Photo: Elisabeth Coelfen/Canva

Did you know that there are seven types of sugars and five types of flour commonly used in baking? Whether you love sweet treats or savoury delights, it is helpful to know what just went into making them so yummy. And if you love baking, this handy glossary of the most common baking ingredients will sort out your queries in a pinch. 

AGAR AGAR A thickener made from seaweed that is used to make custards, puddings, jelly and kuih. It is also used in some commercial flavoured yoghurts, drinks and candy like marshmallows, to add texture and bulk. Tasteless and semi-translucent, agar agar is sold in powder or flake form, and dissolved in hot water. It is suitable for vegetarian and vegan recipes. In South East Asia, it is used to make desserts and can be flavoured with juice, pandan leaves, or pieces of cut fruit.

ALMOND EXTRACT OR ESSENCE Almond essence may be made from artificial flavouring and is a cheaper alternative to almond extract. The essence is used to flavour the popular almond tofu jelly while the extract is best used as a flavour enhancer for cakes and pastries, like these almond nibs. (Also See essence/extract.)

ALMOND POWDER OR ALMOND MEAL: Almond nuts ground or pounded to a coarse, flour-like texture.


Photo: Pixabay

BAKING POWDER Used in Western baking to make cakes or breads rise. It is usually two parts cream of tartar plus one part bicarbonate of soda (also called baking soda).

* In cakes and bread the mix of acid + alkaline gives off carbon dioxide gas. This makes bubbles in a bread, cake or batter so it becomes more fluffy or crispy.

* In Gluten-Free diets: Baking powder contains starch. Usually it is made from potato or tapioca, but check the label as some may contain wheat starch. “Double-action baking powder” gives the best results for gluten-free baking.

BAKING SODA/BICARBONATE OF SODA An edible alkaline used to make cakes, breads and batters rise.

How to Use:
* Baking soda is often used in savoury or sweet baking recipes with acidic ingredients, such as buttermilk, vinegar or citrus.
* In Asian cooking, baking soda is mixed with tapioca starch as a pre-cooking marinade to make meat or chicken more tender or prawns more crunchy. The food must be well washed before it is cooked, or the marinade leaves a soapy taste.
* If you can’t find baking soda, you can substitute 1 teaspoon of baking soda with 3 teaspoons of baking powder.

BUTTER In baking, you can use salted or unsalted (slightly sweet) butter. For quick measurement, 125 g is equal to one stick (4 oz) of butter.

BUTTERMILK is low in fat, despite the name. It was originally the slightly sour liquid left after milk was churned into solid butter. Today, it is commercially made in a similar way to yogurt and sold alongside fresh milk in supermarkets.

How to use:
* In Western baking, buttermilk is used to add a pleasant tang and fluffy texture to “quickbreads” such as pancakes, waffles, cornbread, scones.
* In Arab, Indian and Mediterranean recipes, buttermilk can be used to marinate goat or chicken meat before cooking, to make it more tender.
* Southern Fried Chicken recipes from the southern states of America marinate chicken in buttermilk before deep-frying, to tenderise the meat.

Make these buttermilk pancakes for weekend brunch with our easy recipe. Credit:


CACHOUS can also be called dragees. They are tiny (3 mm to 5 mm) shiny balls made from starch and sugar. They are edible (but very hard) and are used to decorate cakes in Western baking and cake decorating. They come in gold, silver and a multitude of colours.

CARAMEL A beige-brown confectionery made by heating sugar until it breaks down and forms the characteristic treacle-like consistency. It’s used to make a variety of candies – toffees, nougats, pralines and brittles – and desserts such as crème brulee and crème caramel and caramel apples. It also makes a great flavouring for popcorn and coffee.

Banana Caramel Layer Cake
This banana caramel layer cake is really easy to make! Credit: Australian Women’s Weekly

CAROB This seed of a Mediterranean tree can be used as a substitute for chocolate in baking. There are claims it is healthier than chocolate but both carob and coco have pros and cons: Unlike cocoa, carob does not contain the stimulants caffine or theobomine, so it is useful if you try to avoid these stimulants. It also has three times the calcium of cocoa, but is much higher in carbohydrates and sugar. Whichever you choose, note the fat, sugars and calories riding along in the recipe.

