All Rise: The Power of Baking Powder

The story of the simple white powder that can make or break your cake

Sayoni Bhaduri

Just half a teaspoon. That is all it take to make your cake rise gloriously. Just half a teaspoon of baking powder in the cake batter ready for baking.

Whether a loaf of bread or a cupcake, noticed how it puffs up as it cooks in an oven? This puffing up or rise is the job of a leavening agent—any ingredient that helps build air bubbles in a batter or dough allowing them to expand and become porous.

That is what baking powder is: “A chemical leavening agent, involves the action of an acid on bicarbonate to release carbondioxide gas which helps in aeration of dough or batter during mixing and baking,” explains Kshitiz Shekhar, executive chef at Hotel Marine Plaza, Mumbai.

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The leavening agent you use depends on your baking project, says chef Manish Khanna, founder and partner, Brownie Point and Noir:

  • In a genoise sponge the air is beaten into eggs resulting in a soft and spongy texture.
  • In puff pastries where aeration is done via lamination of fat between layers of dough, which when baked leads to a rise in the product, making it airy.
  • For breads, yeast that generates CO2 during fermentation, is used.
  • Baking powder used in a lot of pound cakes, heavier cakes or cookies where large amounts of fat is used, which does not have an ability to hold much aeration.

As a chemical leavening agent, there are two components in baking powder—an alkali, sodium bicarbonate, and an acid, cream of tartar. There is also some cornflour added to the mix to help absorb excess moisture. Most baking powder available today is double acting, meaning, its first reaction occurs when combined with liquid to help aerate the batter or dough and second, more slow acting reaction occurs when heated in the oven.

However, baking powder is not easily replaceable with baking soda or sodium bicarbonate. The latter is a key ingredient of the former. Baking soda can never be used on its own explains chef Shekhar, “It tastes metallic. However it can be neutralized by acid like lemon, buttermilk, yogurt, unsweetened neutral cocoa powder.

If you think baking at home need serious planning, it was double or triple that plan and wait in the early 1800s. Yeast was the preferred leavening agent, even for a cake and that meant waiting for almost a day for the little microbes to get activated.

Eventually, with the industrial revolution, newer, quicker-acting leavening agents were made. These included ever-trustworthy beaten eggs, potash (potassium bicarbonate and a low sodium version of baking soda) and pearlash. Pearlash can be considered a pre-cursor to modern baking powder.

The metallic taste that any of these chemical leavening agents left was problematic. Until in 1843 an enterprising food manufacturer and chemist in England, Alfred Bird combined sodium bicarbonate and tartaric acid. The ingenuity became a necessity since Bird’s wife was allergic to eggs and yeast.

However, one had to work quickly with this single–acting baking powder as it would react the moment it would hit moisture. Perhaps this is why many bakers are habituated to mixing dry ingredients separately and wet ingredients separately, and finally, swiftly mixing the two together.

Tartaric acid or cream of tartar was also an expensive chemical to procure outside Europe. So, enterprising Americans went in search for a more feasible solution when in 1856, Harvard chemist named Eben Horsford patented the process to manufacture calcium acid phosphate.

According to literature on the history of baking powder, Horsford replaced cream of tartar with calcium acid phosphate in his baking powder recipe. As a result, when mixed with liquid, carbon dioxide would be created aerating a cake batter or dough, but more importantly a second chemical reaction would take place during the baking process where the slow heat would give rise to the cake or pastry.

This invention was such a success that today baking powder is an essential ingredient in cakes and other baked goods.

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Baking Powder isn’t just meant for baking, it is a versatile kitchen staple that comes in handy after many a mishaps. Shekhar and Khanna give their favourite dual use of baking powder:

  • If you spill oil on your kitchen rug, immediately sprinkle it with baking powder on it so it will soak up the oil.  When it dries, just vacuum it up and then give it a cleaning with a good foaming carpet spot cleaner. 
  • Baking powder is good for cleaning and getting tough stains off the counter tops. It can be an excellent stainless steel cleaner.
  • Baking powder can help in treating heartburn or acid reflux, in use for easing mouth sores,
  • You can use baking powder as a mouthwash, to whiten your teeth, as a deodorant, also to relieve itchy skin and sunburns.
  • It also comes in handy in neutralizing smelly fridge and odours from garbage bins, as an air freshener, also as a laundry whitener, kitchen cleaner and multipurpose toilet cleaner.

And if you’ve run out of the handy baking powder, we have

a list of baking powder substitutes

for you.

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