Who Knew The History of Baking Powder Could Be So Interesting?

How much thought have you given to the subject of baking powder? Personally, I can maybe say 30 minutes? I basically ask myself every time I bake, but then forget to Google it afterward. However, this humble kitchen staple, which is frequently confused with baking soda, is apparently the reason why you don’t have to spend all day making bread!

Baking powder on a cake
Photo by on Unsplash

The invention of baking powder was a game-changer in the world of baked goods. Before this nifty invention, people would have to wait nearly 24 hours for their bread to rise. But how was it invented? And how does it work exactly? Before putting this mystery powder into our food, we should know what it is! So let’s find out!

Yeast vs. Baking Powder

As a person who bakes occasionally, I couldn’t believe that I didn’t know what this powder is. So I finally looked it up, and it really isn’t that complicated. Basically, baking powder is a chemical leavening agent, whereas yeast is a living leavening agent. So yeast is the real, living organism that makes your bead rise, while banking powder is an American invention.

Women working with baking powder in the kitchen
Photo by Sonia Nadales on Unsplash

And why was baking soda invented? Because us Americans, we are all about speed. We want something quick, easy, and foolproof. Unlike yeast, baking soda doesn’t depend on the temperature outside, the weather, or how good the baker is. It works every time. No ifs, ands, or buts. This is great for people like me who aren’t the most experienced bakers in the world.

When and Where Did Baking Powder Come About?

Baking powder first emerged in America’s first cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, in 1796. But this wasn’t the baking powder that we know today. Simmons’ baking powder was a prototype called pearlash, which wood or vegetable ashes that have been cooked down. It was multipurpose, meaning that if you added water, it could be used as a cleaning chemical.

American Cookery by Amelia Simmons
Source: Amazon

But this was a step up from what the Germans were using. They were experimenting with ammonia, which actually tastes like urine when it’s not baked correctly. But then in 1861, Eben Horsford, a chemistry professor from Harvard, said enough! There has to be a way to speed up this process, while still making good food. He came up with the idea of baking powder, and the world hasn’t been the same since.