CASHEW NUTS These kidney-shaped golden brown nuts have a sweet buttery flavour. They have a high fat content and can go bad easily. Keep sealed tightly in the fridge and you can enjoy them anytime you want. They are often used in baking too.

CHERRY You can buy fresh cherry, Glacé or candied cherry or Maraschino Cherry. To make a Glace cherry the fruit is boiled in sugar, then dried. To make a Maraschino or cocktail cherry the fruit is soaked, flavoured and coloured to become very red, sweet and, shiny.

How to use:
* Glace or Maraschino cherries can be added inside cake batters, such as Western fruit cakes or Christmas cakes. They are also used to decorate cakes or muffins, ice-cream sundaes and to decorate mocktails and cocktails, such as the Singapore Sling cocktail.
* Glace cherries are also used to decorate festive baked ham and meats.

Credit: Rob

CHOCOLATE is made from cocoa beans (also called cacao beans) which have been fermented, dried, roasted and shelled, leaving the inner flesh. It is melted to make chocolate liquor, a 50:50 combination of cocoa butter and cocoa solids. Cheaper brands of chocolate – sometimes called compound chocolate, add vegetable oils or hydrogenated oils and sugar to make the expensive coco butter go further, but this leads to an inferior taste and texture.

How to use:

* Chocolate Ganache is high-quality melted chocolate, butter and cream mixed together. It can be used to ice or fill Western cakes, as a filling in pies, tarts or pastries such as éclair, or rolled into soft chocolate balls called truffle chocolates.

* Drinking chocolate is a powdered form of chocolate made from crushed and sieved processed cocoa solids. It is used for baking, or to make a thick, sweet drink. Commercial drinking chocolate sometimes has milk solids and sugar added, so all you need to do is add water. (See also cocoa powder.)

* Dark (eating) chocolate or semi-sweet chocolate is made with a high percentage of cocoa liquid and cocoa butter and varying amounts of added sugar. Chefs prefer to use dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids as it has a more intense flavor and it is higher in antioxidants.

Try making these delicious chocolate doughnut balls! Credit: Rob Shaw/

* Milk (eating) chocolate is the most popular eating chocolate, it has a similar makeup to dark chocolate but milk solids are added to make it taste mild and sweet. Ingredients like vanilla, nuts, orange peel or even chili can be added.

* White (eating) chocolate contains no anti-oxidant rich cocoa solids, just cocoa butter, plus milk and sugar. It is very sensitive to heat, so watch carefully when you are melting it to bake or decorate cakes.

* Chocolate Chips or chocolate bits are available in milk, white and dark chocolate varieties. Chips contain emulsifier so they hold their shape during baking and do not melt too much. Chocolate melts are small discs of chocolate made in a similar way so they can be melted and moulded into shapes during baking, or to decorate cakes and cupcakes. Use chips or melts in cakes or cookies such as Chocolate Chip Cookies. They are also are ideal for decorating cakes, muffins and cookies.

COCOA POWDER or unsweetened cocoa is made from cocoa beans that have been fermented, roasted, shelled and ground into powder. Then most of the cocoa butter is removed.

How to Use:
* In sweet baked goods such as chocolate cake, or to flavor or decorate hot drinks such as coffee or drinking chocolate.
* Unsweetened Cocoa powder also adds flavour and colour to savoury dishes, especially in Central and South America. It works well with chili so it is used in Mexican chicken recipes such as Poblano Chicken, Barbeque rib marinades and some Tex-Mex chili bean stews.

Cocoa powder is used to make this iced chocolate energy drink. Credit:

COCOA NIBS are raw cocoa beans that have been roasted and shelled, so they are high in antioxidants. To make chocolate, these cocoa nibs are ground into a thick paste, with cocoa butter, sugar and flavourings added. Cocoa nibs taste similar to roasted coffee beans

How to use:
* Nibs can be eaten raw, or added to baked goods such as cakes or muffins.
* As toppings for smoothies, fruit salads and breakfast oatmeal.

COCONUT, DESSICATED is dried, unsweetened finely shredded white coconut flesh. It is commonly used in baking cakes where fresh coconut is hard to find. You can use the same amount of fresh grated coconut instead, but grate it finely and squeeze it firmly in a clean cloth to remove excess liquid, or it can affect the texture of the cake. Try this coconut-topped banana bread recipe!

