Monday, February 7, 2011

Kitchen Understudy #2: Homemade Baking Powder

Dear mothers of small children who can't drop everything and run to the store every day,

Sometimes it's very convenient to be able to make things at home, be able to construct ingredients that are usually purchased pre-fab, from cheaper components that you already have laying around.  My father-in-law (the original Mr H) and I were discussing chemicals and ingredients in general, and he pointed out that "Everything is made up of the same basic chemicals, just more or less and in different combinations."

The magic key to making your own stuff is knowing how much more or less, and what different combinations to use!  This brings us to our important message of today: how to make baking powder!

More than once I have been at a friends' house, baking, and realized they had no baking powder ("I thought it was the same as baking soda!" they cry in disbelief, much to my chagrin).

In one respect, they are correct; baking soda and powder are both chemical leavening agents that build puffy, gassy bubbles in dough much faster than fast-acting yeast or sour starters do.  Hence, things like banana bread, Irish soda bread, and baking powder biscuits usually fall under the cookbook category of 'Quick Breads'.

Baking Soda (sodium bicarbonate, or alkali) is used in recipes with acidic ingredients it can interact with, like vinegars, lemon juice, buttermilk, non-Dutch processed cocoa, molasses, honey, and so on.  Baking soda is instant-acting and batters made with this leavener should always be baked immediately after mixing, with minimum stirring involved.

Baking Powder is a mixture of baking soda, an acid salt, and usually also a starch to absorb moisture so that the soda doesn't react with the dry ingredients until the wet components are added.  The acid salt can be cream of tartar or the less nutritiously desirable sodium aluminum sulfate.  The starch, which is technically optional, can be cornstarch - or arrowroot powder, if you are minimizing corn ingredients in your diet.

Double-acting Baking Powder is what you would buy in the grocery store, as prepared single-acting baking soda is generally only sold for commercial baking.  As the name indicates, double-acting baking powder leavens twice (hence the double-acting).  When the batter is initially mixed, there is the immediate acidic reaction with the wet ingredients of the batter and the baking soda, and carbon dioxide gas is produced.  The second reaction doesn't take place until the temperatures are elevated (that is to say the batter goes into the oven), and the gas cells expand and cause the batter to rise.  This is what happens in the overnight no-fuss coffeecake recipe.

Homemade Baking Powder (recipes below) is not double-acting - if you use homemade baking powder in a recipe I would recommend baking the batter right away and not delaying (so make sure you preheat the oven when you start mixing your ingredients!).

How long do these last in my cupboard?  
Baking Soda can sit in the cupboard, sealed, for an indefinite length of time.  If you are worried that it is too old and you want to test the effectiveness before mixing it into your ingredients, mix 1/4 teaspoon of soda with 2 teaspoons of vinegar.  It should bubble up immediately just like in science class.

Baking Powder should only sit in the cupboard for about six months; the components to homemade baking powder, however (soda, cream of tartar, arrowroot/cornstarch), can sit in the cupboard indefinitely so you can keep those handy and mix up smaller batches at a time. To test if baking powder is still active, mix 1 teaspoon powder with 1/2 cup hot water; it should bubble up immediately.

How much baking powder do I use in a recipe? 
If you are creating your own recipe, a good rule of thumb is 1 to 2 teaspoons baking powder to 1 cup of flour.  Too much baking powder, and the gas bubbles will expand too quickly and cause the batter to collapse in baking.  Too little baking powder, and there won't be enough gas bubbles and the batter will be dense and tough.

Aluminum-Free Baking Powder 
If you bought this at the grocery store, it would cost twice as much as regular baking powder.  Crazy, huh?  

Sodium bicarbonate: 1/4 cup baking soda
Acid Salt: 1/2 cup cream of tartar
Starch: 1/2 cup arrowroot powder or 1/4 cup cream of tartar (optional, and highly recommended especially if you are going to put this in your cupboard for storage)

Mix ingredients together and store in a cool, dry place.  I don't recommend storing unless you include the starch ingredient.

Good luck with your baking!  Do you know any handy recipes?  Please do share!

Mrs H

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