Quick: Which kind of baking powder is on your cupboard shelf?
If you’re like many people I’ve asked, you might not know. Responses I’ve heard include “the one with the little girl,” or “the one with the retro label.” Those who could remember tended to have Clabber Girl (the best-selling brand in the U.S.), Calumet, or Rumford. When asked why they bought a particular brand, most referred again to the label (people like that little girl!) or answered, simply, “It’s what my mother used.”
Baking powder is one of the few cooking ingredients we still treat with ambivalence. Today we choose between different chocolates and vanillas, and even salt has become worthy of our attention. But for many, baking powder remains a little-understood ingredient. We know it’s different than baking soda, but beyond that, we assume that all baking powders are the same.
We are wrong.
Baking powder is baking soda combined with an acid. Baking soda is an alkaline leavening agent, which requires the addition of an acid for two reasons. One is to neutralize the alkaline taste. If you have ever mistakenly used baking soda instead of baking powder in your biscuits, you won’t forget the soapy taste. The other reason is to instigate a chemical reaction. Remember mixing baking soda with vinegar as a child? That mad bubbling was the release of carbon dioxide; in baking, it causes your cake to rise.
Buttermilk, yogurt, chocolate, honey, or molasses might be the acid ingredient that sparks the baking soda in a cake. But what about all the biscuits, cakes, and quick breads that don’t have one of those acidic ingredients? That’s where baking powder comes in.
In 1859, Rumford — the first calcium-phosphate baking powder — was patented. Before that, home bakers relied on various leaveners, such as potash and hartshorn (though this ammonium carbonate works only for crisp baked goods, such as cookies).
Today’s Rumford is a double-acting phosphate baking powder, using monocalcium phosphate (MCP) as its acid. MCP reacts mainly upon the introduction of a liquid, but because of the way it’s been treated, the reaction is a bit slower, and gets a small final oomph (about one-third of its reaction) in the oven.
Other double-acting baking powders (such as Clabber Girl and Calumet) use sodium aluminum sulfate (SAS) as well as MCP. The MCP causes the first reaction that occurs during mixing, and the SAS causes a second, heat-activated reaction. Obviously, the SAS buys the baker a little time, making baking “safer” and more forgiving. It also seems to make a fluffier biscuit.
Cream of tartar is a naturally occurring organic acid derived from tartaric acid. When mixed with baking soda, it makes a fine baking powder. Many cooks tend to have both cream of tartar and baking soda on hand and can therefore whip up a batch of homemade baking powder on short notice — a godsend if you realize midway through a cake-baking project that you’re out of the store-bought stuff.
Southern cooking expert Edna Lewis liked to use a ratio of two to one; Scott Peacock, who worked with Lewis for many years, published her baking-powder recipe this year in both the January Gourmet and the March Bon Appétit. In On Food and Cooking, cooking chemist Harold McGee suggests 1 1/4 teaspoons cream of tartar to neutralize 1 teaspoon baking soda. And pastry chef Lindsey Shere, in Chez Panisse Desserts, adds cornstarch to the mix: 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon cream of tartar, and 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch.
Shere happens to be my mother, so I asked her about her recipe. She explained that the cornstarch stabilizes the mixture. A tartar-and-soda powder reacts when a liquid is combined with the dry ingredients, which means a fresh cake batter must go into the oven as quickly as possible. Cornstarch protects against a premature reaction, Shere says, adding that the cornstarch is also useful if you’re cooking in a humid kitchen or planning to store the homemade baking powder for a while.
Some sources caution that too much sodium aluminum sulfate (one of the acids present in Clabber Girl and Calumet baking powders) results in a bitter taste. Overused or not, I find the aluminum taste always detectable in the finished product.
I’m not the only person who notices this; many of my cookbooks counsel the home baker to seek out aluminum-free baking powder. Rose Levy Beranbaum, Mark Bittman, David Lebovitz, and Greg Patent recommend the aluminum-free Rumford. And in the book he co-wrote with Edna Lewis, The Gift of Southern Cooking, Scott Peacock admits that while initially he couldn’t detect the difference, he soon learned to discern the metallic taste.
As a child, I used Calumet baking powder. I remember making 1-2-3-4 cakes and associating a particular taste with them. Later, we started using Rumford (a lot of people shifted to this brand initially to avoid ingesting aluminum), and I found that the unusual taste was no longer present.
For a long time, I suspected that if people tasted otherwise identical cakes or biscuits made with either aluminum-based or aluminum-free baking powders, they would instantly notice the difference. But when I conducted my own double-blind taste experiment — with an admittedly small sample pool of only nine people and a yellow cake made with cake flour and vanilla — I found that most people (six out of nine) couldn’t detect a difference between the two powders. I was one of the three who could, and I found the bitter taste a deal-breaker. No one noticed a difference in the two cakes’ structures.
I tried a second cake, using all-purpose flour and omitting the vanilla. My tasting pool this time was even smaller (only four people), and everyone noted the metallic taste of the aluminum.
Later, I baked biscuits with the two baking powders. This time around, three out of five people noted the bitter taste and found it unpleasant. The two biscuits’ structures also differed. I preferred the flakier quality of the aluminum-free biscuit, while the two tasters who couldn’t detect a taste difference declared a preference for the fluffier texture of the aluminum-based biscuit.
If so few people notice the difference, why bother? Why learn to taste something that will ruin many cakes for you?
Well, not so long ago people also drank coffee brands indiscriminately. When we linger over a perfect cappuccino today, do we regret burnt, weak coffee being forever ruined for us?
As for the question of textures, I like what pastry chef Shuna Fish Lydon has to say on her blog, Eggbeater: “We tend to associate a high rise with excellence. It’s why much of our baked goods are way too big. My feeling has always been that I want to achieve a wonderful crumb, but not to the detriment of taste. Call it comfort alongside fashion, if you will.”
Or having your cake and eating it, too. One of my tasters noted that in the aluminum-free cake, there was no interruption to the flavor of sweet goodness. Learning to taste and appreciate our food is what makes cooking and eating a worthy and pleasurable adventure.
Giovanna Remolif Zivny is a writer living in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and three children. Her writing has appeared in Gourmet magazine.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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