Do ingredients matter?

How much do individual ingredients matter when you're baking? After years of baking, we’ve formed our own opinions of where the quality cost and taste of certain ingredients matter. Professional and home-bakers alike, question which ingredients to choose.

THE QUESTION: If you use a more expensive chocolate chip or bar - like Scharffen Berger or Callebaut, will it taste any better than using Hershey'sNestle or grocery brands?

How about the flour, eggs or butter? Will this give you a better-baked product?

It’s the nature of a “smart” baker to ask questions. Here’s our perspective on the answers.

Flour

Flour provides the structure for the product. The gluten, or protein, in flour, combines to form a web that traps air bubbles and sets. Starch in flour sets as it heats, so to add to and support the structure and keep things where they should be. In cakes, cookies, and quick breads, we want little gluten formation, which makes products tough. By adding the fats and sugars this will help to prevent gluten formation. In most baked goods, all-purpose flour is a good choice; it has less gluten than bread flour.

Taking a walk down the grocery-baking aisle, the store-brand flour may be the more economically friendly choice as compared to a trusted brand name like  King Arthur. The foodie in you says that the King Arthur must be better. King Arthur has earned a reputation for being the top of the flour heap when it comes to baking.

All flours must meet certain government standards. Unless you are buying organic flour then they are all pretty much the same but there is something about  King Arthur that feels differently – it is smooth, silky in consistency and has never failed us in the kitchen.

Sugar

The purpose of sugar in baked goods, besides sweetness and flavor is smoothness – sugar melts and creates a texture 

that compliments what you are baking (cakes are fluffier, cookies are crispier, brownies are "fudgier") When heated, sugar reacts with proteins from other ingredients causing the browning. Darker crusts usually have an abundance of sugar. In bread, sugar is key to yeast formation.

For white sugar - Granulated sugar and other coarser crystal-size sugars will "promote spread" in your cookies; powdered sugar will reduce the spread.Brown sugar (either dark or light) gives your cookies their darker or lighter color; the dark brown, with more molasses, will add sweetness.

When a recipe calls for ‘creaming’ butter and sugar together it is important to not skip this step – by doing this, you are incorporating the two ingredients that make the biggest difference to your treats by assuring even distribution in your cookies, cakes. Air bubbles form in the butter and when a leavening agent is added it causes the air bubbles to expand. Rising in the oven is the result of this.

Eggs 

We stand firm on this fact...the fresher the better. Older eggs will not whip as high of produce as much volume for any of your baked goods be it cookie, cakes or custard pies.  Eggs create volume in your baked goods, so if they are not fresh, they will not create the volume you need to bake. Since this delicious ingredient also provides browning, or color, the fresher egg will give you the best color.

Butter

But surely splurging on the other ingredients, especially the flavor boosters — butter, chocolate and vanilla — would lead to tastier baked goods.

When it comes to butter, which helps your baked goods to be moist and tender, research tells us that an expensive, European butter may add a richness and depth you might not get with a less expensive butter. However, liking that rich flavor is a matter of personal taste. It is important to note that some generic butter also contains water, which in turn can make batter(s) and mixes runny.

Most importantly: unsalted butter ensures that you can control the amount of salt you add to your cakes and cookies. Different companies add different amounts of salt to their butter. How are we to know how salty our butter is, and how we should adjust the salt in the recipe? It’s too much of a guessing game. Removing the salt from the butter equation puts us in control of salting. Control is very important when it comes to flavor.

When a recipe calls for unsalted butter that means that the salt levels in the recipe account for no other salt source. If all you have salted butter, try cutting the instructed salt amount in half.

Also, salt is a preservative. Salted butter has a longer shelf life than unsalted butter. That means that unsalted butter is typically fresher.

Does butter really go bad? Yes -- unfortunately it does! Unsalted butter lasts about 1 month in the refrigerator. Salted butter lasts for just over 3 months in the refrigerator (that’s so long, right?). If you think your butter might be off, give it a good sniff. The nose always knows. Also, slice your butter. Is the inside the same color as the outside… or is the outside a darker casing around the butter? Bad butter is two different colors.

Using room temperature butter will help blending and better holding together of ingredients.

Chocolate

The star attraction in a chocolate chip cookie is, of course, the chocolate — a mix of cacao (the part of the cacao bean that's not the fat), sugar and fat (cocoa butter).

The experts agree that a baking chocolate should be at least 60% cacao, which means that 60 percent is pure chocolate and the rest is made up of sugar, cocoa butter and other ingredients. Chocolate for baking comes in a number of forms including cocoa powder, chips, discs and bars in varying sizes.

If you want that chocolate cupcake, fluffy chocolate layer cake or creamy chocolate mousse to impress even the pickiest of dessert eaters, then you may choose to go with the chocolate that master chefs and bakers tout as the best baking chocolate. Those would include Scharffen Berger, Valrhona, Callebaut and E. Guittard among others. These chocolates can be found in specialty food stores and cooking shops.

There is little or no milk in dark chocolate. Most recipes call for semi-sweet chocolate, as it is a nice blend of flavor, not too sweet.

But the ultimate test comes down to taste – our final conclusion is that only you can determine what is best by the taste, but with some ingredients we wouldn’t take any chances…

**Credit research to King Arthur, Gourmet Magazine, Real Simple.com