The Cake Revolution Invention #2: Baking Powder

#2 Baking Powder

Egg Whites Vs Baking Powder

Egg Whites Vs Baking Powder

Prior to commercial production of reliable baking powder (Think: Anne Shirley and Rollings Reliable Baking) there were two ways to achieve lift in baked goods.

First there was yeast or sourdough, commonly used for everyday breads and some cakes. The down side to this method was it required time to allow the batter to rise. Also both yeast and sourdough have a strong flavor.

The second choice was eggs, primarily in the form of beaten egg whites, each of which must be beaten by hand as described in These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder:

That afternoon the finished black cashmere was carefully pressed, and then Ma made a big, white cake. Laura helped her by beating the egg whites on a platter with a fork, until Ma said they were stiff enough.

“My arm is stiffer,:” Laura ruefully laughed, rubbing her aching right arm.

“This cake must be just right,: Ma insisted if you can’t have a wedding party, at least you shall have a wedding dinner at home, and a wedding cake.”

Have a go:

  • Seperate one egg
  • Place white on a small plate
  • Beat with a fork to stiff peak

Imagine doing this for the requisite 3-10 eggs called for in a cake and you will understand why cakes were reserved for special occasions. Not to mention the scarcity of eggs in many Victorian homes. Even if you had your own chickens you probably wouldn’t choose to squander them in frequent cake baking.

The first ever baking powder was invented in 1843 by British chemist Alfred Bird for his wife who was allergic to eggs and yeast. It took a number of decades and dozens of chemists and manufacturers to perfect baking powder into the reliable kitchen staple we rely on

While chemists delved into cookery experiments the chemical saleratus, (aka, baking soda) became more widely available but it required you to sour the milk before it would have the desire effect, this required fore thought and planning, no good for surprise visitors.

However by the 1860’s there were tolerably reliable baking powders on the market turning cakes from special occasion treats into weekly staples. This is what The Little House Cookbook has to say on the subject:

Now cake baking was practically instantaneous; there was no long beating of eggs, no waiting for milk to sour. 

When I use saleratus I don’t have the patience to allow milk to sour naturally so speed things up with a teaspoon of vinegar. I use this for quick breads. But for cakes my go to raising agent is good old baking powder.

This miraculous invention leads us to the next innovation in the cake revolution  layers…

In our next post I, 1880’s Girl, will wax lyrical on the delicious possibilities introduced by the creative use of milk pans.


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