Thursday, October 12, 2017

Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight That Revolutionized Cooking, by Linda Civitello. Heartland FoodWays, 2017

Before there baking powder was invented, there were no fluffy cakes, no cookies, no muffins, no biscuits, and no quick breads. Everything had to be leavened with yeast, and since there was no dried yeast available at the grocery store, the baker had to capture and store their own live yeast, as one does sour dough starter these days. It was a lot of work- building up a starter, kneading, and allowing bread two or three rises took a day and a half. There were yeast raised pancakes and biscuits, just like there are sour dough versions of those today, but they weren’t fast and no one baked something on the spur of the moment. Baking powder- even those made at home- changed all that. Now you could bake something in an hour- and the texture was totally different.

This book- which actually reads like a thesis and I do wonder if that was its first incarnation- shows the history of the various mixtures used as baking powder. It also shows us the war between the various large sellers of baking powder- it was surprisingly nasty. Today, with all the mixes on the shelves and all the pre-made baked goods available, one wouldn’t think there would be big money in simple baking powder, but there was.

The first baking powders were homemade, where the home baker combined various ingredients to create a leavener. Some formulations had to be done immediately before baking because moisture caused them to go off right away. Some formulations were double acting- they started giving off gas when mixed with moisture, and were triggered again by the heat of the oven (or the griddle, if making pancakes). Some had aluminum- something many of us cringe at today. Because there were several formulations, cookbooks had to include tables showing what changes had to be made for the different types and brands. All of this experimentation was made in people’s homes, not in labs.

This is a great social history book. Baking powder really did change the way we eat. It didn’t change bread, but it did make a whole new world of baked goods available. And one could make quick breads with it, even though those don’t make great sandwiches- the crumbly texture of baking powder breads makes them fall apart easily whereas yeast breads stay together because of the springy texture of gluten.

There was a lot about the wars between the companies manufacturing the various baking powders that I found myself skipping. The book is incredibly detailed; the author did a lot of research in original records, in both the economic field and the social. If you’re interested in how life was lived in the past, it’s a great book, albeit over long at times. Four stars out of five.

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- from Amazon, they will give me a few cents. 

I received this book free from Net Galley in return for an honest review. 

Neither of these things influenced my review. 

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