Did you know that one of our most common pantry items today came about because of an allergy in the 1800s? (There goes the "nobody had allergies in my day" argument.)
Baking powder, an improvement on the baking soda of the day, was developed by British chemist Alfred Bird in 1843 so that his wife, who was allergic to eggs and yeast, could bake.
Have you heard of yeast allergies? An immune reaction to yeast is a real thing, although it's also true that people can be sensitive to live yeast for other reasons and still able to eat leavened baked goods.
Baking powder has a long, storied history of development across continents, and baking soda has been around in our foods since ancient times. But what are baking soda and baking powder, anyway, and why are they so useful? Do they have downsides? How do they work, and when should we use them?
I think that, with the movements toward whole foods and locally grown foods (both good ideas in their own rights), we sometimes overlook the importance of older food science discoveries, especially if they don't sound fresh or healthy. Like so many advances in health, and even in today's medicines, the root source of baking soda and powder comes straight from plants and the environment, though, usually as a result of a problem that needed solved. (Sounds less chemical-y and scary already, huh?)
In the cases of baking soda and powder, it just took a couple of curious scientists to take a single ingredient---sodium bicarbonate---and standardize it for posterity.
Both baking soda and baking powder are called chemical leaveners, not because they are originally from labs but because they add bubbles and air to baked goods by mixing acids with bases (a chemical reaction) to release carbon dioxide. This gives quite the same result as live yeast, which releases carbon dioxide when it "eats" sugar.
Baking soda (pure sodium bicarbonate) derives from natron (only 17% sodium bicarb), used by Egyptians and other civilizations to cook, clean, and deodorize. Identified by Nicolas LeBlanc during the start of the chemical industry era in the 1790s, baking soda was mixed with sour milk throughout the 1830s to bake breads and was standardized in 1846 by Arm and Hammer. By the 1970s, Arm and Hammer's baking soda was marketed as the eco-friendly cleaner to help kick off the first Earth Day celebration.
When baking powder came about in 1843, it was quickly sent overseas by the British War Department to help feed troops. Baking powder carried a crucial advantage over baking soda in one way: it contained an acid in the powder already, so it could be used in recipes without acidic ingredients like vinegar. In this way, baking powder guaranteed an even rise, too. In addition to sodium bicarbonate, baking powder has always contained a powdered acid like cream of tartar and a moisture absorber like cornstarch (to prevent a reaction until mixed into a recipe). After more than a century of experimentation, today's shelf-stable, double-acting baking powder adds carbon dioxide in the bowl and in the oven, often with calcium phosphate as the acid.
In our food allergy recipes, baking soda and powder are essential safe ingredients, not just for my daughter's egg-free benefit but also because I developed a reaction to live yeast (which I learned the hard way, during weekly bread-baking excursions). Now, even our sliced bread and pizza dough recipes rely on these "invented" pantry leaveners. I gave up making my Gram's thick-crust Hot-Roll-Mix pizza dough recipe when my youngest with a robust dairy allergy was born, and I never stopped missing it. I also never imagined that I'd be able to replace it without yeast.
I've always been a fan of quick breads, the kind made without yeast or rise times or kneading, and usually involving a sweet fruit or savory squash. My mom used to make batches of these breads by the dozens, and it was the go-to snack and holiday or just-because gift in my house growing up. But it stretched my mind to use anything but yeast for "real" bread (not counting thick, dense, and lovely Irish soda bread, here, because it's so distinct).
But biscuits and cobblers don't use yeast, and they are light and fluffy. And I missed making my own pizza and focaccia dough at home terribly. If baking powder could work for a baker in the 1800s, certainly I had to at least try.
I'm still experimenting with just the right quantities to get a non-biscuity, Southern-Italian--style pizza crust: thick like Chicago style but airy and not heavy. It's coming along...and my family is eating a lot of middling pizzas! So far, I've tried different types of baking powder, too, to see if the tastes differ.
Meanwhile, I've learned a thing or two more about leaveners.
What about downsides? Well, sometimes leaveners are a bad idea. I got an awesome set of cookie stamps for my birthday and was finally able to try them out. I almost never have the patience to roll out cookie dough, collect the excess, roll again, repeat. But I tried a rollout Christmas cookie recipe without peppermints for Valentine's day. The cookies tasted great, held together, all good. Except that, as they baked, they rose and the imprint (Eat Me) erased, sometimes completely. Not an epic fail, but not worth all of that effort, either. I headed online for some research answers and found a duh-moment answer immediately: no baking powder. Naturally, ingredients to help a cookie rise aren't what I need here. So I'm heading back to the recipe grid drawing board with this one, too.
By Easter, maybe I'll have a cookie recipe and some pizza perfection, thanks to (or despite) my pantry leaveners.
Hi, I'm Nicole.
ABOUT THE BLOG
An apothecary is a person or a place. Either one implies healing and relates to pharmacy in its truest sense, as a source of treatment and advice.
This blog is my way of uniting my pharmacy training with my efforts to provide a healthy and safe lifestyle for my family. In true apothecary form, I research and prescribe alternative ingredients that work just right in each specific recipe, and I would like to share the results with anyone who needs help making their own family’s kitchen allergy safe and heart healthy.
Nicole Van Hoey's books on Goodreads
Bakery Bites: Breads and Treats Without Dairy, Eggs, Nuts, Seeds, or Soy
ratings: 1 (avg rating 5.00)
Kitchen Adventures With Multiple Food Allergies: A Recipe Collection for Celebrations Without Dairy, Eggs, Peanuts, Tree Nuts, Seeds, or Soy