Saturday, March 19, 2016

Book Review: How to Bake Without Baking Powder by Leigh Tate

Our last three posts were inspired by Leigh Tate's series on her own blog about baking with ash water, and she's now got an eBook available, too.  The latest volume in The Little Series of Homestead How-Tos includes much more than just baking with ash water leavening, though.  It's a comprehensive guide to understanding what baking powder is and how it works, and how to substitute for both the baking soda and acid components.

Book cover image
Biscuits on a fence for the cover.  We would definitely not be on the fence about eating those biscuits.

Since this is a unabashedly nerdy blog, we cannot, in good faith, mention baking powder without discussing the chemistry.  Briefly, baking powder contains a carbonate (typically baking soda), one or two types of acid (typically sodium aluminum sulfate (NaAl(SO4)2), various phosphate salts, and/or potassium bitartrate (cream of tartar)), and some kind of starch to keep the powder from sticking together.  The acids react with the carbonate to produce carbon dioxide gas when liquid is added and/or when the mixture is heated, depending on which acids are present in the baking powder.  The release of carbon dioxide is what causes baked goods to rise.

So, to bake without baking powder, as the title says, you need to substitute at least the carbonate and the acid components.

As you may know, your kitchen likely contains a lot of options for substituting the acid component, including vinegar, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, sour cream, yogurt, whey, molasses, and honey.  At least some of those you could probably make on your own if you couldn't get to the grocery store (or didn't want to), or if society had collapsed but you still wanted to make biscuits.  There are also instructions for making some of them, like buttermilk (and cultured buttermilk), along with sourdough starter, which might have fit better in a future volume of yeast-based leavenings, but is nice to have here nonetheless.

Your options for substituting the carbonate component with homemade ingredients are more limited, consisting of essentially potassium carbonate and bicarbonate from wood ashes.  Calcium carbonate from eggshells doesn't work as well, although you might be able to make ammonium carbonate from deer antlers if you're not opposed to setting up a still and happen to have some potash laying around. (Who says you can't eat the horns?)

Of the 54 recipes the book includes, 33 use baking soda, one uses sodium carbonate, 10 use pearlash, saleratus (potassium bicarbonate), ash water, or wood ash, and three use hartshorn (ammonium carbonate).  The other seven get their leavening from eggs or 'emptings,' the yeasty residue that settles at the bottom of brewing vessels, but that, unlike most yeast-based leaveners can apparently be used in quick breads like a chemical leavener. So, in some cases, it's also possible to get by without a carbonate at all. It's worth noting that with a little trial and error, you can substitute some of the wood-ash based leaveners for baking soda, as Leigh did in the series linked at the beginning of this post.

Recipe-Leavening breakdown table
Here's the recipe-leavening breakdown for the book.  Saleratus = potassium bicarbonate; other includes eggs and 'emptings.' (Click it to enlarge.)

It's also really cool to see recipes that are over two hundred years old compiled into the same book as recipes Leigh developed on her own modern-day homestead to make use of her own byproducts, like whey from making goat cheese, and wood ashes from her wood stove.  In that way, it's sort of a living history book. Reading between the lines, there's a story that develops from 'people who realized mixing these random ingredients together made bubbles, which in turn made tastier cookies,' to 'if we mix an acid and a carbonate in these ratios, we'll produce sufficient carbon dioxide to leaven the cookies and not leave a bitter taste.'  Fascinating stuff.

Along the same line of thought as that latter point, one of our favorite parts of the book is the table of recommended ratios for the various household acids and baking soda.  i.e., how much lemon juice do you mix with a teaspoon of baking soda?  How much molasses do you mix with a teaspoon of baking soda to get the same leavening effect?  That's a pretty handy resource that makes substituting ingredients much easier.

The only thing we would have liked to see more of is photographs of the baked goods!  There's a delicious picture of biscuits on the cover, but inside the book, there are only links for a few of the recipes that appeared on Leigh's blog, 5 Acres and a Dream.  On the other hand, fewer pictures to drool over means a lower probability of a shorted-out keyboard, so maybe it was a good strategy after all.

We should mention that we received a free copy of the book, not with any expectations of a review, but, well, for simply being interested enough in the chemistry to contribute some thoughts on Leigh's blog.  That said, we would have gladly ponied up the $2.99 price tag of this book.  It's clear that Leigh put in many, many hours of research on this book, and three bucks is more than fair for that effort.

In summary--How to Bake Without Baking Powder is an excellent reference and we have no qualms about recommending it to everyone.  Readers, start your ovens...ready...go!


  1. Wow, Jake, how can I thank you for such a fantastic review? It really means a lot because you understand what's going on, while for me it was a fascinating learning journey. And I see you have a whole series of posts on the wood ash component, not to mention the calcium carbonate experiments. I've not been visiting around the blogosphere much, but you've definitely got my interest. I need to catch up!

    1. We're always happy to sing the praises of an interesting, well-researched, and well-written book like this! It was a great idea that you had to write it, and I was happy for the inspiration and motivation to finally get the eggshell and wood ash experiments done!