The Rise of Baking Powder
September 1, 2017 11:12 PM   Subscribe

I too was a member of the "take this baking staple utterly for granted" club, but consider my eyes opened! Fascinating stuff, thanks for posting!
posted by sldownard at 12:26 AM on September 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

I just bought this book! I've been so busy studying for my osteology class that I have forgotten to read it yet- oops. Have to get on it!
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 12:29 AM on September 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Excellent stuff. Reminds of that whole thing about bananas - Missouri might have become a baking powder republic!

Also I just read this on Jezebel, apparently free of irony: "Women had gone as far as they could go and then scientists had to take over" :S
posted by merlynkline at 12:47 AM on September 2, 2017 [10 favorites]

Your title is better than the book's title, ShooBoo.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 1:10 AM on September 2, 2017 [21 favorites]

Self-raising flour had been introduced a little earlier, in the mid-1840s, with the first US patent for it granted in 1849.
posted by misteraitch at 1:58 AM on September 2, 2017

This is interesting, and also reminded me that baking powder plays a much bigger role in anglo-saxon food culture than here in continental Europe. For instance, we don't have self-rising flour. And a little detail of the culture and power of the internet is that baking powder is used much more here now, as people get American recipes.
posted by mumimor at 1:59 AM on September 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this. A recent episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, about Clare Balding's family history, talked about the Royal Baking Powder Company. It's on You Tube here, though not watchable in the UK. There's an article about it here - the section about baking powder is near the end. There's a good quote about her ancestor, from his brother: "Suffice to say in a general way that his faculty for making uncomfortable everybody he comes in contact with is unsurpassed".

Yes, that line hit me in the face too, merlynkline!
posted by paduasoy at 4:41 AM on September 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

Added to my to-read list. This is all fascinating, thank you so much for posting!

(I get most of my history-of-food stuff from Metafilter, and it has never steered me wrong.)
posted by kalimac at 5:57 AM on September 2, 2017

I was reading about Hartshorn a few weeks ago after finding a reference in a book. Can you imagine? Harvesting horns from deer, grinding them down and extracting the ammonium carbonate. Then cooking with it, careful to let it cook long enough so all the nasty ammonia smell dissipates and you're left with delicious sweet cookies.
posted by Nelson at 7:44 AM on September 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Baking with yeast is SO weather dependent if you don't have central heating and climate control. I can bake reliably when the weather is too hot, because then the yeast will rise although the heat in the kitchen when I bake will make me sick at the end of the day, or I can bake when the weather is really cold and there is heat on in the house and I can find a warm spot next to heat to leave the dough raising. But baking in the mid-season is catch as catch can because I can never predict how long the dough will take to rise.

In late September if I make a batch of bread dough in the morning the day can turn warm and the bread go into the oven for noon, and I can stay out of the kitchen during the baking and there is fresh bread for a late lunch. But if the wind shifts a few points the dough can just sit there and sit there and sit there and five PM comes around and it's too early to punch it down and I am looking at staying up all late to get it baked - except now the day is cooling off and the dough stops rising and the top is trying out and I am sprinkling it with water to prevent it from drying hard enough to stop upward raising.

Don't forget that it gets dark early, and for my nineteenth century counterpart, trying to bake at night in the dark, by kerosene lantern might easily set off the babies' asthma, and she would dread losing another baby... Kerosene for lighting is a major expense in many households in other parts of the world today and was a major expense then, not to mention a huge safety and health hazard.

So I may have to leave the dough to keep rising an let the household go to bed, and I may end up having to bake a wide flat loaf that that has an inedible cap on top and has spread out sideways like a pancake, which is problematic if I want the bread for sandwiches to send with someone who is going out of the house for the day to work.

So then you have all kinds of tricks and accessories to help. That draw full of pots and pans under your oven? That's the warming drawer. And if you had a gas stove or a wood-stove that had pilot lights or was burning all day, that would hopefully provide enough and not too much heat to raise your dough. But today if you have an electric stove you probably don't have it on at a low heat the entire day long and the drawer at floor level in your kitchen is way too cool a space to raise dough which is why it is now full of pots and pans and a few stray charred French fries the fell in through the bottom of your oven.

