Michelle Martin

Keep your powder dry

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

We’re almost out of baking powder.

There’s probably enough for the baking I plan to do today — those bananas really need to get turned into banana bread before they get any softer — but not for anything else as we head into holiday baking season.

For modern cooks, baking powder is a necessity for all kinds of things: quick breads like banana bread or muffins, biscuits, cookies, cakes, pancakes and waffles.

It works because of basic chemistry, combining a chemical base, such as bicarbonate of soda (otherwise known as baking soda) with a weak acid, such as cream of tartar, to create carbon dioxide bubbles in the batter, making baked goods lighter and airier. It’s the same basic chemical reaction as making a “volcano” with baking soda and vinegar.

The simplest forms of baking powder — single action versions, in which the entire chemical reaction takes place when the baking powder is moistened — have been around for more than 180 years. Double-acting baking powder uses two kinds of acid, one that reacts when it is moistened, and the other that reacts when it is heated in the oven. That kind, which is more reliable, has been around for 160 years or so.

Baking powder revolutionized kitchens in the 19th century, making it possible to produce breadstuffs in a fraction of the time. While yeast was, and is, used to make bread, most bakers got the yeast they used from breweries, where it was produced as a byproduct of fermentation, or made it themselves. Commercial baker’s yeast wasn’t widely available until nearly 1900.

While cooking has changed in many ways since then, someone in 1890 could have combined flour with a little baking powder, salt and sugar with butter and milk or cream, kneaded the mixture for a minute or two, cut biscuits and put them in a hot oven and been ready to eat them in 30 minutes — just as I can now.

And those biscuits would have come out light and fluffy, layers pulling away from each other. Without the baking powder, they would be hockey pucks.

I think about that when I read Scripture stories that use yeast and its leavening power as a metaphor. Yeast is believed to have been used by ancient Egyptians, so it stands to reason that first-century Israelites would have known about it. But it would be made by leaving grain meal and water sitting in the sun, waiting for it to ferment, and it would have been inconsistent in strength and efficacy. Baking would have been much more an art than a science.

How much easier do we have it now, when we can measure a tablespoon of baking powder to add to a recipe, and the only thing we have to worry about is remembering to replace it when we run short?

Maybe we should spend more time thinking about how we can be leaven for the world, how we can make the lives of those around us lighter and softer. If we get caught up on how hard it is to use yeast, or how long it takes, maybe we can find simpler things to do — donate gently used winter clothing to people who are cold, or bring a neighbor a loaf of banana bread — and work our way up to the harder stuff.


  • family life