Pantry Basics: Five Essential Ingredients for Baking

Like pans and prep tools there is a dizzying array of baking ingredients available. Even a small grocery store will offer at least five kinds of flour, four kinds of sugar and lots of other things that promise to make your baking successful.

To get started, though, you only need a handful of pantry basics. Read on for our suggestions...

1. Flour - Flour is the basic building block of most baked goods - cookies, cakes, and breads. It's also one of the cheapest ingredients you'll buy. This doesn't mean you should buy the cheapest flour, though. Look for fresh, high-quality flour. We have seen a noticeable difference when baking with King Arthur flour.

Most home bakers use primarily all-purpose flour, as opposed to bread flour or pastry flour. Bread flour has higher amount of protein to help the gluten develop in bread. If you use bread flour in your cakes and cookies they'll get tough. Cake and pastry flours have lower amounts of protein. These can sometimes be used in cookies (Shirley Corriher recommends a blend of cake and all-purpose flour for soft cookies) but you can make breads, cakes, and cookies with all-purpose flour.

Whole wheat flour is great for breads and some muffins and quick breads. We wouldn't choose to use it in cakes and cookies though, unless it's white whole wheat. For more on white whole wheat flour see What's the Deal With: Whole Wheat White Flour?.

See our articles on Pantry Basics: What is Cake Flour? and Pastry Flour vs. Cake Flour for more information on different kinds of flour.

If you're a new baker we recommend buying just one sack of all-purpose flour and starting there. We like to keep our flour in an airtight canister to preserve freshness. It usually has a shelf life of 9-12 months; after that it may start tasting stale.

This 5 pound sack of King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour is $3.75 - check for it at your local grocery or Trader Joe's. It is 11.7% protein, and this is high for cakes and other fine-textured baked goods. Try their Pastry Flour ($3.95 for 3lbs.) for cakes and other fine pastries.

2. Sugar - Sugar is another basic baking ingredient that is usually relatively cheap. If you usually keep turbinado or other dark, large-crystal sugars for your tea and coffee, don't use them in your baking. You want fine, light sugar for baking that will quickly dissolve.

You can go with plain white sugar, but if you prefer organic sugars make sure you get sugar that is plainly labeled for baking.

Darker sugars like light and dark brown sugar add a deeper flavor with hints of molasses. They also absorb more liquid. For a good product to keep your brown sugar soft and easily scoopable, check out this Brown Sugar Saver.

We suggest just getting a small sack of plain white sugar and perhaps a bag of light brown sugar as well - this often shows up in cookie recipes.

3. Baking powder, soda and yeast - Baking powder and soda are leaveners in your quick breads, cakes, and cookies. For a much more in-depth look at them and how they work, go here: Pantry Basics: What's the Difference Between Baking Soda and Baking Powder?.

Yeast is essential if you want to make breads and rolls. We suggest buying one strip of packets of regular active yeast; they usually come in strips of three, and most recipes will call for yeast in quantities of packets.

4. Salt - Like sugar, salt for baking should be fine. Don't use your kosher salt or high-quality sea salt in those big, flaky crystals. You want fine, pourable salt.

We avoid salt with iodide when baking because we think the taste comes through, especially in simple breads. But this is a personal preference.

5. Vanilla Extract - Vanilla extract is an essential flavoring in many, many sweet baked goods. Its rich flavor enhances other sweet flavors and it shouldn't be taken for granted. Real vanilla extract is made from vanilla beans and a good bottle will cost around $5-8. This Pure Vanilla Extract from King Arthur is $5.95 for a 2-ounce bottle. Trader Joe's has good quality vanilla extract too in Madagascar, Tahitian, and Mexican varieties. We'll talk soon about the differences between these different kinds of vanilla.

Avoid imitation vanilla extract; it's a chemical compound with a flatter flavor than true vanilla.

What we didn't include: Here are the dairy staples that will need to be around if you are going to bake - milk, eggs, unsalted butter. If you are vegan you can skip these, but make sure you have good-quality vegetable oil, olive oil, and vinegar around instead.

Is there anything else we left off? If you were advising a brand new baker on their first trip to stock up on baking staples, what would you tell them?