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Hilde Lee: Baking soda and yeast take different paths to leavening dough

Have we really given much thought to the subject of leavenings, those necessary elements that make baked goods rise? As yeast and baking soda are not interchangeable, there has been confusion over the difference between baking powder and baking soda — and where yeast fits in.

Although baking powder and yeast may have similar purposes in baking, the way they work is different. While both products are responsible for making baked goods, that is where the similarities end. The two processes are not similar at all, and the two products are not interchangeable in recipes.

Baking soda, technically called bicarbonate of soda, is used as a leavener in baked goods. When combined with an acid, such as buttermilk or yogurt, baking soda produces carbon dioxide gas, which causes the dough or batter to rise. Because baking soda reacts immediately when moistened, it always should be mixed with other dry ingredients before adding liquid to the batter.

Baking powder is a combination of baking soda; an acid, such as cream of tartar; and a moisture-absorber, such as cornstarch. It combines the separate ingredients needed when using baking soda alone. When mixed with liquid, baking powder releases carbon dioxide gas, which causes a bread or cake to rise. Today, the most common baking powder is double-acting, which releases some gas when it becomes wet and the rest when exposed to oven heat.

When double-acting baking powder replaced single-acting baking powder, so did having to tiptoe past the oven to prevent the cakes from falling.

Baking powder and baking soda were relative newcomers to baking. Before the turn of the 19th century, all leavening in baking was either by yeast or manually beating air into the dough or batter. Frequently, beaten egg whites were folded into the batter to give it a lightness. At one time, yeast was derived from alcoholic spirits, such as beer or wine.

The breakthrough in leavening came in the 1790s in America, when it was discovered that pearl ash, a refined form of wood ash, could make cakes rise. Within two years America, was exporting pearl ash to Europe. The use of this form of leavening was restricted to highly spiced cake, such as gingerbread, because the pearl ash had a soapy taste. Spices were required to mask this unpleasantness.

In the early 19th century, it was discovered that bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) could be used as a leavener. Formerly known as saleratus, baking soda had been used in baking and cleaning butter churns and other household articles. It was made in this country as early as 1839 and created a formidable competition for the soda imported from England.

Another plus for American baking soda was that it was packaged in a bright red wrapper, and each pound contained a free recipe card. One of the most colorful traveling baking soda salesmen, Colonel Powell, had a brightly colored wagon with plumed horses. He always arrived in a community with a jingle of bells and a trumpet blast. The Colonel, a former circus giant, stood 9 feet tall with his high hat and thick-soled shoes.

Unlike our modern powdered version, bicarbonate of soda came in lumps, was very coarse, and had to be dissolved in a little water before being added to dough or batter. Until 1979, the original recipe for Toll House Cookies called for 1/2 teaspoon of water to be added to he dough. That was a holdover from the time when baking soda lumps had to be dissolved.

When single-acting baking powder came into common use, cakes could be mixed quickly and popped into the oven. All of this had to be done quickly, because as soon as the baking powder came into contact with moisture, the gases were released. If the batter was allowed to sit before baking, the carbon dioxide would dissipate, and the cake would not rise during baking.

The widespread use of baking powder in the United States in the 19th century fostered the development of a large variety of “quick breads” and sweet breads, such as banana bread and applesauce bread. Baking powder biscuits became a popular item on the dinner table, and strawberry shortcake was an important summer dessert.

One of the earliest forms of baking powder in the United States was developed after the Civil War by two Fort Wayne, Indiana, druggists, Biddle and Hoagland. They spent several years experimenting with a chemical compound involving baking soda, an acid and cornstarch.

The duo started their baking powder business in 1873. Two years later,Biddle and Hoagland moved the business to Chicago and subsequently merged it with two other baking powder firms. The resulting product became known as Royal Baking Powder.

Next to baking powder, the most frequently used rising agent is yeast. It is used in breads and many traditional European cakes. Until after the Civil War, yeast for bread baking was primarily made at home from potato skins or leftover beer. The result was a haphazard product that varied from batch to batch, producing a barely edible bread.

Fleischmann’s yeast has long been a household name. The company started with an idea from a young Austrian, Charles Fleischmann, who revolutionized the American baking industry with his high-quality yeast. Fleischmann had come to the United States in 1865 to attend the wedding of his sister. Astonished by what he called the poor taste of American bread, he went back to Austria to collect samples of the yeast used in making Viennese breads.

When Fleischmann returned to America with his brother Maximilian, they took their yeast samples to James M. Gaff, a well-known Cincinnati distiller. The three went into business together and, in 1868, began manufacturing the country’s first standardized yeast. The advantage of the new yeast was that it was created under rigid controls and compressed into cakes of uniform size and effectiveness.

Two years after they started producing yeast, the partners used their expertise in the distilling field by forming the Fleischmann Distilling Company and started producing America’s first gin.

After the Second World War, Fleischmann began producing yeast in dehydrated granules. Each package was designed to contain the same rising agents as the original compressed cake of yeast. Since the packages do not need to be refrigerated, as did the cakes, they could be placed on grocers’ shelves alongside flour and sugar. This made it more convenient for shoppers to get all of the baking ingredients in one place.


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