Baking is honestly so fascinating to me. I’m not a chemist, but I’d like to think I’m becoming somewhat of a baking chemist. Is that a thing? Truthfully, I’ve never considered myself to be above the average intelligence. Yet, the more I bake, the more I like to learn how each ingredient and step plays a role in the overall success of my finished product. The sum really is greater than the parts.

Baking can be so many things: It’s a tasty hobby, it’s a learned skill, it’s a well deserved break from the day to day. I’ll tell you what it shouldn’t be, a frustrating or anxiety ridden ordeal. Look, I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been plenty upset or frustrated when I open the oven and pull out a flat cake, with a sink hole or a puddle of cookies. But, as I’ve understood the “why” behind the chemistry of baking, these frustrating experiences tend to occur with much less frequency. The reality is, messing up is just a part of life and when I do mess up a recipe, I can just laugh it off now, because it doesn’t happen like it used to. No biggie!

In this post I’m going to give a brief overview of the most common ingredients and what they do. After reading this, I’m willing to bet you’ll have more success in your baking because of your overall understanding.

Ingredients

All-purpose Flour

Builds structure as it absorbs liquids and expands. All-purpose flour falls in the middle of bread flour (high in gluten) and cake flour (low in gluten). It’s exactly what it is named, all-purpose, the most universal flour that can be used in most baked goods.

Almond Flour

Is mildly sweet and adds a certain richness to your baked goods. Almond flour will extend the shelf life of your treat because it adds more fat which helps retain moisture.

Almond Extract

Adds a unique sweet and nutty flavor to your dough.

Baking Chocolate

Provides a more concentrated chocolate flavor to your treat.

Baking Powder

Puffs up your batter or dough instead of spreading it out. Baking powder contains a little bit of baking soda, an acid & cornstarch. Because of this, it only needs a liquid to react. It also consists of two different acids, so it’s double reacting. It reacts as soon as it’s mixed with a moisture and then again when it’s heated up.

Baking Soda

Elevates the pH level of your batter or dough. It increases the spread in your treat and encourages browning, which gives the crispy outside and soft inside texture that everyone loves. Baking soda needs both an acid and a liquid to react. Things that will activate your baking soda are: vinegar, fruit juice, molasses, brown sugar, tartar, buttermilk and sour cream. Baking soda only reacts once, which is right when it’s mixed into your batter or dough. The soda creates little air bubbles all throughout your treat. When the air bubbles get heated up in the oven, they expand.

Bleached Flour

Allows more moisture to be absorbed and makes your dough and batter less sticky. It helps with the structure of your baked treat.

Butterscotch Chips

Made of sugar, palm oil, whey, non-fat milk, lecithin, vanilla and natural flavor. These tiny chips add a burst of butterscotch flavor to your treat.

Bread Flour

Is higher in protein and creates thicker treats. This is best used for bread and shouldn’t be used as a substitution for all-purpose or cake flour.

Browned Butter

Browning butter adds a nutty and rich flavor to your frosting, cookies, brownies or cake.

Brown Sugar

Is granulated sugar with a little molasses mixed in. Molasses is a somewhat smoky flavored natural sweetener, which makes brown sugar a bit sweeter than granulated sugar. Brown sugar draws more moisture into your treat, keeping it softer for longer. It’s also more acidic, which means it will help activate your baking soda.

Cake Flour

Has a lower amount of protein and is very fine. It gives your treat a specific flavor and makes them very white or light in color. It’s made of soft wheat so it should not be used in place of all-purpose or bread flour. Only use when your recipe specifically calls for it.

Canned Pumpkin

Brings moisture and a smooth, rich pumpkin flavor. Canned pumpkin is reliable and convenient for baking.

Cinnamon

A seasoning that adds a nice spice to your treat.

Cinnamon Chips

Made from sugar, palm oil, cinnamon, non-fat dry milk, and soy lecithin. They add sweet bursts of cinnamon flavor throughout your dessert.

Cloves

A seasoning that adds a nice spice to your treat.

Chopped Pecans

Adds a crunch to your treat, while also slightly offsetting the sweetness and sugar.

Chopped Candy Bars

Adds a burst of different flavors and textures, making each bite of your baked treat unique.

Chocolate Chips

Is a form of chocolate. Chocolate chips are not pure chocolate, they are typically made up of cocoa, sugar, emulsifier and vanilla. Chips are good for baking because they do not melt completely in the oven like pure chocolate would. That way you get confined pockets of chocolate throughout your treat.

Cocoa Powder

Provides a rich, sweet chocolate flavor. Creates a dark brown color in your treat. Absorbs water in your batter or dough at the same rate as flour. That means, if you add too much, you could end up with a dried, crumbly finished product.

Coconut Extract

Adds a sweet tropical flavor to your treats.

Coconut Oil

Can assist in leavening like butter. It’s best to chill your dough or batter when using so that it doesn’t melt down too quickly in your oven. This ingredient should be measured in its solid state and then melted down to mix in.

Coconut Sugar

Similar to brown sugar but comes from the sap of a coconut tree. Gives your treat a brown color and a sweet caramelized flavor.

Cornstarch

Helps create a crumbly tender texture to toppings. Softens cookies, brownies and cakes. And it can also thicken sauces and fillings.

Dehydrated Apples

Adding all the apple flavor without adding extra liquid. Dehydrated apples provide a more controlled moisture content, ensuring the treat stays chewy and not soggy.

Dulce De Leche

Is a Latin American confection that tastes like a milky caramel. It can be bought from the grocery store or made by slowly boiling down sweetened condensed milk. This ingredient will add moisture & flavor to your treat, plus a gooey texture.

