A Note on Baking Powder

Today being Canada Day and a holiday here in Canada, my wife had a chance to sleep in while I made pancakes for the boys. Most often I make pancakes from a kind of informal recipe I have from memory. They are never quite the same from occasion to occasion, which is how I like them.

This morning, however, I decided to use a recipe from a cookbook called The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis. