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