It's worth it to spend a bit more on fresh spices and good butter when it comes to holiday baking.
The best baked goods come from the best ingredients. But quality can be spendy. And, frankly, you probably would not notice the difference of using premium ingredients in, say, an everyday pan of brownies.
Yet because so much of holiday baking is about butter-rich cookies, bread and desserts, it's worth the money and the time spent searching out the best of the best. Within reason. Which reasons? See below:
You needn't upgrade your whole pantry. Staples such as flour, sugar, salt and yeast don't have a dramatic range of quality. Yeast breads benefit from using bread flour; its higher protein level helps support the loftiest loaf, especially one with dried fruits or butter. For more tender treats such as cookies, cakes and pie crusts, use softer all-purpose flour.
Freshness, more than quality, is the key: Opening a new box of baking powder or baking soda helps ensure that your baked goods achieve the highest heights.
Stock up on fragrance
Spices also have a shelf life and, while they don't spoil, they can lose their "oomph." A general rule is to replace them every six months, so it makes sense to buy in small quantities. Storage conditions vary, and the directive to store them in "airtight containers in cool, dry places" has a lot of leeway in some climates.
So for baked goods in which spice is a star, buy a new supply. Even better, grind some fresh from whole seeds. A new jar of ground cardamom is good, but cardamom freshly ground is a revelation. Ditto for cloves, coriander, allspice, cinnamon, anise. Nutmeg needs a rough grater -- and the fragrance alone is worth the effort.
You don't need a fancy spice grinder. If you have a coffee grinder, thoroughly wipe down the blades, basin and lid with a damp cloth. (Repeat the wipedown before grinding your next batch of coffee beans.) Another method, after grinding spices, is to process a little rice into fine particles, then discard the rice and wipe it out; this will get rid of the oils and residue from the spices.
For even more intensity, lightly toast the seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat before grinding. This won't take more than a minute.
While we're talking about flavorings, use pure vanilla extract -- not vanilla flavoring or artificial vanilla. Most of the pure vanilla on store shelves is from Madagascar, whose beans have an especially rich, smooth flavor when steeped in alcohol. It may seem expensive, but teaspoon by teaspoon, worth every penny.
And here's a tip: Don't add vanilla to hot liquids because as the alcohol evaporates, so does some of the vanilla flavor.
Best of the butter
Butter is the ingredient that can make the most difference, especially with treats such as spritz or sugar cookies. Use unsalted butter for baking, which lets you control the level of salt. Also, do not consider using whipped butter or whipped margarine for baking because the extra water they contain will adversely affect your recipe.
European butters generally have more butterfat and less water than domestic brands do. But that doesn't necessarily make them better for certain baked goods. Too much fat, and your cookies may spread into flat splotches. But the same butter could make an amazing croissant.
Nor is flavor always the best determinant. Several years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle tested a variety of butters, plain and in baked goods. The results were all over the map, with some tasty butters baking poorly, and some so-so butters making a fine shortbread.
So where does that leave us?
The good folks at America's Test Kitchen consider the Danish brand Lurpak unsalted butter "highly recommended" for eating and baking, and our own Land O'Lakes unsalted butter was "recommended" -- and for half the price.
Keep track of which brands work best for various baked goods. In fact, make it a new tradition!
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185
Poll: Which 2013 Taste Holiday Cookie Contest entry do you most want to try?