Baking in the US: Getting to Grips With It

After a few months of living stateside I felt like I’d pretty much mastered the San Francisco ‘grocery store’, but one aisle still gave me trouble: the baking aisle.

Eighteen months and many baking experiments later, I wanted to share with other expats what I’ve learnt about American baking vocabulary, what can be substituted, and what to sneak in your suitcase on your next trip back home.

baking - ingredients

Don’t bother looking for caster sugar

I’ve only seen it once in San Francisco and it was $8 for about 250grams. This has been a source of huge frustration for my husband who makes a mean pavlova. Granulated sugar just doesn’t yield the smooth, white meringue he’s used to whipping up in the UK. What you need to look for is fine granulated sugar. Trader Joe’s (my fave supermarket) doesn’t have it but Safeway does. It’s taken us a year and a half to figure this one out!

Ditto for icing sugar

Icing sugar goes by the name of powdered sugar… and I can see why.

Self-raising flour is hard to track down

You can find it in every corner shop in London but it seems much less common in the US. I was complaining about this to my husband rather loudly in Safeway when another shopper said she had loads of it at home she wanted to get rid of. I went round and picked it up that evening! If you do find it it’s likely to be in red packaging (instead of the blue you’re used to if you’re British).

While we’re on the subject of raising agents…

I’ve never really understood the difference between baking powder and bicarbonate of soda but my favourite Nigella chocolate cake recipe calls for both, and who am I to argue with Nigella? Baking powder is easy to find but here in the US, bicarbonate of soda goes by the name of baking soda. Look out for the bright orange Arm & Hammer packages of baking soda, and white/red cans of Clabber Girl baking powder. Just don’t confuse them with each other!

If you’re partial to scones

baking - scones

You’ll be on the lookout for buttermilk. It’s available in most supermarkets but I’ve only ever seen the reduced fat variety. I’ve tested it and it seems to work just as well as full fat. But because this is the US you can only buy it in an enormous quantity (1 quart) so you might want to line up a few other recipes that use buttermilk, or just make a boatload of scones in one go.

You can have any spice in the US, as long as it’s cinnamon

Every cake, coffee and pastry on sale in San Francisco has the vague flavour of cinnamon. I’ve struggled to find other spices to add to my baking. If you like mixed spice (a must for my Christmas cake) or anything more exotic, this is something else for the suitcase.

Grams, ounces, and cups

If you decide to go native and try some US recipes don’t forget you’ll need to buy some new measuring cups. American recipes don’t use grams and ounces so your scales are useless here. And no, a tea mug won’t do the job either.

And if you can’t be bothered baking at all…

Baking - cake mixes

You’ve come to the right country! The baking aisle of most supermarkets is 10% raw ingredients to 90% packet mix. I was a bit sniffy about this at first but then I tried Trader Joe’s blondies and there was no going back. If you want to bake but you don’t have the time or the inclination to start from scratch you can buy cake mix in every flavour from red velvet to ‘funfetti’. You don’t even have to make your own icing: Betty Crocker and Pillsbury have that covered for you too.

Are there any baking ingredients from your home country you’ve struggled to track down? What do you use instead?

About Felicity H. Barber

I am a speechwriter, who coaches people to make awesome speeches, presentations and pitches. I moved to San Francisco from London with my software engineer husband and two cats in 2014. As if moving half way around the world wasn’t enough, I made the crazy decision to start my own business at the same time! Life has been a big adjustment to go from in-house to freelance, tea and scones to coffee and brownies, rainy days to constant sunshine, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

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