Photo courtesy of Iaszlofromhalifax Parsons on Flickr
What are the very basic baking ingredients? The top answers would be flour, sugar and eggs. Ask that question again and butter will surely make the list, plus rising agents like baking soda, baking powder and yeast. Then there’s cocoa, chocolate, vanilla extract etc.
… But surely there are many others that are worth mentioning but never seem to get the credit they deserve… like:
Yes, water! Just because it’s readily available, its importance in the science of baking has always been underrated. It is simply taken for granted, and others don’t even think about it as an ingredient. We should all realize that the amount of water in baked products directly affect their quality, taste, texture, aroma and volume. Even if a recipe does not actually list water, it is still present in most of the other ingredients, in one form or another.
Have we asked ourselves why practically all baked recipes call for salt? What is it for? How does it affect our finished product? Salt actually plays a crucial role in the art and science of baking. In breads, salt controls the growth of yeast and makes gluten stronger, making it less prone to tearing.2 In pastries, salt cuts through the oily feel and promotes browning. Most importantly perhaps is that salt wakes up the flavors, making everything more delicious.3
Chickpea flour is not very popular in mainstream baking perhaps because not many people even know what it is. Chickpea flour is also known by its other names gram flour, garbanzo bean flour or besan flour. It is a staple ingredient in Indian, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes. It has a slightly nutty flavor, totally gluten-free, packed with iron, phosphorous and protein. It is a perfect substitute for wheat flour when baking breads, muffins and cookies.4
A real “superfood”, quinoa is often mispronounced (say keen-wah) and totally underrated in baking. It is actually the seed of a flowering green called goosefoot plant, related to chard and spinach. It’s like a cereal, but not really, hence its nickname “pseudo-cereal”. It has low gluten-content and is therefore less allergenic. It packs all 9 amino acids mostly found only in animal protein and has high magnesium content. It can be ground for use as a flour substitute for baking where it lends a delicate nutty flavor to cakes and other healthier dessert6 creations.
Molasses is that thick dark syrup left behind when sugar cane is processed during the production of refined sugar. It has a strong, sweet and faintly bitter flavor. It is great for baking spice cookies, cakes and gingerbread without making them overly sweet. Molasses makes baked products extra moist much longer. Many home bakers are reluctant to use molasses because they have little or no experience using it. Nutritionally, molasses packs quite a punch – it has a low glycemic index; it is rich in iron and in the minerals folate, magnesium, calcium, potassium, zinc, manganese and copper.8
In baking, almond extract is a poor second to vanilla in terms of popularity. It is a traditional flavoring for Indian mild curries and sweet rice puddings. In the Middle East, it is a common ingredient for meat stews. Most American bakers still prefer the more familiar vanilla extract. Only the real experts appreciate almond extract for what it is – a nutty flavor that’s never overwhelming or overpowering. It is wonderful on cookies, breads, marzipan, cheesecakes, muffins or fruit pies.
As with many ingredients not native to America, yuca or cassava as a baking ingredient have somehow intimidated even professional bakers. It is naturally gluten-free and is an ideal substitute for wheat flour when baking breads and other specialty baked products like cupcakes and puddings.10 It is perfect for a celiac diet. An interesting characteristic of cassava flour is that no insects, not even cockroaches will eat or even come near it.11
Peanut butter is quite popular in Asian cooking or as a sandwich spread but it is not as widely used in baking. Peanut itself is relegated to the lower ranks when compared with its pricier cousins almonds and pistachios.12 Baked goods with peanut butter in them are considered specialty products, not regular mainstream goodies. It is mostly used on frosting and not in the actual baked product. Peanut butter goes exceptionally well with chocolate, and make for creamier and richer cakes and cupcakes.
These underrated baking ingredients have nutritional benefits that should make us pay more attention. A little research will quite possibly help you come up with a new favorite for your family.