Baking Soda

Baking soda & powder
According to the food historians, baking soda [bicarbonate of soda] dates back to ancient civilization. It was not until the mid-19th century, however, that it was regularly used by English and American cooks. The most comprehensive discussion of the history of this topic may be found in English Bread and Yeast Cookery, Elizabeth David [Penguin:Middlesex England] 1977. Your librarian can help you find a copy.

“Bicarbonate of soda: NaHCO3, has been used in cookery for so long that, despite its chemical label it has largely escaped the growing opposition to chemical’ additives. It is an alkali which reacts with acid by effervescing–producing carbon dioxide. It is therefore a leavening agent in baking, if used in conjunction with, say, tartaric acid…The alkaline properties of bicarbonate of soda can also be used to soften the skins of beans and other pulses. And a pinch added to the cooking water makes cabbage and other green vegetables greener, but its effect on the pigment chlorophyl. However, it also induces limpness (by breaking down hemicelluloses) and the loss of vitamins B1 and C; and in the practice, which dates back to classical Rome and used to be recommended in Britain and N. America, has largely died out.”
The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] (p.73)

The history of modern baking powder begins in the late 18th century:
“Pearl ash–This was a popular name for potassium carbonate, a refined form of potash, in turn an alkaline substance obtained by leaching ashes of wood or other plants (pot ashes). The use of wood ash in meat curing is ancient. And lye, the leaching water, has long been used from cleansing and making of soap. But the use of these alkaline substances as leavening appears to be American in origin. Study of Indian lore is frustrating because of early contamination, but it does seem that Indians employed ash as seasoning becasue of its salt content, and as a foaming agent in their breads. With corn meal, even using purer forms, the effect is largely a change in texture; with wheat flour, the leavening is specatular and virtually instantaneous, particularly when sparked by the acidity of sour milk, for example. This usage is first recorded, it seems, in 1796 by Amelia Simmons in a recipe for gingerbread; molasses supplies the requisite acidity. But the practice clearly was widespread and already of long standing as shown by a recipe for Handy-cake or Bread in Essays and Notes on Husbandry and Rural Affairs by J. B. Bordley (1801): “The good people of Long Island call this pot-ash or handy-cake;…wheat flour 2 lbs; sugar 1/2 lb, have added to them a tea spoonful of salt of tartar heaped, or any other form of pot or pearl ash.”…Gradually, saleratus and other baking sodas replaced pearl ash…Eventually, acid and alkali were combined in one baking powder’.”
The Virginia House-Wife, Mary Randolph, with historical notes and commentaries by Karen Hess [University of South Carolina Press:Columbia] 1984 (p.281-282/notes from Ms. Hess)

“The alkaline component of baking powder is usually Bicarbonate of Soda, also known as baking soda. The first type, invented in the USA in 1790 was pearl ash’, potassium carbonate prepared from wood ash. This provided only the alkali; the acid had come from some other ingredients, for example sour mlk. Pearl ash reacted with fats in the food, forming soap which gave an unpleasant taste. Soon it was replaced by bicarbonate of soda, which still reacts in this was but to a much smaller extent. An American name used for either of these alkali-only agents was saleratus.

True baking powder, containing both bicarbonate of soda and an acid, was introduced around 1850. The acid was cream of tartar or tartaric acid, both of which conveniently form crystals. This was mixed with a little starch to take up moisture and so keep the other components dry, so that they did not react prematurely. A disadvantage of this mixture was that is sprang into rapid action as soon as it was wetted, so that the dough had to mixed quickly and put straight into the oven before the reaction stopped.

Modern baking powder still uses these substances, but some of the cream of tartar (or tartaric acid) is replaced with a slower acting substance such as acid sodium pyrophosphate. This hardly reacts at all at room temperature, but speeds up when heated, so that bread and cakes rise well in the oven.”
Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] (p. 50)


0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *