Back To Basics :: Kitchen Tips and Tricks #4

In the last Back to Basics post, I tackled some of the conversion issues that arise due to us all being separated by a common language. Now I'm going to cover the ingredients I get asked about a lot.

The amount of American visitors to this blog outnumber the Australian 3:1. I always use Australian terms for ingredients, which can be confusing for those not familiar with Australian recipes. Here's a few of the ingredient questions I get asked all the time:

FAQ #1: What is caster sugar?

Caster sugar is a very fine sugar, known as "superfine sugar" in the States. It is not as fine as icing sugar, however — don't get the two confused.

Because it is so fine, it dissolves a lot more readily than regular sugar. This is desirable in most baked products, and especially useful in meringues. If you don't have any on hand and are going to make a meringue, you can process normal sugar in a food processor — just wait a few minutes before you lift the lid as it will produce a sugar dust

FAQ #2: Then what is icing sugar? 

Icing sugar, also known as powdered sugar or confectioners' sugar, has been ground into a very fine powder. It dissolves in liquid instantly and is used for buttercream icing, as well as a variety of other icings, sauces and confectionery.

FAQ# 3: What's is pure icing sugar?

Icing sugar in its pure form clumps really readily, and so most icing sugars sold usual have a little cornflour mixed in to stop this from happening. Pure icing sugar is just that: pure. If you've worked with the stuff, you know it is annoyingly clumpy. I often have to virtually grate it with a metal sieve to break up stubborn clumps. You'll need to use pure icing sugar for things like fondant or royal icing. 

If you have icing sugar and you're not sure if it's pure or not, mix 1 teaspoon of icing sugar in a glass with 3-4 tablespoons of cold water. Stand for 1-2 minutes. If starch settles to the bottom of the glass, it is not pure. But most often, you'll be able to tell just from looking at it. Pure icing sugar will look and feel a lot rougher.

FAQ #4: How about cornflour?

This one can be confusing as different countries will use this term in different ways, and so it is not always interchangeable with the same thing. Cornflour can refer to either cornmeal or cornstarch. I've never used cornmeal, so when I refer to it, I am referring to cornstarch. It is safe to assume that any Australian or British recipe referring to cornflour means cornstarch. If the term is used in the US, it can often refer to a finely ground cornmeal.

Cornflour/cornstarch is used in cooking as a thickener and is an especially important ingredient in pavlovas. I always use it to dust the work surface when working with fondant as it is great at stopping your fondant from sticking.

FAQ #5: Self-raising flour?

It's very simply flour that has a little salt and a leavening agent added to it. There's nothing particularly interesting about it: it's main advantage is that the leavening agent has been evenly distributed throughout the flour. If a recipe calls for it and you have none, simply mix two teaspoons of baking powder per cup of plain flour, or use one teaspoon cream of tartar and half a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda in place of the baking, powder.

If you have ever put flour in an unlabelled jar or container (guilty as charged) and later could not remember whether it was plain or self-raising, taste a little. Self-raising flour will have a slightly salty taste, plain won't. The self-raising flour will also feel more silky when rubbed between your fingers.


Those are all the questions that come to mind for now. I'm sure there's others I've forgotten. If so feel free to ask me in the comments and I will add it to the list!

5 thoughts on “Back To Basics :: Kitchen Tips and Tricks #4

  1. “If a recipe calls for it and you have none, simply mix two teaspoons of baking powder per cup of plain flour,…”

    So, if I want to make self-raising flour, because I’ve never seen sth like that here in Germany, I add only baking powder? What about salt?

    • You can add salt, but it isn’t necessary. Some country’s self-raising flour doesn’t have any salt at all (UK for example). Salt just acts as a flavour enhancer, so you can add it to any baking recipe you want, or omit it if you rather.

  2. If you’re in the US, self-raising flour is called self-rising flour, and it’s easy enough to procure. Definitely harder to get elsewhere, though. Good to have a recipe for making self-rising when I’m baking elsewhere, though. Thanks!

    • It depends entirely on what you’re making, really. If it’s poured fondant, you can sub it for diluted glucose syrup. In a cupcake I’ve heard people sub it for things like golden syrup.

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