Ingredients & Equipment: the whats, whys and where-froms

This page is currently an online notebook of ingredients and equipment that I use a lot.  I'm adding information here and there, so keep checking back!

ALMONDS (flour, butter, whole)


BAKING POWDER  Many versions contain wheat or corn flour to eke out the powder (cheeky).  For a widely-available gluten-free brand, try Dr Oetker.

BAKING SODA / BICARBONATE OF SODA  This is a naturally gluten-free raising agent which likes an acidic partner like lemon juice, buttermilk or vinegar to help it puff up your baking. 


BEANS  black, black-eyed, white (haricot, cannellini, butter...), kidney, flageolet



CHICKPEAS  These are rich in protein and contain no cholesterol (that's from animal products) or saturated fats.  They're a great source of slow-release energy and so they help to maintain decent blood-sugar levels.  They're also really filling and totally versatile.

CHOCOLATE  The higher the proportion of cocoa solids, the better.  It's easy to find 70% or higher in supermarkets and Lindt (although quite an expensive option) does up to 90%.  Whoomp.

CINNAMON  This delicious and versatile spice is traditionally the dried inner bark of a Sri Lankan tree.  It has been found to have anti-inflammatory, blood-pressure reducing, anti-insulin-resistance, blood-sugar stabalising, anti-fungal and cancer-preventing properties!  Hmm, can we live on cinnamon alone?!  It adds a warm (and spicy, if you use enough) flavour to sweet baking and I use loads of it.  Of course, it's also fabulous in savoury dishes, and a little goes a long way.  Look for Ceylon ("true") cinnamon, as opposed to cassia cinnamon if you can get it.

COCONUT- flour, oil, butter, shredded

DATES  I recall a time, not so long ago, when I would have said that I didn't really like dates.  What a fool I was!  We went on holiday to Tunisia a few years ago and we'd see the fronds, heavy with fruit, swaying in the breeze (ok, it was January and it was windy) above us as we lay in the sun, and then on the breakfast table the next morning.  They were delicious!  And then I adopted an old wife's tale on the run-up to The Small Small's arrival, whereby I self-prescribed four dates every day alongside my mug of raspberry leaf tea.  I say "every day"; it took two days.  The rest of that packet kick-started my current addiction and my boys get super-excited if I let them have two dates for pudding or as a treat.  They really are like caramel.  They come a hugs number of varieties, with the fat, juicy Medjool being the trendiest at the mo.  I use them in a huge amount of baking recipes, usually soaked and pureed with the stick blender (I've seen this in packets in Halal food shops but it's so easy to do, why bother?) or chopped into raisin-sized pieces.  You can also buy date syrup, which has a strong, dark flavour and has no doubt been boiled down to reduce it to a sticky gloop.  Good for a little drizzle or to bind a bar together but with less fibre than the whole nuggets.

DRIED FRUITS  Use these to add nuggets of sweetness and flavour to breads, cakes, muffins and cookies, or soak and mush them à la dates to make a sweetening puree.  The World Health Organisation's current guideline is for no more than 50g (10 teaspoons) of free sugars per adult per day.  This refers to sugars added to food and drinks, and also to those naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices, but not to those from whole fruits or vegetables (or from milk) because these is "no reported evidence of adverse effects of consuming these sugars".  I have raisins, apricots, prunes, cranberries, figs and currants in my stash.

EGGS  Organic free-range are best for the birdies and have a bright yellow-orange yolk.  I generally buy medium-sized eggs and keep them at room temperature.  We get through them at a rate of knots.

EGG REPLACERS  If you can't - or don't - eat 'real' eggs, never fear: there are all manner or cunning ways to reproduce the activity of eggs in baking.  I do not pretend to understand the science completely but, essentially, eggs work to bind other ingredients, to cause a rise in the final product (this is called 'leavening') and of course they add some moisture.  If you nip over to my Pinterest board, you'll find clever ways to get round all of these with other ingredients.  Ground flax or chia seeds mixed with water in a 1:3 (seed:water) ratio magically transform into a gloopy, beaten-egg-like liquid after a few minutes.  Applesauce can bind and add moisture.  Ground psyllium husks are pretty niche but can also work wonders. 

For a FLAX EGG: 1 TBSP (7g) ground flax seeds (aka flax meal) mixed with 3TBSP water, sir and leave for about 5 minutes to thicken.  This replaces one egg in many recipes but does not rise or stiffen quite like an egg so it's often a case of trial and error.  Good in pancakes, muffins...

