The 5 Essential Ingredients for Baking, Explained

Essential Tools, Tips & Techniques for the Home Cook by Michelle Doll, the chef shares tons of useful information on the equipment, ingredients, and techniques that will take your baking to the next level.

Kara Rota
4-minute read
Episode #216

For having just a few ingredients, dough is a pretty complex thing. Understanding a few fundamentals will educate your baking technique.

1. Flour

Cake and pastry flours

These have a lower protein content, meaning they contain less gluten, giving them a more delicate crust. Think cakey, not crispy.

All-purpose and bread flours

These are higher in gluten. Think pizza dough, pasta and baguettes.

Buy Now

As an Amazon Associate and a Bookshop.org Affiliate, QDT earns from qualifying purchases.

How to measure flour

Always transfer your flour from the bag to another container to aerate it. It has probably traveled across the country to get to you with literal tons of flour on top of it. You’ll get the most accurate volume measurement from fluffed flour. A cup of flour scraped out of a packed bag could actually be a cup and a half if it isn’t fluffed up. King Arthur Flour is my all-around favorite. It has been around since 1790 and is a fully employee-owned company; even more important, they are passionate bakers consistently delivering a superior product.

How to flour your surface

Use a sifter or a shaker, or hold a handful of flour in your hand and shake it like dice.

When you’re kneading dough, you want as little flour as possible to avoid offsetting the recipe, but go for the flour when you’re rolling because you do not want that baby to stick to the counter!

You can always brush off any excess flour; flour not mixed into anything and cooked just tastes bitter and sad.

2. Salt

If you forget salt, the dough will taste a bit flat and stale.

Kosher salt

I prefer kosher salt for almost everything I make, whether sweet or savory. Kosher refers to the size of the crystals. It’s the salt that’s packed onto a kosher slaughtered animal to draw out impurities.

Remember this if you ever buy a kosher chicken or turkey! They’ve already been salted.

Table salt

Table salt is too fine: the crystals are much smaller, so more salt will fit in the teaspoon, making things ultimately too salty. If your recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of salt but all you have is table salt, then reduce the amount to 2⁄3 teaspoon or it will be too salty.

3. Butter

There is no industry standard for how much salt actually gets added to butter, so always use unsalted butter so you can control the amount of seasoning.

European-style butter

I like to use this butter because it has a higher fat percentage, resulting in a more tender final product.

Cultured butter

This butter is made with a soured cream that can have a slightly tangy flavor. It is great for toast, but the expense and flavor impact rule it out for baking for me.

Butter actually coats the strands of gluten, keeping them short and hindering their development, which keeps your baked goods tender and not chewy like a baguette.

If you're an experimental cook, try making your own spreadable butter

Butter tempurature 

The temperature of the butter is incredibly important. If you are hoping to cream the butter, then it needs to be at room temperature. If your room is cold, then feel free to microwave for 10 seconds or, my favorite, flash a blowtorch over the mixing bowl as it spins a few times. You can also fill a large glass jar with boiling water, let it sit for 1 minute, pour it out and then invert it over the stick of butter.

It’s just hot enough to make it go soft but not melty. That jar is hot though, so use an oven mitt. Or if you are practicing the “cut-in butter” method, then you’ll want to be sure your butter is straight-from-the-refrigerator cold so that it doesn’t melt and disappear into the flour. The small pellets of butter will then melt during the cooking process and leave tiny pockets behind. These pockets become flakes, and we love them and end up wearing them.

4. Sugar

A triangle is the common lingo for sugar in the pastry biz.

Some of the sugar in dough will melt during mixing, and some won’t. The sugars that do melt will coat the gluten, making it even more tender. The crystals that don’t melt during mixing will melt during baking, causing the product to spread. This is why your chocolate chip cookies on one day may be thick and the next day spread too far—it has to do with how long you mixed the butter and sugar.

Granulated sugar

Unless it’s specified in the recipe, “sugar” means granulated sugar. It’s our “all-purpose” sugar and the tiny crystals make creaming a breeze.

Check out Nutrition Diva's "Is Natural Sugar Better for You?" for more information on the sugar you're consuming. 

Brown sugar

Brown sugar is just granulated sugar with some of the molasses that was extracted during the refinement process added back to it. This extra moisture is what sends it into brick territory the day after we open it. Store it in an airtight container with some mini-marshmallows to keep it workable for a longer period of time. The added moisture in brown sugar will also promote spreading, which is why most chocolate chip cookies call for a combination of brown and granulated sugar. You get the best of both worlds.

Powdered (or confectioners) sugar

Powdered sugar is just regular sugar that’s been pulverized to dust. A small amount of cornstarch is added in to keep it loose. It’s not great for the creaming method but is great for making baked goods tender and sweet.

In a pinch, you can absolutely make your own powdered sugar if you have a high-powered blender.

5. Water

Cold water keeps the butter cold and hydrates the flour juuuuuust enough to come together. I fill up a Pyrex measuring cup with ice water and sprinkle it with my finger, holding in the ice. No, this is not an exact measurement, so add a little at a time and trust yourself.

About the Author

Kara Rota

Kara Rota headed children’s programming at Chicago’s Green City Market and studied food politics at Sarah Lawrence College. Kara has been a featured speaker at numerous venues including Food Book Fair, the Roger Smith Food Conference, and the Brooklyn Food Conference. She has written about food for Irish America Magazine, West Side Rag, Recipe Relay, and Food + Tech Connect, and is the former Director of Editorial & Partnerships at Cookstr.com.