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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While we’re waiting…

…for me to make a torte…ehem…reader Ted asked if I’d put up a series on chemical leavers for the Baking Ingredients section. So far the entries on yeasts are the extent of the discussion. I’m happy to do that of course, though I’m wondering how far back in history to go. There were several precursors to modern-day baking powder, and even though we don’t use them anymore there are still some historical recipes out there that call for things like saleratus and pearlash. Maybe those need short entries as well if only to list their modern equivalents. As far as…

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Shortage or Just Baking Season?

I can’t find a hazelnut to save my life, so I’m going with almonds for the meringue. Are hazelnuts in short supply does anyone know?

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Is there an easy way to peel hazelnuts?

Actually there is, reader Jen. Reader Bibi supplied me with this technique a few years ago and in all that time I still haven’t put up a tutorial to demonstrate it, mostly because I can buy pre-peeled hazelnuts at my local whole foods! Still I’m keen to try it. Here you go:

Joe, Included below is a piece on husking hazelnuts that I wrote for a cookbook. The baking soda method is much easier and produces really skinless nuts without the hassle and the mess. I also don’t think think it affects the flavor. This method is recommended by Julia Child originally comes from Julia Child, I believe. On tasting.com, they recommend letting the hazelnuts cool for an hour before rubbing the skins off. I have not tried that trick, but the Julia blanch in baking soda method works like a charm. My note for the cookbook is included below:



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Where does fondant come from?

Who knew there was so much interest in this humble ingredient? But hey, I’ll go with the flow (buh-dum bum). Poured fondant, reader Kellie, was invented in France, probably in the mid-1800′s when granulated sugar was plentiful and the confectionery arts were developing in all sorts of new and interesting directions. The word “fondant” comes from the French verb for “melt”, presumably because of the way fondant melts in the mouth. Indeed, the fine crystal structure of fondant gives it melting qualities that are unique in the candy world.


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