One day, when she was baking, Linda Civitello looked down at the yellow can in her hand and asked herself, “What the heck is this stuff?” And avid baker with a curious streak, she set out to find as complete an answer as possible. She is currently writing her dissertation at UCLA on the history of baking powder and her book, Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People, is used to teach food history in culinary schools.
“Baking powder is the invisible ingredient,” she says. “Nobody ever thinks about it. But you can’t bake anything American-style without it.” Here, according to Civitello, is what you should know about the inconspicuous white powder:
- Baking powder is a chemical leavening shortcut.
It’s made up of a base, an acid salt and a filler: usually sodium bicarbonate, a.k.a. baking soda; cream of tartar; and corn starch, respectively. The mixture releases carbon dioxide into batter or dough, forming bubbles, which will cause the batter or dough to rise. (Recipes made with buttermilk or other acidic ingredients usually call for baking soda instead of, or as well as, baking powder to avoid too much acid in the baking mixture.)
- Baking powder is instant.
You can make anything from cookies to banana bread in minutes. Before baking powder, for example, yeast was used to raise waffles, and raising yeast takes a minimum of an hour, but is best done overnight. Pancakes made without baking powder really are as flat as, well, pancakes. (Though too much powder can cause a bitter taste in your baked goods.)
- Baking powder has an indefinite shelf life while sealed.
Once opened, it can last anywhere from 6-18 months, depending on the conditions in which it’s stored. Ideally, it should be kept in a cool, dry place. Avoid placing it in the fridge, because any moisture that may result from condensation can ruin it. To check if your baking powder is still good, test it by adding a teaspoon to a bit of water. If it fizzes, you’re good to go.
- Baking powder was first patented by a Harvard professor in the mid-1860s.
As with any new invention, there was a lot of controversy and confusion surrounding the product when it first hit the shelves. Competing companies each defended their proprietary formulas and tried to get each other’s versions banned as a toxic substance. Each side had its own medical and chemical experts, including some of the country’s top scientists.
- The two types of baking powder that first emerged were single-acting and double-acting baking powder.
The double-acting formula ended up becoming the standard, which provides two rises. The first occurs when the powder interacts with the liquid part of batter or dough. The second rise happens when the mixture is introduced to heat.
- Despite early experiments conducted in England and Germany, baking powder is considered an American invention.
England has been using it since the 19th century and Germans use a single-acting formula. But the substance was long shunned in countries like France and Italy, where it’s considered an adulterant. Many French and Italian baked goods are raised with egg whites or yolks. “Who wants to beat eggs for an hour when you can reach for a teaspoon in a can?” says Civitello. “We’re Americans! There are so many other things we could be doing.”
- Anecdotal evidence shows that the invention of baking powder has had an unintended consequence: namely, the proliferation of baked goods in the U.S. and, thus, a rise in the consumption of fat, sugar and flour.
This is ironic, considering that the first patent for baking powder was designed to make bread more nutritious. The formula was said to replace some of the nutrients lost in the processing of flour. But today’s cupcake bakeries, IHOPs and even hot dog and hamburger buns would not be so ubiquitous without baking powder.