Essential Tools

9 Specialty Baking Products Worth Seeking Out

As more people are catching the baking bug, more products are popping up that claim to make baking better and more delicious. There are dough improvers that make your dough easier to roll out; there are powdered sugars that will never melt; there's pre-toasted coconut and flavored sanding sugar and powdered peanut butter.

As a site built around home cooks, we couldn’t help but wonder: Which of these products are people using?

Along with my thoughts, I also asked a few serious bakers to tell us which specialty products they're loyal to. Here are nine we think may be worth making room for in your pantry:

1. Harder-to-Find Flours:

I seek out baking flours that you might not find at any given grocery store—King Arthur Flour's Whole Wheat Pastry Flour, in particular. I use it to make a whole wheat versions of many of my favorite recipes. Replacing other flours with 100% whole wheat flour is tricky because whole wheat flour absorbs moisture differently and has a very high protein content (usually around 13 to 15%, whereas all-purpose ranges between 10 to 12%). Since pastry flour has a lower protein content (between 7 to 9%), whole wheat pastry flour acts can mimic all-purpose flour in many recipes.

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I also stock up on White Whole Wheat Flour, mostly because my mother uses it constantly and is always singing its praises (mainly that her grandkids can’t tell the difference from white flour).

2. Malt Syrup and Powder:

When I worked in a bread bakery, we added malt syrup to every recipe we made, but Tom Hirschfeld uses diastatic malt powder even at home: “I ordered some specifically for bread. It was a good investment. It helps breads brown, adds shelf life, breaks down the starches to sugar, and helps build the crust and crumb. It also makes for really brown, crispy yeasted waffles.”

Lunch box bread for this weeks school lunches. It's 100% whole wheat and to give it good oven spring I add a tablespoon of Diastatic Malt Powder, made from barley flour, which is an enzyme that helps the yeast gobble up the flour. As a bonus it helps with shelf life. #baking #bread #sundaybaking

Joy Huang from The Cooking of Joy agrees: “I’d say this falls under the 'could do without, but would like to have' category. I only picked up the diastatic malt powder because I was committed to making Thomas Keller's croissant recipe in the Bouchon Bakery cookbook (go big or go home, right?). It’s sold in 16-ounce bags, so I've been trying to use it up whenever I make yeasted products… I think the dough has risen higher, the crust has turned browner, and there is a little more flavor in the product.”

Joy Huang | The Cooking of Joy
Joy Huang | The Cooking of Joy
I used Dan Leader's 4-Hour Baguette recipe but subbed in some bread flour and added 1 teaspoon of diastatic malt powder

3. Milk Powder:

Lots of bakers use powdered milk products, which provide the richness of dairy with more control over moisture content.

Rose Levy Beranbaum uses "Baker's Special Dry Milk" for bread with a smoother and more mellow flavor, a more tender texture, and a significantly higher rise. "Unlike 'instant' dry milk, which is intended to be reconstituted and processed at low heat, the 'Baker’s Special Dry Milk' is heated during production to a high enough temperature to deactivate the enzyme protease, which [otherwise] impairs yeast production. This variety of dry milk will not reconstitute in liquid so it must be added to the flour. The high heat process also produces an exceptionally fine powder, which disperses uniformly through the dry ingredients.”

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Top Comment:
“KAF's Fiore de Sicilia - much more than a mix of lemon and vanilla, it takes cream cheese frosting to a new level and is also good wherever you would use vanilla. It is strong, so use ~ half as much as you would vanilla.”
— plevee

Personally, I’m a fan of their coconut milk powder, and I use it to make coconut flavored frostings and glazes.

4. Ascorbic Acid and Citric Acid:

Ascorbic acid promotes yeast growth, which makes it a great addition to bread recipes. Joanne Chang from Boston's Flour Bakery says that they add “a pinch of it in croissant dough. It helps the dough stay whiter and have better elasticity.”

But Tom Hirshfeld—always looking for multi-tasking ingredients—pointed out that citric acid works, too. “I add citric acid to doughs—I have it on hand for canning tomatoes and other vegetables, so I don't buy ascorbic.”

5. Vital Wheat Gluten:

In addition to being the main ingredient in seitan, vital wheat gluten can add structure and elasticity to bread doughs. Tom uses them when making egg pasta, too: “I look at things like this as tools in the toolbox, and while I might not use them all the time, when I need them, I really need them.”

6. Instant Clearjel:

As a serious pie lover, I feel I must share my personal experiences with Instant Clearjel, a thickener specifically meant for fruit-based pie fillings. It works just like other starches (cornstarch, tapioca starch, etc.) but it’s highly concentrated, able to withstand high temperatures, and can even work without being heated. I think it has a slightly unpleasant smell on its own, but you use so much less of it in comparison to other starches that it isn’t really a factor. I use it a lot when I have especially-juicy fruit in the summer.

