Baking Soda

Baking Soda: A Leavening Agent With Many Uses

Baking soda has a long history that stretches all the way back to Ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptians used a product called natron, which contained baking soda. Natron was used for assorted purposes, including for preserving mummies and for cleaning teeth. The first synthetic baking soda was not made until the late in the 18th century when a French chemist named Nicolas Leblanc invented a process for making it with sodium chloride (table salt). In the 19th century, two bakers from New York would utilize Leblanc’s method and use to make baking soda that they sold under the brand name Arm & Hammer.

Today, Arm & Hammer is the best known brand of baking soda in existence. At around the same time, Alfred Bird would create the first baking powder formulation. This formulation would include baking soda along with an acidic ingredient since baking soda has to react with an acid to provide leavening. In Bird’s product, the two ingredients had to be kept separate until they were to be used. In 1856, Eben Norton Horsford would come up with his own baking powder formulation in which the acidic ingredient and baking soda were kept together.

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Baking Powder

Baking Powder: A Modern Leavening Agent

Baking powder was first used as an alternative to the earliest methods for leavening baked goods. Those methods required the use of yeast or baking soda. To use yeast, the baker would first have to grow it by fermenting fruits and vegetables. Once it was grown, it had to be carefully protected from temperature extremes. Using it was a chore that involved rising times as long as 24 hours. Baking soda was less finicky, but would require an external source of acid for it to release gas and provide its leavening effect.

The first version of the baking powder that we use today was invented in the early 19th century by a British chemist named Alfred Bird. He was seeking an alternative to yeast for his wife, who had a yeast allergy. While Bird’s baking powder did contain baking soda, it was formulated to leaven with no external acid as it came with the acid component already included. Bird used cream of tartar to provide the acidity. The cream of tartar was kept separate from the baking soda until it was time to use them. Bird’s baking powder also did its job quickly and was not as susceptible to temperature fluctuations as yeast. Without baking powder, we would not have cakes as they are known today.

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tapioca starch

Tapioca Starch: The Aztec Thickener

Tapioca consists of starch extracted from the cassava root. Cassava was one of the main food sources of Native Americans throughout South America. It is thought that it originated south of the Amazon River in what is now Brazil. It was being cultivated by the people in this region as far back as 8000 BC. By 6000 BC, it was being grown in what is now Mexico and in Peru by 2000 BC. Its cultivation would spread throughout the Caribbean well before the arrival of the Europeans.

Christopher Columbus would encounter cassava bread after arriving in the Caribbean, but it was not until the early 18th century that Europeans found out about the starch extracted from cassava. The Portuguese would learn about tapioca from the Tupi-Guarani in Brazil.

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potato starch

Potato Starch: The Andean Thickener

Potatoes are indigenous to the Andes and would not be introduced to Europe until the late 16th century. The people of the Andes were the ones to discover and use potato starch, which would later on be called almidon de papa. This potato product was made from ground potatoes that were first soaked and then filtered.

Even after the potato caught on in Europe, it still took a while for the starch derived from it to gain traction. Up until the 18th century, Europe still relied mainly on wheat for its starch needs. After that, potato starch would grow in importance. Today, Europe produces more potato starch than anyone else.

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corn starch

Corn Starch: A Neutral, Corn-Based Thickener

The invention of corn starch (a.k.a. maize starch) is widely attributed to a chemist named Thomas Kingsford in the 1840s, but he may only have invented a part of the manufacturing process. His invention was actually based on a process for extracting vegetable starch invented in 1840 by Orlando Jones, an Englishman. Kingsford merely applied Jones’s method to corn. Kingsford’s method involved soaking corn kernels in an alkaline substance and then grinding them. This process was called wet-milling.

At the time that he his process for making corn starch, Kingsford was working at a New Jersey wheat starch factory owned by Colgate & Company. Kingsford would eventually go into business for himself and start his own corn starch factory.

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Cream of Tartar

Cream of Tartar: A Leavening Agent That Comes From Wine

Also known as tartaric acid, cream of tartar has been around since 800 AD when it was discovered by a Persian alchemist. It is a by-product of wine-making and forms initially as a product called argol on the inside of casks. The argol can be refined into the product that we know as cream of tartar.

The modern process of making cream of tartar came from a Swedish chemist named CW Scheele in 1769. In 1832, French physicist Jean Baptiste Biot would find discover various physical properties of cream of tartar such as the fact that it can rotate polarized light. It would be further investigated by Louis Pasteur in 1847, who investigated the shapes of its crystals. He observed that it had asymmetrical crystals.

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