CONFECTIONARY are any kind of sweet candy. They include:

* Allsorts – layered sweets made of licorice and jelly fondant.
* Bullets – small pieces of licorice coated in chocolate candy.
* Licorice – aniseed- flavoured candy which comes in black or red colour and in  many shapes, including strips and twists.
* Marshmallow  – a squashy candy ( often pink and white) that is made from sugar, flucose sugar, cornflour and gelatin.
* Smarties or M&M – a brands of small chocolate discs coated in a coloured candy shell.
* Spearmint leaves – soft, green leaf-shaped candy coated in sugar. Used in baking and to decorate cakes.

This amazing Rubik’s Cube-themed cake will impress the birthday kid! Credit: Rob Shaw/

CORN SYRUP is sweet syrup made by heating cornstarch with water under pressure. It comes in light or dark styles and is used in baking and to make candy.

CREAM is a dairy product with many different variants, each with its own unique properties and ways to use them:

* Creme Fraiche is a naturally soured cream popular in French cooking. It has a high fat content of 30%-45% and is more sour than yoghurt, but less sour than Sour Cream. It is also naturally thicker than Sour Cream, and less likely to curdle when heated. So crème fraiche a better choice for Western and European sauces or soups, or cooked desserts such as panna cotta. In cold salads or as topping on sweet or savoury dishes you can use either crème fraice or Sour Cream interchangeably – it just depends on whether you prefer the tangy flavor of Sour Cream or the rich smoothness of crème fraiche.

* Heavy or Thickened cream is whipping cream containing a thickener such as starch to make it more stable. It holds its shape better for decorating cakes. Minimum fat content 35%.

This gorgeous rose and pistachio cake features layers of whipped cream. Credit: John Paul Urizar/

* Pouring cream is also known as pure cream or fresh cream. Often used to make whipping cream, it is made from fresh milk and has no additives. Fat content is 35%, mainly saturated.

* Sour Cream Thick, commercially made sour cream has 20-30% fat content. It is sometimes made with thickeners such as seaweed extract, to add bulk. It adds a tang to savoury and sweet baking, cakes and is also often used as a topping for Western soups, meat stews and potato dishes. It is sensitive to heat and can curdle or break apart if overheated, so it is often just stirred through the soup or stew at the end, after the dish has been taken off the fire.

* Thick cream is often used for Western baking, or as a dessert topping. It has 48% fat content.

CREAM OF TARTAR is a white powder that is the acid ingredient in Baking Powder. It can also be used alone, in Western or Japanese baking, because it helps prevent sugar from crystalising into lumps. Cream of Tartar also helps stabilise egg whites when they are beaten or heated, helping them brown nicely and hold their shape. If you run out of baking powder, you can substitute 2 parts baking powder + 1 part baking soda + 1 part corn starch.

How to use:
* Added to candy to keep it smooth, and added to Western cake frosting to keep the frosting soft and creamy, especially when piping decorations such as rosettes onto cakes.
* Added to egg whites when they are whipped into soft peaks for fluffy Japanese cheesecake (see video below!), or to make meringue for tarts such as lemon meringue pie or to make Baked Alaska.

WATCH THIS VIDEO: How to make fluffy Japanese cheesecake

ESSENCE/EXTRACT An essence of a flavour such as coconut or almond is more often an artificial creation of it. These are synthetically produced and used in small amounts to impart their respective flavours. An extract however is made by actually extracting the flavour from the food product. For example, vanilla pods are soaked, usually in alcohol to capture its authentic flavour for vanilla extract. This of course, makes an extract more expensive than an essence. Both essence and extract can keep indefinitely if stored in a cool, dark place.


FLOUR is any seed or grain ground into a powder. For example, flour can be made from amaranth, arrowroot, barley, buckwheat, chickpea, corn, nuts, oats, potato, quinoa, rice, spelt, tapioca, teff, wheat or rye grains, among others. Flours last about five months in a cool, dry place, before oils in the grains make them rancid. Flour should be stored in a cool, dry place. It can also be stored in the refrigerator, or frozen.

