Baking Ingredients: A Guide To The Best-Kept Secrets

baking ingredientsI don’t mean to sound like Papa John’s, but when it comes to baking: better ingredients, better baked goods.

If you invest in bulk for certain specialty items, like vanilla, you can get a superior product for a lower price-to-volume ratio. But not even money can buy you baking bliss. You have to know the roles your ingredients play, the vital differences in flour protein content, the strengthening power of salt, and the difference between baking powder and baking soda.

Baking, like any art, requires knowledge and experience. Read the post below to unlock the secrets of baking ingredient knowledge, and pick up some experience with this online pastry school mastery course.


Flour is the interior architecture of baked goods. For this reason, controlling the amount of protein (gluten) in your flour is extremely important. By “controlling” I mean choosing which flours you buy. If you think about it in terms of architecture, you can see why we would want a sturdier design for things like breads (more protein) and a softer design for thinks like cakes and cookies (less protein). All-purpose flour is totally acceptable for your average baked good, but if you’re baking bread, buy bread flour; if you’re baking a specialty cake, buy cake flour. It makes all the difference. And if you are baking a cake, add a little panache with this free post on cake decorating tips.

You should also note that fats and sugars inhibit the toughening of protein. So a recipe with a seriously large amount of either might need an extra kick in the gluten. If you’re gluten free, however, do not fear: check out this gluten free online pastry school.


Hundreds of years ago, sourdough was the original yeast. This was followed by cake yeast (which you can still  buy today), and this was followed by active dry yeast, which you needed to double-check to make sure it was still alive before you used it. Now we have instant and rapid-rise yeast (but please note that active and instant yeast are interchangeable, while rapid-rise yeast is suitable for single rises but not multiple rises, such as those that breads require). Yeast leavens baked goods, just like baking powder and baking soda. The difference between these categories is that yeast is a living organism that produces carbon dioxide by eating the dough; baking soda/powder create carbon dioxide through a chemical reaction. Yeast requires three elements for growth: food (dough), moisture (water), and heat. Heat is the best way to slow or speed-up leavening.

Baking Powder / Soda

While baking powder and soda have replaced yeast almost entirely in cake baking, yeast is still king in fine, artisan breads. We already know what these ingredients do: produce carbon dioxide. The main disadvantages of using single acting baking powders and sodas is that their chemical reactions take place so quickly. Once they meet liquids, they need to find their way to the oven as quickly as possible. This is because baking powder and soda, unlike yeast, do not need heat to produce carbon dioxide. The main difference between using these ingredients comes down to acidity. If you aren’t dealing with other acidic ingredients (molasses, buttermilk, etc.), use baking soda; otherwise baking powder supplies a nice touch of acidity.

You can learn more about baking powder and other kitchen essentials with this article featuring ten tips to master the kitchen.


When using yeast, salt controls the rate of growth. This gives you that perfect, even, slow rise to heaven. A slower rise is actually responsible for the true “breadiness” flavor of bread, and there’ s a bit of science behind this, as well. I mentioned above that when yeast is heated, it produces carbon dioxide. Salt suppresses the carbon dioxide by bolstering the architecture of the protein. In this way, it traps the carbon dioxide and prevents it from expanding too quickly. Bread that is beautifully grained and textured is bread that has the perfect amount of salt.


Liquid quality and temperature apply most critically to yeast-leavened products. Best to use filtered water if you can. But temperature is important because if you use liquid that is too cold, you will “freeze” the yeast; not literally, of course, but you will drastically slow down or stop the growth of yeast. Liquid that is too hot will kill the yeast, which is just as bad.

  • General Baking: For dry yeast that is being added directly to liquid, use liquid that is between 110-115 degrees Fahrenheit. If you already mixed your yeast into other dry ingredients, raise the liquid temperature to the 120-130 degree range.
  • Bread Baking: Liquids should be as close to 80 degrees Fahrenheit as possible. The best way to measure temperature is with a baking thermometer.

Sugar / Sweeteners

Yeast loves sugar, and this killer combo improves flavor. Sugar is also responsible for crust color. If your crusts are too dark, you’re probably using too much sugar; too light, too little. But sugar has other nuances, too. It traps moisture, for one, so your goods don’t dry out, and it smoothes the texture into an even consistency. The most important thing to remember is that artificial sweeteners do not provide food for yeast, so will get terrible results if you try to mix the two. Otherwise, sweeteners can be interchanged universally, but in my opinion, there ain’t nothin’ like the real thing. And the same goes for cookies: bake the real deal with this world-of-cookies pastry arts course.


Lastly, fats and oils are about tenderness and fluffiness. They smother the protein molecules in flour so that they don’t become as rigid as hard-crust bread. When fats and sugars mix, air pockets are formed and this, along with salt, helps give baked goods that perfect texture and grain.

Bread Tip: If you have a bread recipe that doesn’t call for butter or oil, you can add one-three tablespoons, depending on the degree of your butter-phobia. I highly recommend this if your bread isn’t quite as soft as you would like it to be. Another fantastic benefit is that a touch of fats will keep your bread fresh for considerably longer. And spread throughout a loaf, this only adds up to 10-20 additional calories per thick slice.

You can pick up other bread baking secrets with this five-star artisan bread baking class.