On Kitchen Acids

Reader Cynthia writes:

So OK, I get that alkalines like baking soda are rare things in the kitchen. But what about the other side of the reaction: acids? They seem more common. Can you give us a list of things that react with soda? And are there any other alkaline ingredients out there?

Cynthia, I’d be positively delighted to answer. As you’ve intuited, acids are a much more common in the kitchen than bases. The strongest of these are vinegar, cream of tartar and lemon juice. Other citrus juices like orange and lime are acidic, so is tomato juice and any fermented dairy product (buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt, etc.). Other, milder acids include…

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How does baking soda kill odors?

That’s an excellent question, reader Ronny! Given all you now know about how leavening reactions work, the answer will probably strike you as obvious. As you know, sodium bicarbonate reacts when it combines with acid and water. Many odor-causing molecules are organic acids, so when they come into contact with the soda in a humid environment like a refrigerator they react, spelling the end of the offending molecule.

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A Semi-Irrelevant History Break

The history of chemical leavening is chockablock with characters. Not least among them a fellow by the name of George Rew, a young chemist who in 1889 developed the modern formula for baking powder in cooperation with a fellow named William Wright. Wright was an entrepreneur (a cousin of Orville and Wilbur of Kittyhawk fame), who hired Rew fresh out of the University of Michigan for his Chicago-based enterprise, the Calumet baking powder company. Together the two hit upon a formula that included not only calcium phosphate, but sodium aluminum sulphate as well….

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The Unconscious Baker

One thing I forgot to mention is that ammonium carbonate (baker’s ammonia) is also a common smelling salt. For those of you who don’t know what smelling salts are, they’re the stuff that Moe would use to revive Curly every time a tipped store shelf would bring a long succession of objects — jars, canned goods, bottled beer, skillets, ball peen hammers, railroad spikes…then finally cannon balls, anvils and boat anchors — down on Curly’s head.


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Mighty proud of those biscuits…

…is that clabber girl. Behind is the family, mama and next-eldest daughter plucking a goose, while the younger kids (and cat) play in the feather box. And while I’m not totally sure, I believe that black earthenware pot just behind the little boy’s head (the thing with the spoon handle sticking out) is supposed to be the clabber jar. This is an item that was once a fixture in American kitchens prior to about 1900, the vessel in which leftover milk and/or buttermilk was left to “clabber” until it was sour enough to bake with. …

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What is clabber?

A good question, reader Suzy. Clabber is/was nothing more or less than sour milk. Rural American housewives made it either by leaving milk out at room temperature (where it would be slowly soured by lactic acid-producing bacteria), or by combining milk with vinegar or even rennet. Depending on how clabber was made and how it was treated it could assume any one of several textures. It could be thick and spoonable, it could be a soupy, lumpy consistency, or it could be firm and dry, almost like a cheese. Mostly, clabber was a way to turn something that would otherwise go to waste (excess milk) into something useful.

Clabber came to America by way of the Scots-Irish: back-country Scottish lowland folk who were relocated to Northern Ireland (Ulster), but ultimately emigrated to the New World. The poorest of the poor of our early forebears, they could afford to waste nothing. Indeed, while the English slopped their hogs with the clumpy, curdled milk that remained after their cream was skimmed off, their Northern cousins would…

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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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