Better Baker: These 5 Ingredients Actually Make You One

Remember that great chocolate brioche recipe you tried making at home? You know the one — In the magazine, it looked so perfectly puffed, light and airy with those beautiful chocolate strands evenly distributed throughout the finished loaf. Looked so good. So you gave it a go. You did everything right. Followed the basic brioche dough recipe to a T. Even picked up a really high-quality dark chocolate bar since you really wanted to impress with this one. Can’t go wrong there. But somehow, the result is nothing like you expected. Certainly not the perfectly colored, french pastry-puffed photo-worthy goodness captured on the page of that glossy. Well here’s a secret for the better baker. That recipe you followed was most likely modified for the home baker. And where do most recipe editors start their work? Ingredients.

Few professional bakers go without at least a handful of closely guarded ingredients & techniques that give their culinary creations their unique characteristics. While it can be hard for home bakers to know exactly when a pro might be holding back on that special little something that makes all the difference, there are some sure bets that virtually guarantee professional-level results. As you bake more you’ll establish techniques that work for you and your cooking environment. Pro-tip baking ingredients are universal, however. Here are 5 to get you on the path to realizing the better baker in you.

5 Ingredients That Instantly Make You A Better Baker

Wild Yeast Starter

One whiff of fresh, ripe wild yeast starter and you’ll know right away that you have something special in your hands. Bakers throughout human history have relied on this live leavening agent for its extraordinary abundance (wild yeast is all around us) and its wonderful ability to add distinct flavors to baked goods, depending on the yeasts environmental influences.

Better Baker - Wild Yeast Starter - Food | Science | Art

Home bakers often feel that cultivating and maintaining wild yeast is more trouble than it’s worth. Professional bakers & pastry chefs know otherwise. While getting started with sourdough starter is certainly a labor of love, within a few days of the initial investment, you’re rewarded with a culinary companion for life. All it takes is a daily feeding of a little quality, unbleached flour and room temperature bottled water (more on this later). You can even pop your jarred yeast into the fridge for extended periods of time. The colony will hibernate in the cold of your refrigerator, so you can skip the daily feeding.

Wild yeast starter is also an extremely versatile product. Not only should you use it in your leavened doughs, but try adding a little to your favorite batters and you are in for a flavor-packed treat. From fish & chips to Sunday morning pancakes. A dollop of sourdough starter and you’ve just introduced a flavor profile that’s all your own. Wild yeast starter is a must have for professional baking results at home.

Diastatic Malt Powder

Considered a secret ingredient of professional bread baking. Diastatic malt powder (also known as DMP) is one of those products home bakers read about but never seem to have on hand. Let’s change that. Add diastatic malt powder to your cart the next time you stock up on your baking ingredient staples and you’ll be happy you did.

A couple kinds of malt powders exist on the market, but diastatic is what we want when taking our baking skills to the next level. A little bit of this stuff goes a long way. A half teaspoon for every few cups of flour is often enough for the great browning & rising activity diastatic malt is known for. And your new sourdough starter BFF goes wild for the enzyme activity produced by DMP. Try a little in your next baking project and enjoy the results.

Fresh Yeast

Like wild yeast starter, fresh yeast (also know as cake yeast or compressed yeast) is one of the primary leavening agents used by professional bakers and pastry chefs. Fresh yeast usually has more leavening activity than wild yeast starter, but its use is much more focused than its sourdough starter cousin. With proper fermentation, your baked goods will have a excellent rise and distinctly yeasty flavor & aroma with compressed yeast in the mix.

Most home bakers are more familiar with the dry forms of this yeast. Sure they work too. But professional pastry chefs prefer fresh yeast for good reason — flavor. Dry yeast lacks the opportunity to achieve the dynamic activity that produces the complex flavors often had when using the compressed form. Fresh yeast is perishable, so you’ll need to store your blocks in the refrigerator. You can even freeze it if you find that you don’t use it often, though I doubt that would be the case for the better baker you’re destined to be!

Fresh yeast is a must in many professional recipes. If you want to make homemade pizza Margherita like those from your favorite VPN-certified pizza place, either wild or fresh yeast is in your future. I get my wild yeast from the team over at The New York Bakers.

Bottled Water

This one seems like it should be so basic. Truth is, I’ve seen more controversy and disagreement around the importance of water quality than probably any other ingredient. From pH to mineral content to geography; water is the perpetual baker’s debate — novice to professional. My position is rather neutral on this one — literally. I prefer to keep my dough hydration choice simple, controlled & consistent. pH in the 6.5 – 8 range; natural mineral content; usually from a spring. It’s really a matter of preference based on experience, so you’ll most likely find your favorite in due time if you don’t already have one.

Here’s the universal professional secret that home bakers need to know. Most tap water contains quite a bit of chlorine and chlorine is bad for yeast and alters all sorts of important dynamics of your developing dough. Avoid it. You can take steps to reduce the impact chlorine (and potentially lots of other unwanted additives) from your water, but an easy and reliable solution is to find a high-quality, reliable bottled source and stick with it. Makes your baking experiences a lot easier.

Fresh-Milled Flour

Finding local, fresh-milled four can be a challenge for many of us. It’s not something you usually find at your corner store. You might have some luck at your local farmers market, or CSA. You can even do the honors yourself if you’re into that sort of thing. I suggest checking out suppliers that take online orders, mill your flour to order and express ship to your door. Bluebird Grain Farms looks promising, though I haven’t tried their flour.

Wherever you find it, fresh-milled flour or as close to it as possible is key to professional-level home baking. Fresh flour makes all the difference in the world. The flour at your local supermarket has likely racked up tons of frequent flyer miles and suffers from some serious jet lag by the time you’d get your hands on it, so … only if you absolutely must.

So there you have it. 5 ingredients that work to make you a better baker. Experiment with all of them, observe & note the results and in time you’ll have a complete bag of tricks to call your own.

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