GINGER  The root of a flowering plant and in the same family as turmeric (their roots look very similar but turmeric has the stronger colour), ginger is an amazing source of natural health-boosting properties.  It has been shown to relive sickness, congestion and heartburn, reduce flatulence and inflammation, work well as a natural painkiller, and even destroy ovarian cancer cells as well as the leading drugs.  Grate some of the root into hot water for a natural cold-fighting drink or into all manner or sweet and savoury dishes, and use the ground version in baking for a warm, sweet taste.

HONEY  Magically produced by those little buzzy things, honey is primarily a mixture of fructose and glucose and so is sugar by another name.  The flavour is dependent on the floral source of the nectar harvested by the bees and most honey is a blend of honeys from various sources, although single-source (e.g. heather, orange blossom, acacia) honeys are available.  Commercial honey is subjected to intense heat-treatment to purify it, despite it already being good for long-term storage and preservation.  Look out for raw honey - and especially one local to you - for something as close to its natural state as is possible.  Raw honey has been used in many cultures for medicinal as well as culinary purposes for millennia.  New Zealand Manuka honey is said to have especially high antimicrobial properties - and has a price tag to match.  Clear and set honeys are just the same thing, but the clear version has been heated to melting point and may well re-crystallise at room temperature (warming will make it clear again).  I use it to stick goodie together into raw bars and also in cake batters. 

LENTILS - red, puy, green, chana, brown

MAPLE SYRUP  The sap of the Canadian maple tree is boiled and filtered to produce this delicious, thick fairly dark coloured syrup.  As well as sweetness, it has a lovely rich flavour and boasts manganese and zinc amongst its virtues.  It's quite expensive but you can find it all the supermarkets (Aldi and Asda were cheapest at the last check).  I stock up when it's on offer but make sure you choose Grade A Canadian syrup and not "maple-flavoured syrup" or similar.



NUTS  Brazils, cashews, hazels, macadamias, pine, walnuts

OATS  The humble oat actually has a whole heap of benefits to shout about.  Most notable, they contain beta-glucan, a particular type of fibre which reduces total cholesterol levels, and so aids in the reduction of the development of heart disease and stroke.  Additionally, their unique antioxidants help protect good cholesterol by destroying free radicals.  They can help stabilise blood-sugar levels and enhance the immune system's response to infection.  Too much science?  Right, then.  Oats are cheap and cheerful.  Delicious as a simple cooked porridge or soaked in whatever yummy liquid you like and eaten raw the next morning, they make a quick and versatile breakfast.  I use rolled oats in baking all the time (sometimes ground into flour, sometimes not), especially in muffins, flapjack, brownies and raw bars. 






SEEDS  chia, flax, hemp, pumpkin, sunflower

SPELT  An ancient relative of common wheat, spelt is fairly high in protein, B vitamins, fibre and various micronutrients, and low in fat.  Both white and wholewheat spelt flours are now widely available in supermarkets but keep an eye out for the whole grains which can be cooked into stews, 'risottos' and soups.  It contains moderate amounts of gluten and can generally replace standard wheat flour in baking.  Some people with an intolerance to wheat can tolerate spelt, perhaps because its gluten appears to be quite fragile and is broken down my mixing, chewing or heating (as opposed to the gluten in common wheat, which is strengthened by kneading, mixing or chewing), or because it retains its hard outer hull and has no need for enzyme inhibitors for protection from pests like modern wheat crops.  I keep no standard wheat flour in the house and use spelt when I need an easy wheat flour replacement.

SPICES  Where to start?!  Spices are usually ground from the berries, fruits, seeds or roots of trees and plants.    They all pack a pretty awesome nutritional punch.  I use cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger most of all in sweet cooking and cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, coriander and paprika in savoury dishes.  (Link to individual info for cinnamon, turmeric and ginger...) 

SUGAR In its simplest form, sugar is a molecule of glucose, fructose or galactose (there are more) or a combination of these, such as sucrose or lactose.  They provide your body with an energy source and, in order to work at its optimum, your body likes a slow, steady drip of sugar - as opposed to occasional, huge doses.  Sugars are naturally found in most plants, along with vitamins, minerals, fibre and other goodies.  Once extracted, however, there can be little or no benefit apart from the satisfaction of a sweet tooth which has been trained by the multi-nationals to crave astronomically-high levels of the uber-sweet, nutritionally bereft white stuff.  (Did you know that machine-powered centrifuging is one of the main bad guys in sugar production and that white table sugar is often bleached to make it more acceptable to the modern market?)   I try to use what I consider to be better choices, in the form of whole fruit and vegetables, honey and unrefined cane, palm or coconut sugar. 

