Baking powder is one ingredient that is virtually essential when you’re creating cakes, and yet it’s something that many of us know very little about. We thought we’d explore the relatively unchartered waters of baking powder and see what we could come up with.
The most common question people seem to have is what is the difference between baking powder and baking soda? On first glance, they don’t seem that different – both are leaveners, which means they help all your delicious cakes and biscuits rise. Their difference sits in the activation process.
Baking soda is alkaline and requires an acid to get it working. This might be lemon juice, vinegar or even yoghurt. Baking powder is actually a little combo package deal, with baking soda as part of its ingredients. It already has the acid component and only requires a liquid to start the activation.
Is it that simple? Of course not! Use too much baking soda with your lemon cake and there’s a high chance that there won’t be enough acid to activate all the baking soda, leaving behind a bitter, soapy taste. Use a baking powder with aluminium in it and your muffins are going to taste like your car’s hubcap.
Setting aside the confusing accusations of the harmful effects of aluminium in food (does it contribute to Alzheimer’s? Nothing is set in stone at the moment), the last thing you want is to be eating metallic cake. You can make your own baking powder at home, although most recipes call for corn starch, which is heavily refined and increasingly found mostly in genetically modified form. You can try replacing it with potato starch, or just leave it out altogether – the main purpose of it is to stop the activation from happening in humid conditions, so unless you’re making a tub-load and storing it, you don’t necessarily need it.
To throw something else into the mix, baking powders are either single acting or double acting. Single acting means the activation happens immediately on contact with liquid, which is just fine if you’re putting your creation into the oven right away. Double acting means it starts activating on contact with liquid, but holds some in reserve for the baking. A lot of the gluten free, aluminium free baking powders, or home made recipes, will be single acting. No big deal, just don’t leave your mixture sitting on the bench for a few hours while you catch up on your Facebook feed.
Confused? If you just want to buy something convenient, look for baking powder that doesn’t have aluminium (sodium aluminium sulfate – SAS), or any kind of gluten thickening agent such as wheat flour, and preferably an organic corn starch or substitute that’s not genetically modified. We often use Ward’s Gluten Free Baking Powder, made on rice flour with no aluminium.
If you want to make your own, try:
2 parts cream of tartar
1 part baking soda
(technically this ratio should be 5:2, which can be a little harder to accurately measure)
There is so much great information online about this stuff if you’d like to delve into the chemistry of it, here are a few cool places to start:
Fine Cooking, Art Of Gluten Free Baking, Dangers Of Cornstarch, Bowl Of Plenty