Kitchen Tips: College baker basics

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These days, I live in an apartment where I have plenty of storage space at my disposal, and plenty of baking gear and ingredients to put in it.

When I started baking, though, I was a college sophomore living in a dorm, and space was tight. I kept all of my equipment in this box under my bed…

When I lived in a dorm, I kept all of my baking gear in a box under my bed.

My actual sophomore dorm room, circa August 2010.

and most of my ingredients in this box on a shelf in my closet.

A rubber box holds frosting and food coloring.

I still own this box — I just keep the fun baking extras in it now!

I’ve expanded my arsenal a lot since then — a zester! nesting-doll measuring cups! — but, to be honest, my kitchen MVPs are all things I’ve had since I kept them in that under-bed box. They were all I really needed back then, and I’d probably be just fine if they were all I had now.

So, if you’re a dorm-dwelling, semi-broke college kid just starting to bake, or if you’re any person who has limited space, or if you’re just someone who wants to know the bare essentials you need to bake, here’s your shopping list.

Gear

  • A good mixing bowl. A big one, that you can use for batters and doughs and whatever else you need. My original is this 5-quart OXO one; I still use and love it. It’s plastic, which is great for dorms, where everything gets dropped, and the little spout makes it easy to pour batter wherever you need it.
  • A “spatula spoon,” or rounded spatula, or whatever you want to call it (I was introduced to it as a “spoontula”). Like the guy in this photo. These can do so much — stir, scrape, scoop, whatever. I don’t think I’ve ever made anything without using mine at least once.
  • A hand mixer. Okay, this isn’t a basic, but if you’re going to invest in one thing as a beginning baker, make it a hand mixer. Or ask for one for graduation or your birthday or Christmas. I got mine from my mom — it’s the same one she has! — and it works perfectly. I’ve never felt like I needed a fancypants stand mixer — my hand mixer is more than enough. This one is very similar to the one I have.
  • Cookie sheets. They can be small and cheap, but buy two! Baking cookies in a dorm kitchen is the best way to make new friends. You can even cheat and use pre-made dough from the dining halls :)
  • A 9×13 cake pan with a lid. Like this one. There are lots of different shapes and sizes of cake pan out there, but I think this is the most important. You can use it to make a sheet cake or basic brownies, and it’s great for storing cookies, too!
  • 12-cup muffin tins. Another thing that’s a little less essential, but will also make you a load of friends. Snowed in? Invite your friends to your dorm for a frost-your-own cupcake party. Super fun. Again, buy two!
  • Measuring spoons/cups. I have a few sets of each now, but the one I’ve had longest is a plastic set that has the spoons and cups all together, attached with a ring, kind of like this one. Except I got mine at Walmart for $1. Seriously. $1. Back-to-school sales are great.
  • Microwave-safe bowls. You probably already have these for making Ramen, but you can use them to melt butter or chocolate chips, too. It’s also good to have extra bowls on hand for recipes where you need to mix wet and dry ingredients separately, like chocolate chip cookies.
  • A few Tupperwares or other storage containers. For saving all the tasty things you make, of course.

Ingredients

  • All-purpose flour
  • Sugar — regular and light brown
  • Baking soda
  • Vanilla extract
  • Semi-sweet chocolate chips — 12-oz bags!
  • Salt
  • Unsalted butter, or a butter substitute — I almost always bake with Imperial, which they sell inexpensively in my campus market. I think it makes fluffier cookies!
  • Eggs — you can buy half-dozens at Walmart, which is great if you don’t use them often and don’t want to end up throwing half of them out.
  • Vegetable or canola oil
  • Milk
  • Cake mix— always have a few boxes on hand as a quick treat for an unexpected party!
  • Frosting — same!
  • Sprinkles — because they don’t take up much space and they make everything festive.
  • Peanut butter — you know you live off it anyway; keep some extra for cookies!
  • Cinnamon — the only spice I ever need.
  • Unsweetened cocoa powder — if you dare. Store it carefully, as you won’t believe the mess it can make.

Fun fact: There are a few extras thrown in, but most of these ingredients are just the things you need to make chocolate chip cookies. I made sure I always had everything around so I could make cookies whenever I needed treats for something. You can never go wrong with chocolate chip cookies.

Also: If you read professional baking blogs, you’ll probably see a lot of fancy brands of chocolate or flour or whatever. As you can see in my ingredient photos, I bake with a lot of Great Value (aka, Walmart brand) ingredients. You might not get pro-quality baked goods using that stuff, but there is nothing wrong with buying the cheap stuff while you’re in college and just baking for your friends. I’m picky about a few things — baking soda, chocolate chips — but for the most part I just buy what’s cheapest. And I think that for now, that’s just fine. It all tastes great in the end :)

So, that’s my list. It’s not too exhaustive — I’m pretty sure you can get everything on it at Walmart or Target or whatever is close to you. Don’t forget to pick up a big box to keep it all in, too!

And one more pro tip — don’t wear yourself out making 16 trips to  carry all your stuff from your dorm to the kitchen. Your laundry basket should hold everything you need in one trip :)

Bakers reading this, what have I missed? What would you add to the list? Comment with your suggestions!

This post was inspired by this great post series, “How to build a baking pantry” by Michelle of Brown Eyed Baker. I refer to it often as I continue to build my own “grown-up” baking kitchen.

Disclosure: Nobody paid me anything to recommend any of these items. All items linked to are items I have owned and used since long before I even thought about starting this blog.

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