7 Chef-Approved Baking Essentials Your Kitchen Might Not Have — But Should

published Feb 21, 2023
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Pistachio cake, with a slice being lifted up, so you can the two layers with white filling.
Credit: Stephanie Loo

If you’re an avid baker, like me, then butter, sugar, eggs, and all-purpose flour are practically permanent residents in your home. They’re very necessary components in some of my favorite recipes (hi, crumbly cookies and flaky scones), which is why my kitchen is never without them. Ever. My freezer is almost never without a batch of those scones either, but that’s another story.

Eager to expand my recipe repertoire, I was curious to know what other essentials I should stock in my fridge and cabinets — beyond these basics. So I asked pastry chefs and professional bakers from all around the country to share their favorite grocery store baking staples. (I see a lot of cakes, pies, and some panna cotta in my future!) 

These are the seven cans, bottles, boxes, and more they always have on hand. Take a look and then consider copying this list for your next shopping trip.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

1. Evaporated Milk

“Evaporated milk is hands-down my favorite thing to pick up at the grocery store — especially when I find it on sale. I grew up in the Dominican Republic, and evaporated milk was one thing my mom, Nelia (who is also a baker), always had on hand — and her obsession with it passed down to me. Evaporated milk is great when you don’t have fresh milk, but even when I do, I would much rather use evaporated milk in things like custards and ganaches, and as a true Dominican, it’s the key ingredient in my tres leches cake!” Marnely Murray, pastry chef and food writer, Martha’s Vineyard (currently in Madrid)

Buy: Nestle Carnation Evaporated Milk, $2.49 for 12 ounces at Target

Credit: bhofack2/Getty Images

2. Key Lime Juice

Another pick from Marnely: “Key lime juice is another product I love picking up at the grocery store. Not only am I using it in desserts, but I also like to have it on hand to add acidity to vinaigrettes when I’m whipping a quick salad. Key lime juice is commonly used in Key lime pies, but I find myself also adding it to cakes, cookies, and even using it in place of water for a quick sugar glaze for donuts!” 

Buy: Floribbean Key Lime Juice, $9.95 for 12 ounces at King Arthur Baking Company

Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani

3. Heavy Cream (aka heavy whipping cream)

“I always keep a carton of heavy cream in my fridge. A dollop of freshly whipped cream is often the best way to top a warm dessert, but even beyond whipping it, there are so many uses for cream. In a pinch, I sometimes thin out heavy cream with a bit of water as a milk substitute, or even add a squeeze of acid for a makeshift buttermilk. Some of my favorite creamy desserts (think: panna cotta, creme brulée, or pudding) call for heavy cream, and it’s a great finish for lots of savory recipes as well! Heavy cream also tends to keep a lot longer than milk does, which is a big plus!” Stephanie Loo, pastry cook at Restaurant Daniel, New York City

Buy: Horizon Organic Heavy Whipping Cream, $4.99 for 16 ounces at Target

Credit: Joe Lingeman

4. Bleached Cake Flour

“A baking must-have is bleached cake flour (such as Swans Down or Softasilk). Bleached cake flour performs very differently from all-purpose flour, and even unbleached cake flour doesn’t deliver the same results. Bleached cake flour is fine and soft, with a low protein content and high moisture absorption capability. All of this translates into a light, tender cake with a tight and even crumb, which is particularly important when making delicate yellow cakes or chiffon cakes. It’s really un-substitutable in my books.” — Miro Uskokovic, pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern, New York City

Buy: Swans Down Cake Flour, $4.19 for 32 ounces at Instacart

Credit: Sarah Crowley

5. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

“There’s something about the taste of olive oil; it brings out more earthy tones in certain desserts. My chocolate cake recipe has a mild oil in it and I didn’t have any [of it] at home, but I had olive oil. It made the cake taste a little bit more earthy, which balances well with chocolate. I’ve used it in plain olive oil cake and cookie recipes — my standard chocolate chip, I tried it with a peanut butter cookie, and a shortbread crumble. I’ve also used it in tempering chocolate, like when you’re making a peanut butter ganache you need a little extra fat. Typically some chefs use cocoa butter, but olive oil gives it a little bit of a different flavor, which not a lot of people will be able to pinpoint.” Felicia Mayden, executive pastry chef, formerly at The Emily Hotel, Chicago

Buy: California Olive Ranch Extra Virgin Olive Oil, $13.49 for 16.9 ounces at California Olive Ranch

Credit: Jessica Prudenti-Montalvo

6. High-Quality Dark Chocolate

Guittard chocolate has done an incredible job of having an incredible quality of chocolate, but also mass producing that chocolate. [It’s] one of the pioneers of fair-trade in chocolate, and I think that’s incredibly important — if we’re talking about food, we’re talking about people who produced that food. Second to that, taste. It uses more cacao beans, so you’re just getting the natural flavor of the cacao versus sugar and fillers. The last thing is consistency, for me. You know it’s going to be the same every time. My chocolate chip cookie is like one of the things that I go through so quickly. I love to make chocolate cake … and making chocolate mousses to pipe into the center of croissants.” — Brett Boyer, pastry cook and co-owner of Desert Bread, Las Vegas

Buy: Guittard Extra Dark Chocolate Baking Chips, $5.79 for 11.5 ounces at Instacart 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

7. Sea Salt Flakes

Another pick from Brett: “Maldon is something that pastry people use all the time. It’s the thing that takes your baking from just a simple chocolate chip cookie; it’s hitting your palate and you get that thing that enhances that flavor. It has that crunch to it. It doesn’t disappear into the cookie, it holds itself. It’s beautiful. [Get] some vanilla ice cream from the store, and you put some olive oil on it and some Maldon salt and you’re going to have a good night. You can even put it on certain cakes on the top. I like to grind it just a little thinner so it’s not as crunchy. Glaze something and then toss that little bit on top of there. It’s gonna like hit your mouth, and enhance that [bite] — especially pairing it with things, like caramel.”

Buy: Maldon Sea Salt Flakes, $6.99 for 8.5 ounces at Amazon  

Do you use any of these staples in your baking? Tell us in the comments below!