As we all continue to bake up a storm, and as supplies for baking are slowly getting restocked at stores, take a moment to make sure you’ve got my top 5 unsung heroes of the baking aisle in your pantry. And save the last seven-layer bar for me.
Baking Hero #1: Canned Sweetened Condensed and Evaporated Milks
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Talk about shelf-stable treasures! These ingredients pop up in my baking projects all the time—whether it’s whipping up an easy caramel or flan, or making a pan of drop-everything-and-eat seven-layer bars. I keep a few cans of each in my pantry and continue to find new uses for them. Evaporated milk, for example, is the key to a super-fast, super-creamy stovetop mac and cheese as well as a rich vanilla custard. Sweetened condensed milk, on the other hand, mixed with whipped cream is a no-churn ice cream just waiting to be flavored and frozen.
What to stock: I usually keep two cans each of Carnation Sweetened Condensed Milk and Carnation Evaporated Milk in the house.
RELATED: What’s the Difference Between Condensed and Evaporated Milk?
Baking Hero #2: Chocolate Baking Bars
One of the problems with chocolate chips is that they are designed to not clump together, which is great for keeping them loose in the bag, and fine for cookie projects, but less ideal for baking where you want to melt them down as an ingredient. Keeping a variety of bars of baking chocolate is helpful for all sorts of uses, and you can still chop them up to use in cookies (I am always partial to a chunk over a chip anyway). It also gives you much more flexibility in type of chocolate you have at hand, ranging from white to milk in levels from 35-45%, semi-sweet from 50-60%, bittersweet from 65-75%, super darks of 80 or 90%, and your 100% unsweetened. Keep a variety and you can use the type of chocolate you most love to eat or mix up a custom blend.
What to stock: To cover the basics, try 2 bars each of unsweetened, semi-sweet, and bittersweet chocolate bars (my personal fave is Guittard).
RELATED: Your Complete Guide to Baking Chocolate
Baking Hero #3: Almond Extract
Sure, we all have vanilla in the house, and it is the king of flavor agents in baking. But for me, almond is the queen. The smallest amount amps up flavor in everything from nutty sweet breads, to fluffy frostings, to crunchy meringues. Just a drop or two in any coffee-flavored dessert will suddenly taste even more like coffee, and you never found a better pal for a shortbread cookie or a blondie, or a better way to punch up a fruit filling for a pie. Use judiciously, thought: Less is more with this potent ingredient, but that just means a good bottle will last a long time.
What to stock: One small bottle will do the trick until you’re hooked. Be sure to look for an all-natural product, like Simply Organic Almond Extract.
Baking Hero #4: Nonfat Milk Powder
No, I don’t recommend adding water and turning this into “milk” for drinking, but nonfat milk powder can be a terrific ingredient to add richness to baking without adding moisture, or to sub in for milk in baking if you have run out. Milk bread and English muffin recipes often call for added milk powder, and you can safely add it to almost any bake. Milk Bar owner and pastry chef extraordinaire Christina Tosi has been singing its praises for years and claims the secret to many of her bakes is that she adds a tablespoon of milk powder to almost everything. If you have kids at home, you can make an edible modeling clay with it that is as fun to eat as it is to play with! Milk powder also has a shelf life of almost infinity, so this can be your pantry pal for a long time to come.
What to stock: One canister of a traditional workhorse like Carnation or Nestlé will get you going. We also like Bobs Red Mill Milk Powder.
Baking Hero #5: Light Brown Sugar
Light brown sugar can go anywhere dark brown sugar can go but is also one of those ingredients that starts to find itself starring unexpectedly in recipes once you start using it. With a more interesting flavor than plain granulated, but without the intense molasses punch of dark brown sugar, light brown sugar brings elements of caramel, toffee, and butterscotch to a party, like in these shortbreads. I like starting with light brown sugar for caramel work; I love its ability to keep cakes and bar cookies soft and moist. (And if you only add one recipe to your baking repertoire, this peanut butter cookie should be it.) You can experiment with swapping light brown sugar in for granulated sugar 1:1 in recipes and see how things change for the better.
What to stock: I always keep a 2-pound bag in reserve. Don't overstock brown sugars as they have a tendency to harden and clump and you want them soft and spoonable.
RELATED: What’s the Difference Between Dark and Light Brown Sugars?
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