For this year's holidays, almost everyone is doing more entertaining at home and baking treats to share with their families and friends. When you take the time to bake, you'll have the best results if you use high-quality ingredients. Watch for specials on baking ingredients as the holidays approach.
Butter: Butter is the fat preferred by many because of its distinctive flavor. Butter and margarine both contain 80 percent butterfat. Do not use reduced-fat spreads for baking unless there are directions on the package that reflect making substitutions. Always use butter when you are making cut-out cookies because the chilled dough will be firmer and much easier to roll out. Land O'Lakes says that salted and unsalted butter are interchangeable, though some bakers disagree.
Flour: Flour contains protein, which provides the structure needed in baked goods. All-purpose flour can be used for cakes, cookies, breads and pastries. For high volume in yeast breads, use bread flour. Cake flour has less protein and more starch and results in delicate cakes. Whole-wheat flour contains the whole grain and adds a nutty flavor, but baked goods made from 100 percent whole-wheat flour will be heavy and dense. Whole-wheat flour keeps longer when stored in the freezer.
Sugar: Granulated sugar is the sugar used most often in baking. Because powdered sugar can clump, it should be sifted after measuring. Light brown sugar and dark brown sugar contain a little molasses and can be used interchangeably, but dark brown sugar has a stronger flavor. To measure, firmly pack brown sugar into a dry measuring cup.
Eggs: Almost all baked goods contain eggs, and most recipes are developed using large eggs. It is easiest to separate egg yolk and white when the egg is cold, but egg whites at room temperature beat to the highest volume. For any recipes that do not thoroughly cook the eggs, purchase pasteurized eggs to ensure food safety.
Vanilla: Pure vanilla extract has a delicate spicy flavor and is worth the expense. Imitation vanilla lacks that delicate flavor and can leave a bitter aftertaste. Let hot mixtures cool slightly before adding vanilla so it doesn't evaporate. When stored in a cool, dark place, vanilla extract will keep for one year.
Chocolate: Unsweetened chocolate is pure chocolate liquor from ground cacao beans. It contains no sugar and is available in powder and bar form. Semisweet and bittersweet chocolate bars contain varying amounts of chocolate liquor and sugar. Chocolate that has a higher percentage of cacao adds a more intense chocolate flavor. Because semisweet chocolate morsels or chips contain stabilizers, they do not melt smoothly and are best used whole.
To melt chocolate, place coarsely chopped chocolate in a bowl and place the bowl over simmering water. Do not let the water touch the bowl. Or melt in a microwave oven on medium power, one minute at a time, stirring after each minute.
Milk and whipping cream: Whole milk is best for baking because it has the highest amount of fat, but reduced-fat and skim milk are acceptable substitutes. Use whole milk in puddings and pie fillings, custards and pastry cream.
Whipping cream is sometimes called heavy cream. Because ultra-pasteurized cream has been heated to kill bacteria, it keeps longer than old-fashioned cream but takes longer to whip. For best results chill the mixing bowl and beaters before whipping cream.
Sweetened condensed milk is very thick and sweet. Evaporated milk has a concentrated flavor because water has been removed. Double-check your recipe to be sure you are using the right one.
Cream cheese: It's important to use high-quality cream cheese for best results in baking. Cream cheese that is lower in cost won't provide the same smooth texture as national brands. Cream cheese must be beaten until it's smooth and creamy before adding other ingredients or it will remain lumpy.
Baking powder and baking soda: If you don't bake often, it is a good idea to test baking powder and baking soda to be sure they are still active. To test baking powder, add 2 teaspoons to 1/2 cup hot water and look for tiny bubbles. Baking soda is used in products containing acids such as buttermilk, honey and brown sugar. Add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda to 2 teaspoons vinegar to test activity.
Spices: Cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg and ginger add spicy flavor to baking, especially around the holidays. If you bought spices last year for holiday baking, it's probably a good idea to replace them. Pumpkin pie spice and apple pie spice contain a combination of spices. Use about 11/2 times the amount of pumpkin pie spice as the amount of cinnamon in the recipe if it is the only spice you are using.
Pat Sinclair, of Edina, is the author of "Baking Basics and Beyond."