From the Homestead Kitchen: The “Rise” of Baking Powder and the History of Quick Breads

by Gennie Truelock

Of baking powder and quick breads

Quick breads, like banana bread, are incredibly popular right now. A quick search online will yield a multitude of recipes suggesting various versions of these satisfying treats. But the one ingredient that all quick breads have in common is baking powder. Prior to the creation of this leavening powerhouse, making bread was a laborious and time-consuming craft. Breads made with yeast require a warm environment, a bit of muscle, and a considerable amount of patience. The yeast needs time to activate and ferment to create the bubbles that allow the bread to rise. Quick breads are just that, the rising process happens fast. Once all the ingredients are mixed together, you can quickly get them into the oven to bake without waiting for the dough to “proof,” or rise. Using baking powder, you create a chemical reaction inside the dough that allows carbon dioxide bubbles to quickly release, giving the baked goods the proper lift and an overall lighter texture.

What is baking powder?

You may have heard people say that there is a “science to baking,” and there really is! Baking powder is a chemistry experiment in a can. This leavening powder is a mixture of a base, an acid, and a buffering agent to prevent the chemical reaction from happening too early. You can make your own single-action baking powder at home by combining, baking soda (the base), cream of tartar (the acid), and cornstarch (the buffering agent). The ratio is one-part baking soda and cornstarch to two-parts cream of tartar. For example, to make one cup of baking powder, combine:

¼ cup of baking soda

½ cup of cream of tartar

¼ cup of cornstarch

Mix very well and store in an air tight container in a cool, dry place.

Who created baking powder?

The first type of baking powder, a single-acting formula, was developed in England in 1843 by Alfred Bird. Bird was a chemist and food manufacturer. He was looking to create a leavening agent free of yeast and eggs because his wife, Elizabeth, was allergic to both. He came across the idea of combining baking soda with tartaric acid (cream of tartar, which is a by-product of wine-making), which would bubble up when water was added. To make it shelf stable, he added starch to the mixture to absorb the ambient moisture and prevent it from reacting when it wasn’t in use. Bird’s baking powder, however, was used mainly by the British army rather than home bakers, and Bird never bothered to patent his product. (In 1845, another Englishman, Henry Jones, used Bird’s baking powder formula to create another baking staple for home bakers: self-rising flour. That may be a topic for another blog post.)

The person that brought the use of baking powder to the United States was Eben Norton Horsford, an American chemist. In 1856, Horsford received a patent for his process of extracting monocalcium pyrophosphate from bones. When this chemical is added to baking soda and water, the initial release of carbon dioxide occurs, but dicalcium phosphate is also produced. When heat is applied, a second release of carbon dioxide happens, and with that, double-acting baking powder was born. This is the standard type of baking soda found on store shelves today, although they no longer extract chemicals from bones to create the double-acting formula. Since the 1880s, sodium aluminum sulfate, also known as alum, has been added to produce the second rise effect.

The baking powder wars

In 1866, brothers Joseph and Cornelius Hoagland began producing a single-action baking powder using the baking soda and cream of tartar formulas. Two years later, they established the Royal Baking Powder Company in New York. After a protracted fight with William Ziegler, one of the Hoaglands former employees, Ziegler merged the Hoagland enterprise with his own in 1899 and established the Royal Baking Powder Corporation in New Jersey.

By the 1900s, many companies were using alum instead of cream of tartar in the creation of their baking powders because it was cheaper to produce and home bakers could use less of it in their baked goods. Ziegler began a campaign against the use of alum, calling it, “unnatural and poisonous.” He attempted to have its use banned, but only succeeded in getting the chemical removed in the state of Missouri by bribing members of the state senate. When the story broke that Zeigler had influenced the decision, the Lt. Governor John Lee fled, returning a week later. Lee, then turned evidence over to a grand jury and the state attempted to have Zeigler extradited to Missouri, but the state of New York refused and Zeigler was never tried.

Royal, however, was soon facing another PR concern. After the bribery scandal, it was discovered that the company had actually been using alum in its baking powders that were sold in the South. Zeigler died in 1905, and in 1929, the Royal Baking Powder Corporation merged with Fleischmann Company (the makers of the yeast brand) and two additional food production companies to form Standard Brands.

Which brings us to our recipe!

Anyone Can Bake recipe book
Any one can Bake, Royal Baking Powder Corporation, 1928. From the Homestead Museum collection.

As I mentioned earlier, the history of baking powder is also the history of quick breads. Without the former, you couldn’t have the latter. With the increased production of baking powder throughout the late 1800s, home bakers and food manufactures began to experiment with the type of bread products that could be made without yeast. Soon, the quick bread was born and people were enamored with the ease and expediency of making freshly baked and flavorful loaves. However, while certain quick breads like cornbread and banana bread have become staples in baking circles, others have come and gone. I decided to try and bring one of those back.

Peanut Butter Bread

I found this recipe in a copy of the 1928 cookbook, Any one can Bake, published by the Royal Baking Powder Corporation, and one of many cookbooks in the Homestead’s collection. This simple recipe is very straightforward and makes a light and tasty loaf, a slice of which is absolutely delicious when lightly toasted and served with a little jam on top.

Peanut butter bread crop recipe only

As an experiment, I decided to make two versions of this recipe. In the first, I used store-bought, double-acting powder containing alum. In the second, I used single-acting baking powder that I made myself without alum.

Here are the results:

PB Bread with alum
Experiment 1: Made with store bought baking powder containing alum.
Whole PB loaf
Experiment 2: Made with homemade baking powder without alum.

My thoughts:

  1. Overall the texture of the two breads is similar: light and moist.
  2. The bread isn’t very sweet, which in my opinion is a good thing.
  3. The rise on the bread containing the baking powder with alum is higher.
  4. I would have to say that the flavor of the first loaf had a slightly metallic aftertaste. Although others in my house disagree.
  5. If I were to make this recipe again, I would either make my own baking powder and make the recipe as is, or use store bought baking powder and reduce the amount called for in the recipe by at least 1 teaspoon.
  6. Keep an eye on your oven after about 40 minutes. All ovens bake at a slightly different rate.
  7. It makes a pretty good base for french toast! I was curious how well the bread would stand up to other preparations and it makes a decent french toast, with preserves on top instead of syrup, it reminded me of a toasty PB&J sandwich.

So the next time you are whipping up a batch of banana bread, or perhaps even giving this recipe a try, as you are reaching for the baking powder, give a silent thanks to those that made quick breads possible.

5 thoughts

  1. Every year I consumed at least 100 lbs of baking soda in addition to 1,000 lbs of litter to keep the environment of my cat princess clean, but I’ve never learned the difference between baking soda and baking powder. This post is very informative and came at the right time, because I was recently thinking to make some quick bread using my stock of baking soda. Now I know I need baking powder instead.

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