Always use fresh, high quality ingredients. It’s the key to how things will taste. Every now and then I go through my cupboards and check things. I taste nuts, flours, and chocolate, just to make sure nothing has spoiled. You may not feel that you would know if the nuts or flour was spoiled but here is the thing: if it has been in the cupboard for over 6 months, or you cannot remember when you bought it or it tastes bitter at all or the expiration date has passed, then in all likelihood it is time to toss it. Look at it this way: if you use it and it is old then chances are whatever you make with it will taste off. With dry goods it will probably not make anyone sick, but still, why spend all that energy and risk your reputation as a baker just to save a few pennies?
There is a saying in the food industry: “When in doubt, throw it out!”
Butter: Use unsalted butter for baking, period. Unsalted butter is the preferred choice for baking and has been forever. If you must substitute margarine, try to find unsalted margarine for baking.
Chocolate: Use a high quality semi-sweet 52.9% cocoa dark chocolate. I like to use Callebaut chocolate. It comes in 11-pound blocks, and I usually purchase half a block. We have a shop called “By The Pound” in Ann Arbor and I can get it there. You may have to find a specialty or bulk food store to purchase a whole or half block. Usually you can find 1 to 2-pound blocks at specialty grocery stores, such as Whole Foods.
Cocoa: Use Dutched cocoa whenever possible.
Eggs: Use large eggs. Use real eggs, not egg substitutes. Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish, eggs or unpasteurized milk may increase your risk of foodborne illness. A few of my recipes contain uncooked eggs. I have been making them for years without any problems. I do, however, offer alternative preparations for those recipes which do not require uncooked eggs.
Flour: Use the right kind of flour for the recipe. All purpose flour has gluten in it and cake flour does not. This gluten gives bread its dense and chewy texture. In many cases all purpose flour is the right flour to use, but if the recipe calls for cake flour be sure to use cake flour. The quantities do not always equate if substitutions are made. When substituting alternate grain flours because of allergies to wheat, see the Gluten-Free Baking Mix recipe (below.)
Heavy Cream: Heavy cream is the same thing as whipping cream.
Lemon or Orange Juice: Use real lemon juice squeezed from fresh lemons. To get the most juice per lemon make sure the lemons are room temperature, then cut them in half. Use a fork to break up the pulp and squeeze the juice through a strainer to remove the seeds. Or if you are lucky enough to have a juicer, that works, too. I have a manual juicer, which is a good work out for your upper arms. Remember to switch sides.
Vanilla: Use real vanilla. Imitation vanilla tastes artificial and has an aftertaste. I think it is better to just leave out the vanilla rather than use artificial vanilla.
Gluten-Free Baking: If you can find a good gluten-free baking mix that you like then by all means use the commercial product. I have found these gluten-free mixes to be very good. You can also make your own gluten-free mixture using the following ingredients. Make a batch and keep it on hand. In general you can substitute this one-to-one for white or whole wheat flour. Sometimes you may need to add a little more of the baking mix.
Gluten-Free Baking Mix
1 cup coconut flour
1 cup potato starch
1 cup tapioca flour
1 cup sweet white sorghum flour
1 cup amarath flour
Combine all ingredients and store in an air-tight container. Makes 5 cups.
My favorite alternative sweetener is maple syrup. Be sure you are buying pure maple syrup. I found out the hard way that just because the label says maple syrup does not mean that the bottle contains anything that came out of a tree! Check the ingredient list. When substituting maple syrup for sugar in cookies, I find that you can reduce the amount of eggs by half and that you may need to add more dry ingredients such as another cup of oats or a half cup more flour. Other liquid sweeteners such as agave and honey would need the same accommodations. I have not tried all the new artificial sweeteners on the market as I like to stay with natural ingredients as much as possible.