When you need a lift

by Betty Wrenn Day - Posted on Mar 02, 2011 - 05:36 PM

Photo: The development of baking powder raised the art of baking cakes, cookies and quick  breads to a new level.  The Rumford company, dating from 1869, is both a pioneer and a survivor among baking powder manufacturers. The company has put out many cookbooks through the years to encourage the use of its product. Photo by Betty Wrenn Day.

The development of baking powder raised the art of baking cakes, cookies and quick breads to a new level. The Rumford company, dating from 1869, is both a pioneer and a survivor among baking powder manufacturers. The company has put out many cookbooks through the years to encourage the use of its product. Photo by Betty Wrenn Day.

What really is baking powder, this white powdered substance we reach for each time we bake a cake, fry a fritter or make something that needs a lift? It hasn’t always been as refined as the form we find in the market these days.

Baking powder is a leavening agent that is a combination of baking soda, cream of tartar and a moisture absorber (like cornstarch). It has the action of yeast but it acts much more quickly. It is used in batters where there is no acid present, such as baked goods like cookies, cakes pastries, quick breads, pies, etc.

It makes these types of foods voluminous by allowing gas formation when an acid comes into contact with it and/or when it’s heated. Baking powder acts immediately upon addition of water; therefore, the filler cornstarch is added to absorb the moisture and prevent premature activity.

Today, most baking powders are double acting, which means they react twice; the powder contains one acid that dissolves when it comes into contact with water and another acid that does not dissolve until it reaches a higher temperature in an oven. Single-acting baking powder is mainly used by manufacturers and is not readily available.