Eggs

Adds both a protein (egg whites) and fat (egg yolks). The egg whites help with rising because, when foamed, little air pockets get trapped inside the egg white mixture. The water content in egg whites encourages steam while baking, which helps with gluten formation, resulting in nice and thick treats. Egg yolks have emulsifying properties that bring batters and doughs together and help them from collapsing. Unless otherwise specified, always use large eggs.

Egg Yolks

Adding extra egg yolks to your batter will add extra richness and chewiness to your cookie or brownie.

Fine Sea Salt

Enhances flavor, adds balance, masks any bitter flavors. Salt is the most powerful and oldest preservative. Always make sure to use fine sea salt so it melts down at the right speed in the heat of the oven. If you use larger granule salt, it will not melt down fully when baked and will leave salt crystals throughout your treat, making it crunch like you dropped it into sand.

Ginger

A seasoning that adds a nice spice to your treat.

Granulated Sugar

Adds sweetness, provides a caramelized flavor and crisp texture. Sugar assists with rising when creamed with butter. It helps add moisture to your treat and helps it evenly spread as it melts into a liquid in the heat of the oven. Sugar also helps with naturally preserving your baked treat.

Greek Yogurt

Adds moisture and a tangy flavor to your baked treat.

Heavy Whipping Cream

Makes a softer, more spreadable frosting. When melted with chocolate it adds more fat and moisture to the mixture, resulting in a silkier blend.

Honey

Has a distinct flavor, will sweeten and soften your treat and give it a brown color.

Lemon Extract

Adds a fresh zing and flavor to your treat.

Maple Syrup

Do not use imitation, the real thing is better. Adds a distinct flavor and sweetness to your treat, while also softening it.

Margarine

Imitation butter, not the real thing. Do not use this unless specifically told to in your recipe or you are trying to make your recipe Vegan friendly.

Milk

Adds moisture to the batter or dough. Milk adds protein and sugar (lactose) to your treat. It encourages browning and adds a bit more sweetness to your baked treat.

Molasses

Is a natural sweetener with a distinct tangy flavor. Molasses is able to absorb water, which adds more moisture into your baked treat. Not only it will help your treat have an extended shelf life, it also keep it soft and chewy for longer.

Nutmeg

A seasoning that adds a nutty flavor to your treat.

Oats

Provides some fiber. Absorbs liquid in the dough or batter, making a chewy texture. It adds a slight nutty flavor and a layer of nutritional value, making baked treats slightly more wholesome.

Overripe Bananas

Provide sweetness and moisture to your treat. You want your bananas overripe so that they are extra sweet, easy to mash and add more moisture than ripe or unripe bananas.

Pastry Flour

Is like cake flour, but unbleached. It’s fine and also low in protein.

Peanut Butter

Adds another fat into your dough or batter that melts easily, allowing your treat to spread a little more. It will also add a creamy texture & rich flavor to your treat.

Peanut butter Chips

Small, flavored morsels that look similar to chocolate chips but are made with a mix of peanut butter, oil, and milk.

Powdered Sugar

Is just finely ground granulated sugar. It will absorb moisture in your batter or dough. It dissolves easily, ensuring a smooth texture without grittiness. Because it is so fine, it can melt quickly in the oven and spread cookies out more. Powdered sugar also stabilizes and thickens the frosting, thanks to the small amount of cornstarch it contains.

Self-rising Flour

Is all-purpose flour with baking powder and salt added. It should not be used unless your recipe specifically calls for it, or you could very well end up with too much salt and rising agent.

Shortening

Being 100% fat, it provides a flakier texture and prevents spreading because it does not melt down in the oven.

Sour Cream

Is a very fatty dairy product. The extra fat will make your treat more moist and rich. It also is acidic so it will help baking soda react, which helps your treat rise.

Superfine Sugar

Is between granulated sugar and powdered sugar on the fineness scale. It will melt down quicker in your oven and result is cookies that spread out more.

Turbinado Sugar

This is raw sugar and have very large granules. It will not melt down in your oven like granulated sugar, so I do not recommend using it as a substitution for sugar. This is best as a topping.

Unsalted Butter

It is always important to use unsalted butter when baking. If you use salted butter, you have no way of knowing how much salt you are adding to your dough or batter and it will result in an overly salted treat.

Butter adds fats to your dough or batter which helps with moistness, flavor and texture. Butter melts at body temperature, which creates a ‘melt in your mouth’ sensation.

When baking with butter the temperature is important. If the butter is too warm your treat will melt down too fast and overspread in the oven, leaving you with a greasy, flat mess. If your butter is too cold it will have the opposite problem and not melt down enough, leaving your treat too thick.

Vanilla Extract

When using pure vanilla extract, as opposed to imitation flavoring, it will add the deep rich flavor that everybody wants in a treat.

Vegetable Oil

100% fat, contains no water and has a higher melting point. This means it will not melt down in your oven, resulting in thicker cookies or brownies. It doesn’t help leaven your treat like butter can, so it can make your treat flatter and greasier.

White Chocolate Chips

Made of milk, sugar and cocoa butter. No actual cocoa solids are used in white chocolate. White chocolate is sweeter than milk or dark chocolate.

Yeast

Provides flavor and carbon dioxide, making your dough rise. It must be mixed with a warm liquid and sugar in order to activate.

Wrap Up & Bake

Now, I know this isn’t every single ingredient, but it’s the lions share of the most common ingredients used. When you bake, knowledge is power! The more you learn about how these ingredients interact with one another, the quicker you’ll add layers to your ability to bake and improvise. In fact, maybe the single biggest part of creating your own recipes, is in understanding the chemistry of how each ingredient interacts. Did I miss any of the big ingredients or one you use a lot? Comment below and let me know, I will add it to the list!

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