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The History of Baking Powder

For much of history, baking involved the arduous process of making yeast from scratch and letting your baked goods rise over a long period of time. In the 18th century, Americans began to search for a leavening process that was less labor-intensive. Beating air into eggs was one solution. Pearlash (sometimes called potash or baker’s ammonia) was another, however, it was caustic, smelly, and difficult to make. In 1846, baking soda was introduced, but it required the use of an acid. Around the same time, an early form of baking powder was created by an English chemist named Alfred Bird. His solution involved combining cream of tartar and baking soda. Unfortunately, cream of tartar was expensive and therefore out of reach for most Americans. Then a young chemist named Eben Norton Horsford created the first modern baking powder in 1856. He boiled down animal bones and extracted monocalcium phosphate. Then he mixed it with baking soda, put them both into a single container for convenience, and added some cornstarch to soak up any excess moisture, thus preventing the water-activated chemicals from reacting prematurely. In the 1880s, Horsford’s company, Rumford (which still exists today and was named after Horsford’s benefactor, Count Rumford), switched to mining monocalcium phosphate rather than extracting it from boiled animal bones. Other companies soon began making their own formulations and a battle for domination began. (In the end, the companies using an alum formulation won out.) However, it took a little time for baking powder to become popular with consumers. To speed the process along, baking powder companies released their own cookbooks to supplant the existing versions, which were filled with recipes that utilized the old technique of combining an acid and a salt. Today, baking powder is used in millions of recipes around the world and is available at virtually every grocery store in a testament to its lasting popularity and utility.

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