7. Flavors, Oils, and Extracts:

This is one area where I find speciality products indispensable, and I’m not alone. “Probably my favorite find is the King Arthur Flour Vanilla Plus, which is basically part vanilla extract, part vanilla bean paste. You get the goodness of vanilla bean paste but it pours out so nicely, so it eliminates the sticky hassle,” says Molly Yeh. “And I love their coconut flavor oil.”

While I haven’t used all of King Arthur's flavorings, I find the ones I have used (bitter almond oil, coconut oil, butter rum flavor, maple flavor) are nicely concentrated and balanced.

8. Flavored Sugars and Decorative Sugars:

Dorie Greenspan admits to being “a sucker for sugar. I have sanding sugars in lots of colors and I love that pearl sugar looks like polka dots."

Sprinkle expert Molly Yeh buys "tasty flavored decorating sugarsButternut Sugar is so good. [King Arthur Flour's] naturally-colored sprinkles are great and good looking.”

The food stylist in me is also fond of their non-melting powdered sugar, because I can use it with confidence, even when the dessert is going to sit out for awhile (or be refrigerated). I use it to dust the tops of fresh fruit tarts, to coat doughnuts, and more.

9. Speciality Powders:

I may be alone on this train, but I don’t care: I’m a big fan of various powders for baking. I add lemon juice powder into fruit pies so I’m not contributing to the already-too-juiciness, and also to lemon desserts for an extra-sour pang.

While it’s pretty specialized, I also adore powdered peanut butter. I mainly use it to flavor my own sugar for doughnuts or for sprinkling on top of baked goods before they go in the oven, but I occasionally dust it directly onto peanut-buttery desserts, and I’m not sorry.

What specialty products do you use? Any that you could—or could not—live without?

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • SophieL
  • plevee
  • AntoniaJames
  • BeckinBigD
  • fiveandspice
I always have three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's wrapped in a pastry crust. My newest cookbook, Savory Baking, came out in Fall of 2022 - is full of recipes to translate a love of baking into recipes for breakfast, dinner, and everything in between!


SophieL May 1, 2016
My newest favorite is Penzey's Pie Spice - I've added it to recipes that call for cinnamon, as well as to my morning oatmeal, box cake/cookie mix, and sour cream to dip strawberries. Other Penzey's favorites are their herb blends especially Sunny Paris, Mural of Flavors, and Tuscan Sunset. A sprinkle to most everything I cook just elevates the dish.
plevee April 25, 2016
KAF's Fiore de Sicilia - much more than a mix of lemon and vanilla, it takes cream cheese frosting to a new level and is also good wherever you would use vanilla. It is strong, so use ~ half as much as you would vanilla.
BeckinBigD May 11, 2016
This is one of my absolute favorite flavorings. Very strong, a little goes a long way, but oh so delicious!
AntoniaJames April 25, 2016
At the risk of drawing the ire and snarky comments of those Food52'ers who have criticized me for posting long comments, I share this tip, in a spirit of helpfulness.

One of my favorite non-artisanal whole wheat bread recipes, from the great British bread expert, Dan Lepard, calls for half a 500 mg Vitamin C tablet - ascorbic acid, of course. It's readily accessible, and it works!

Lepard explains: "All wheat flour contains a naturally occurring chemical called glutathione in the starch, which is used by the seed as it sprouts and grows into a plant. But when we try to bake with wheat flour, the same chemical also stops some of that elastic stretchiness we want in the dough. If you use all white flour, the effect of this chemical isn't so noticeable. But change to wholemeal flour, which contains much less starch, and the effect can cause a heavy loaf.

Vitamin C has a way of stopping this chemical causing mischief. It's one of the few additives allowed in organic baking by the Soil Association, and even the protective French baking laws approve of a little being added. You only need a smidgeon, so a half or even a quarter of a vitamin tablet will do, but it will help to make your bread light."

I highly recommend this:

fiveandspice April 25, 2016
Oh my gosh, that's brilliant!
Matilda L. April 25, 2016
But I love reading your long, helpful comments, AntoniaJames! I'm always up for learning something new and your words deliver.
AntoniaJames April 25, 2016
I recommend his roasted cocoa cookies, too . . . . ;o)
AntoniaJames April 25, 2016
That's so kind of you Matilda. Thank you. ;o)
pamelalee April 26, 2016
I always appreciate the information and helpful tips you share, AntoniaJames. I consider you one of my cooking mentors! I’m amazed at your willingness to take the time to write detailed responses.
NotTooSweet May 11, 2016
I echo the sentiments of other AJ fans! Your comments and tips are always useful. You can take as many words as needed, IMHO.