The First American Baking Powder

…was developed in 1856 by a fellow by the name of Eben Norton Horsford. Horsford’s baking powder used calcium phosphate as the acid. That made it not only far less expensive than Alfred Bird’s cream of tartar version, it made it much more dependable. The product was called Horsford’s Cream of Tartar Substitute. Why “substitute”? Because there was something of a “frankenfoods” scare at the time and cream of tartar was thought to be bad for you (nice to know some things never change). Eventually the panic over tartaric acid died down and Horsford renamed the product for an obscure character from American history: one Benjamin Thompson from Woburn, Massachusetts.


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From Baking Soda to Baking Powder

So it’s the mid-1800′s. CO2-producing carbonates are in common use among home bakers, as is cream of tartar. Why not get nuts, put the two together in dry powder form, and sell the whole shebang as a do-it-yourself one-scoop leavening reaction in a box?

That was the inspiration of one Alfred Bird, a pharmacist from Birmingham, England. Saddled with a spouse allergic to both yeast and eggs — but blessed with a talent for invention — Bird created the precursor to modern baking powder in 1843. It was, quite simply, a mixture of baking soda, cream of tartar and cornstarch (which served to keep the chemicals separated as well absorb moisture from the air)….

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On Cream of Tartar

Joe Pastry: I’ll take organic chemistry for $400, Alex.

Alex Trebek: An organic acid salt, this by-product of the winemaking process will also help raise your biscuits.

JP: What is cream of tartar?

AT: Correct!

(CHEERS)

JP: Give me organic chemistry for $1000!

AT: Created under photochemical conditions, this is what results when 1,4-dimethylcyclohexane reacts with an equal number of moles of chlorine gas.

JP: Um…are you freakin’ kidding me?

Sure, you can spend your entire baking life making bubbles by mixing soda with acidic substances like buttermilk or sour cream. More than a few of our ancestors did. The trouble with that approach is it’s inconsistent. The weather might change and acid-producing bacteria in your clabber jar might stop growing or even go dormant. Or you might just run out. The solution? Ready-made, easily storable acid powder, the thing we know in America as cream of tartar. A little of that mixed into your baking soda batter and you get the very same reaction, every time. …

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Baking Powder

Baking powder is a leavening reaction in a can. It’s a combination of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and at least one other acid, usually two, and then a little cornstarch to absorb any moisture and prevent the reaction from happening prematurely. As you might expect it’s the combination of acids that determine the way the baking powder performs, since different acids react with the soda in different ways depending on the conditions.


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Baking Soda

Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) is the baking world’s go-to chemical bubbling agent. It’s a crystalline alkaline powder which, once it’s combined with water, dissolves into sodium ions and bicarbonate ions, the latter of which react with acid to create carbon dioxide gas.

That’s all very straightforward, no? However the interesting thing about baking soda is that you can get reactions of different speeds depending on what sorts of acids you pair it with. Common kitchen acids…

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Talk About a TV Dinner!

If you are or ever were a Food Network viewer you’ve surely noticed how the channel has steadily moved away from shows that teach cooking to shows that simply show cooking. That’s deliberate and based on their discovery that viewers don’t want to learn to cook as much as they want to watch people cook. The latter seems to fill a deep-seated human need in a day and age where there’s less and less cooking. And while I miss those old Food Network shows I can’t fault them for catering to their audiences. If cooking voyeurism is what brings in the viewers and viewership is what keeps the lights on, then who am I to complain about it?

Now it seems the South Koreans have taken the basic idea a step further with eating voyeurism. That is, live streaming internet TV shows where people simply watch other people eat. As strange as that sounds…

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Whatever got people baking with chemicals to begin with?

That’s a very interesting question, reader Charles. I don’t know the definitive answer to that, save for the fact that Native Americans were doing it well before anyone else. They were the ones who noticed that a little wood ash added to a grain cake batter created bubbles that lightened the finished product. My guess is that colonists to the New World took note of these practices and refined them to create what we now know as chemical leavening agents. These sorts of products would have been especially useful on the American frontier where, unlike back home in Europe, there were no village or estate bakeries where people could easily acquire bread. If Americans wanted bread they had to make their own — and chemical leavening was the quickest and easiest way to do that. …

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Baker’s Ammonia a.k.a. Hartshorn

You don’t have to be a chemist to spot a certain pattern in the names of chemical leavening agents. Potassium carbonate. Potassium bicarbonate. Sodium carbonate. Sodium Bicarbonate. All are compounds that release CO2 when they’re either reacted with acids and/or degraded by heat. The logical question at this point is: are there any other carbonate salts out there that do the same job and that you can also safely eat?


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Saleratus

Around the year 1775 industrial age chemists discovered that if you expose pearlash (potassium carbonate) to carbon dioxide gas the result was potassium bicarbonate, a compound that’s about twice as potent as regular old pearlash. The creation was dubbed “saleratus”, a Latin word meaning “aerated salt.” The discovery prompted an American entrepreneur by the name of Nathan Read to try making the stuff, which he did by suspending pearlash over vats of fermenting rum which produce — you guessed it — CO2. Very clever indeed. Read’s saleratus came on the market in 1788. But the stuff never really caught on as a leavener, mostly because it wasn’t terribly pure and hence not very reliable. …

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Pearlash

If you or someone you know is into old (actually very old) recipes, odds are you’ve seen this listed as an ingredient here and there. Pearlash is refined potassium carbonate, an alkaline salt found in wood ashes that also goes by the name potash. Potash was used for a lot of things back in the 1700s and 1800s, especially glassmaking. These days we mostly know it as a fertilizer, but once upon a time it was used to leaven things like corn cakes since it makes bubbles when it gets wet. Given that potash was made from wood ash, its effect on the flavor of corn cakes was as you might expect, but hey, at least the texture was lighter. …

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