly to boot. Sprinkle some on your next batch of muffins for added crunch, or roll a log of sugar cookie dough in it before slicing and baking to add elegance without much extra work.
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5. Flavored baking chips
Keep some flavored baking chips other than chocolate on hand. Swapping out or replacing some of the chocolate chips in a recipe with cinnamon, toffee, or caramel chips is a fun way to turn a trusted recipe into something new and fun. Plus, they'll even appease those few people in the world who don't like chocolate!
(Image credits: Christine Gallary; Faith Durand; Dana Velden; Emily Han; Maciej Oleksy/Shutterstock; Nealey Dozier)