How to use:

* Plain flour or All-Purpose Flour is the most common flour used in Western baking. Usually made from wheat, it has a strong gluten protein content which gives a strong dough and a light and fluffy result.

* Bread flour can also be called Strong flour or Hard flour. It is high protein and high gluten, so it traps yeast gas inside as the bread bakes. This makes lots of little holes inside and the bread becomes light and fluffy.

WATCH THIS VIDEO: How to make fluffy bread rolls w/ corned beef filling

* Cake, Pastry or Soft Flour has a lower gluten content so it is used for lighter bakes such as sponge cake or chiffon cake.

* Self-Raising Flour is Plain Flour that has been already sifted with baking powder. It is usually used for cakes or quickbreads such as scones.

* Wholemeal/Whole wheat Flour is healthy flour made from the complete wheat kernel, including the bran and the germ. When used in bread and cakes, it gives a nutty flavor and the cake or bread will not rise as high, so some chefs prefer to use half wholemeal flour and half all-purpose flour. If you prefer to bake with wholemeal flour, replace 1 cup of white flour with 7/8 of a cup of whole flour, as the flour is heavier.

FOOD COLOURING is a vegetable-based liquid or paste or gel used to colour icing, cake ingredients or sugar to make candy. Gel colouring gives the brightest, strongest colours in cakes. If you prefer not to use artificial colouring, you can find colouring made from vegetable extracts (such as for tang yuan soup), but the colours are not as bright.

GELATINE/ GELATIN is a clear, tasteless thickener used to set jelly, mousse, puddings, custards and some commercially flavoured yoghurts. It comes in a powder form or in a sheet form, called leaf gelatin or sheet gelatin. Three tablespoons powdered gelatin is roughly equal to four gelatin leaves. Gelatine can be made from a seaweed extract (carrageen) or from animal bones, so if you prefer to avoid animal products, check the packaging. If you prefer to use only vegetarian products, use Agar Agar instead, which is made from seaweed.

Indulge in this healthier bubor cha cha jelly dessert with fresh fruits! Credit: Tiffany Goh / The Straits Times

GOLDEN SYRUP This is a by-product of refined cane sugar. In recipes, it can be substituted with pure maple syrup or honey. It’s used mostly in baking and for certain confectionaries.

GLUTEN-FREE Most modern baking powders contain starch. Note that some baking powders contain starch from wheat, so they may not be suitable for a gluten-free diet, so always check the label before buying.

GULA MELAKA (palm sugar) is actually made from the juice extracted from the coconut palm. Sold in blocks and in the form of syrup, gula melaka has a lovely caramel taste. It’s often used drizzled over iced desserts like sago pudding or used to flavour cakes.


HUNDREDS AND THOUSANDS are tiny multi-coloured sugar balls that can be sprinkled on cakes, as decoration.  They can also be scattered over buttered bread to make fairy sandwiches for a child’s party.

QUICKBREADS An American term for baked items that don’t take much time, like scones, waffles, pancakes, flapjacks. In the past, they would be made fresh every day, often for breakfast.


Cook Half Freeze Half Shortbread Stars
These sugar-crusted shortbread stars will make a deliciously sweet gift for your loved ones. Credit:

SUGAR comes in a variety of textures and colours. Here are the more common types:

* Brown sugar is white sugar that has added molasses to give it a distinctive colour and flavour. Most often used in baking and desserts.

* Caster sugar is fine white sugar used to sweeten desserts. It’s also used in baking to add more volume to baked goods.

* Demerara is crystal sugar that is small-grained and golden-coloured. Used often in bakes.

* Icing sugar is also known as confectioner’s sugar. This white powdered sugar is usually sifted over baked goods such as doughnuts and waffles and is a popular garnish for tart desserts like lemon pudding.

* Palm sugar See gula Melaka. Made from the sap of the palm tree, it’s usually drizzled over iced desserts.

* Raw sugar has the high molasses content as it has been minimally processed. It has a flavour similar to brown sugar and is the most natural of sugars.

* White sugar is the coarse granulated sugar used in most households. It’s also known as table sugar.

Happy baking!

Text: / Additional reporting: Elizabeth Liew

This post was first published May 16, 2016, and updated May 18, 2020.