There are a few things self-respecting Southerners will always have in their homes: a jug of sweet tea in the fridge, a can of bacon fat above the stove, and if they’re bakers, a well-stocked larder full of classic Southern staples. And if you want to whip up a mean pie, towering layer cake or boozy candy worthy of their praise, then take note from F&W Test Kitchen pro Ben Mims, author of the newly released Sweet & Southern: Classic Desserts with a Twist, and get these essential Southern ingredients in your pantry now.
1. Cane Syrup: The South’s equivalent to maple syrup, cane syrup has a light body and sweet tang that’s made it the default syrup for drizzling over biscuits, pancakes and waffles, but its flavor also bodes well baked into spice muffins, gingerbread or poured over your morning bowl of granola.
2. Sorghum: Long gone are the days when Southern bakers used only corn syrup. Nowadays, the syrup made from sorghum, an Old World grain, is making a resurgence thanks to its intense malty flavor that smells distinctly of the musky tropical farms on which the grass is grown. More dimensional than molasses, use it to intensify a simple caramel sauce, boost the natural sweetness of cornmeal in a savory skillet corn bread or brush over crisp bacon for a burnished, fragrant glaze.
3. Bourbon: Southern bakers and cooks alike love nothing more than to add a bit of hooch to their favorite dish, and bourbon is by far the most widely loved. With notes of caramel and intense jammy sweetness, it pairs perfectly in baked goods like fruitcake, chocolate fudge candies and custards, where it’s unique profile can shine through. Maker’s Mark is still the most popular brand in the South, but I also like to use Jim Beam and Knob Creek for their all-purpose flavors.
4. Pecans: If there’s any ingredient that’s as Southern as a red velvet groom’s cake, it’s the pecan. These earthy, robust nuts lend a pleasantly bitter flavor to Southern fruitcake, buttery shortbread cookies and as the spotlight ingredient in its namesake pie. While not convenient, it’s always preferable (not to mention nostalgic) to buy pecans in their shells and crack them yourself. This ensures you’re using the freshest pecans and makes the ritual of baking that pie all the more memorable.
5. Fresh Coconut: Thanks to trading with our even more southern friends in the Caribbean centuries ago, coconut became a ubiquitous ingredient in the South. Known for being difficult to crack and grate without special equipment, the nut’s meat eventually was packaged and sweetened to preserve its shelf life and became even more prevalent, sprinkled in mammoth, sweet layer cakes, stirred into cool vanilla pudding for pies and as a chewy coating for candies. Although the packaged kind can be used in a pinch, I implore you to grate the fresh stuff and experience the coconut’s fresh, clean and lightly funky flavor on its own. It’ll make your baked goods that much sweeter.
6. All-natural Vegetable Shortening: While virtually any Southern biscuit- or fried chicken–making tutorial starts with opening a can of Crisco, we all now know that the solid hydrogenated oil product is not the healthiest fat we can use to cook with. But its properties—flakiness in biscuits and pie doughs, high cooking temperatures for fried foods and pure white appearance for angel cakes and frostings—are desirable, so the best route to take is to use an all-natural shortening, like the ones made by Spectrum Organics and other health-focused brands. That way, your cakes and biscuits can benefit from its assets, and you can avoid a guilty conscience.