If I am rich enough I hopefully have bread pans - this will prevent the dough spreading sideways. But of course, I always, always cover my bread with a damp dishtowel to prevent the problem of the top drying out. In fact, to try and keep my bread from drying out I probably have it wrapped in a damp dishtowel from when it is un-risen dough to when it is finally eaten - Do you remember your grand-mother wrapping plates of sandwiches in a damp dishtowel to prevent them from drying out, back before she had clear plastic wrap?

Commercial bread is full of stuff to prevent it from going mouldy. It sure doesn't take long for homemade bread wrapped in a damp dish towel to go mouldy in the hot summer. Yes, one day a week was supposed to be baking:

Monday - Washing
Tuesday - Ironing
Wednesday - Mending
Thursday - Marketing
Friday - Baking
Saturday - Cleaning
Sunday - Day of Rest

But if the bread developed interesting green spots on Monday, you might well end up making dough on Tuesday. Keeping food was a huge deal. In the wrong weather conditions you'd be stuffing bread into the family from Saturday through Tuesday as if they were turkeys ready to go into the oven, and then trying to feed them on pie for the next three days, assuming you could find some filling for the pie, and you could put together something nourishing and filling enough that your husband would stay strong enough to work.

There were lots of household tricks you could use to try and get your dough to raise quicker. Your dough might travel all the way around the house following the sun, like a sleepy cat. A pinch of white wood-ash was quite usual, but required good hardwood for fuel, so again you had to have the resources. If you were burning coal you didn't have that option. You could mess with the recipe - more sugar might make the yeast more lively - but the end result after adding sugar and ash could be quite inedible. You might easily end up with flat tough bread with an enormous empty cavern between the bottom lump and the top crust. Whatever you did you still had to make sure that the bread rose evenly. If you moved the bread or someone banged the bread pan hard the whole thing could collapse and leaving your waiting until it rose again - unless the yeast went dormant on you and stopped rising altogether.

One popular food in America during this period was popcorn. It was so quick and took so little processing. No decent wife would try to feed her household on popcorn instead of bread, but if the household was marginal for whatever reason, popcorn was a God send. Starch and grease, something to fill your belly so you could sleep. You didn't even need to have much fuel and make a decent bed of charcoal. It popped so quickly that a fast fire of green softwood would do the trick, when you needed fast food - but since a working man would easily eat a pound or two of dense bread you couldn't feed him regularly on popcorn.

This is why the miller and the baker were so important in small towns. Those two were the cornerstone to securing reliable meals. If you had a source of bread you could buy, then you were freed from standing over the dough waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and could do so much more, like take a run up to your daughter's home, or allow the fire to go out on a hot day. Very few home bakers had access to the optimal brick oven set up because it was so huge. It required an enormous house. In some places thy had public bake ovens in the centre of the town. In other places you made you dough or your roast or your pies at home and when they were ready you took them to the bake shop, where they would bake them for you, for a price. Having a baker in your town was much more important than a blacksmith, or a shop, or any other business, way more important. And if you had someone who delivered milk and someone who delivered eggs, you could now organize to get a teacher in, and a school open, send your kids out and get out of the house. Suddenly you were no longer barefoot in the kitchen watching the dough. And this was critical for a town's economic growth because it freed up the most functional female member of the household so that she had many more opportunities beyond "slaving over a hot stove."
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:24 AM on September 2, 2017 [153 favorites]

Dr. Price's Cream Baking Powder, one of the first on the market, was the invention of Dr. Vincent Clarence Price, grandfather of actor and cookbok author Vincent Price.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:55 AM on September 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