SWEETENERS- stevia, xylitol, lucuma

TAHINI  This is a sesame seed butter by another name.  High in calories and fat (but fat of the unsaturated, "healthy" nature) but also rich in protein and calcium.  Use it sparingly for a creamy tang in sweet and savoury dishes.

TEFF  Another ancient grain, this time common to Ethiopia and Eritrea, teff is becoming increasingly popular in the West due to its great nutritional profile and its lack of gluten.  It comes in a variety of colours, from white and red to dark brown, and can be used whole or ground into a flour.  It is very high in calcium, as well as whole heap of other minerals, and has a great amino acid profile.  Teff is said to be high in resistant starch, a recently-discovered type of dietary fibre that can benefit blood-sugar management, weight control and colon health.  Hurrah for a healthy colon!

TURMERIC  Although most commonly found it savoury dishes (throw a tablespoon into the next pot of rice you cook and then bib-up to avoid shirt stainage!), I have been known to add ground turmeric to sweet recipes and the health benefits of the curcumin it contains are vast: think similar to those of cinnamon but with a super-boost of anti-depressive and antioxidant capabilities.  Absorption of curcumin is enhanced by having black pepper and some fat alongside it.  (Link to Turmeric & Blueberry Muffins later...)

VANILLA  The fermented and cured seed pod of an orchid (see - I've done my research), vanilla pods are still quite expensive but they are widely-available and last forever.  I rarely use them and prefer vanilla extract which is an alcohol/water mix that has been infused with crushed pods.  The high quality ones are dark and thick and give a lush sweetness which goes some way to replacing sweeteners.  Vanilla paste, on the other hand, uses a sugar syrup base into which the seeds from the pod are added.  Try to avoid vanilla essence.  It's what I was brought up with but apparently is a synthetic flavouring manufactured from clove oil and waste materials from the paper industry!  Who knew?!

XANTHAN GUM  This powder is often used in gluten-free baking to replicate the binding effect usually provided by gluten (and egg).  It is made from the fermentation of corn sugars and is a natural ingredient.  If you use a shop bought gluten-free flour blend, it will probably already contain some xanthan gum, but check.  I use this occasionally but am gradually finding alternatives I consider to be more nutritious and, you know, less weird.

- Equipment -

FOOD PROCESSOR  I find these a bit of a palaver but they really do save so much time and effort in slicing hard veg or blending up cake batters or nut butters.  I've got a Kenwood K-mix with a detachable hand-held motor that can also have a whisk or blender head attached.  It was a present.  Nice.

COFFEE/SPICE GRINDER  I've started using this almost daily.  I grind my own oat flour from rolled oats and sunflower seeds into flour to replace ground almonds in most recipes.  It takes no time at all and holds a surprising amount. 

DIGITAL SCALE  These don't make as much of a style statement as balance scales but they are awesome for precise measuring of any ingredients.  I love that you can just put any vessel on top, zero the scale and go for it, then zero again before adding the next ingredient.  No big hard sums required.  Mine is a basic one but has grams/ounces/ml options.

HAND BLENDER  aka The Blitzer.  This is great for pureeing soups, sauces and cooked fruit & veg into a smooth paste.  I use it for my homemade applesauce.  Be careful using it with really starchy foods like white potatoes though; things can go a bit gloopy. 

SILICONE BAKING SHEETS  These are ideal for the thrifty, lazy baker, i.e. me!  Wang the big rectangular ones on your oven tray before roasting veg if you want to avoid soaking and scrubbing said tray afterwards or use the pre-cut circles to line cake tins with no need for greasing.  Cheap versions are everywhere now so you can even cut one to fit a dish you use all the time.  They peel off easily and wipe clean in seconds.  Check if yours can go in the dishwasher.

 STAND MIXER  These are heavy monsters that live on your kitchen worktop.  Mine has whisk, paddle beater and dough hook attachments and a big ol' metal bowl.  It takes all the work out of whisking eggs or cream and I use it for beating butter or even getting pastry to the breadcrumb stage. This was a present too.  How lucky am I?!

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