Jane the Brown, it's always the best when you write about domestic history here! Your comment made me think if this divide I have noticed between Anglo-Saxon and Continental baking habits has to do with the individualistic aspect of British and American culture? I had a wonderful history of bread once, but I can't find it. In it, as I remember, it said most people before industrialization would use a sourdough, and if your's went bad, you'd just get some from your neighbors, it was often the same anyway. Yeast was available, because you know beer and wine, but was mainly used for finer goods, because the sourdough bread keeps better. In my region, white bread was called cake!
So you would start your dough(s) the night before baking day. In the morning, you would make a fire in the big oven (like a pizza-oven), and form the bread which would rise in the warmth from the oven. When the oven was white hot, you would clean out the ashes and put in the breads, first pure rye, then mixed rye and wheat and then if there was an occasion the fine yeasted wheat breads/cakes.
Larger farms would have ovens, and let the peasants come in with their own breads on baking day. In towns and villages there were bakers, not least because the fire hazard of bread ovens was too big to let everyone have one, even if they could afford to build one. The bakers would roast everyones holiday roasts as well.
I bake once a week or more and I've never had any problems with the dough, though I'm not good enough at Danish rye bread that I wouldn't rather buy it. After working for years on perfecting my French-style loaf, I've begun this year to bake a traditional bread which has a handful or two of rye in it (very similar to what Americans call a rye bread but with a bit more wheat). I started because it has gone out of sale at the bakeries, and it's the best for shellfish and some other local food, but then I realized it keeps really well and is delicious when toasted + friends and family love it.
Among people I know I've noticed there is a divide among those who like to bake with yeast and sourdough, and those who like to bake cakes and make desserts, and it's not that I never make a dessert, it's just not my favorite thing. It seems to me they are two different mindsets, and it's great when you can divide the labour.
posted by mumimor at 10:55 AM on September 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

"I was reading about Hartshorn a few weeks ago after finding a reference in a book. Can you imagine? Harvesting horns from deer, grinding them down and extracting the ammonium carbonate. Then cooking with it, careful to let it cook long enough so all the nasty ammonia smell dissipates and you're left with delicious sweet cookies."

One of the 20+ Xmas cookie recipes I make every year requires Hartshorn, or Hirschhornsalz as we call it in Germany. Now I can get it from Amazon but when I first moved to the US I ended up having relatives ship it from home. Any attempts at substitution resulted in cookies with suboptimal texture. I remember being a kid and helping my mom make Xmas cookies. She supplied extended family and friends because everybody wanted her stuff. She used about 25 recipes, old school recipes, which just tasted a lot better than current ones, which seem too sweet. She would start in September and finish in November so they'd be ready for Advent calendar applications. Plus some just taste better if they get to age for a couple of months. Anyhow, long story short... I'd always help and snack on some raw dough. And let me tell you... you only do that once with dough that has Hartshorn in it...
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:04 AM on September 2, 2017 [11 favorites]

A teaspoon of bicarb in a glass of water is the best indigestion remedy bar none.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 12:37 PM on September 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

It is super weird to me that the maker of Clabber Girl also owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
posted by Small Dollar at 2:48 PM on September 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Jane the Brown, your description of the difficulty of leavening bread makes me wonder, why did people in Europe insist on leavening their bread?

Lots of other places eat unleavened bread: all the corn breads like tortillas and arepas in the Americas, the whole roti family in India, lavash in Armenia. And Europeans clearly knew how to make unleavened breads, if only as crackers and hard tack.

Was there some cultural or religious reason they really wanted their bread leavened?
posted by d. z. wang at 8:16 AM on September 3, 2017 [5 favorites]

Jane the Brown In some places thy had public bake ovens in the centre of the town. In other places you made you dough or your roast or your pies at home and when they were ready you took them to the bake shop, where they would bake them for you, for a price.

For anyone interested in community baking in NY city, a group of people have restored the outdoor brick oven at the Old House in Brooklyn, and have started regular community baking meetups. The food looks good! Brick Oven Brooklyn
posted by Hermeowne Grangepurr at 7:28 AM on September 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

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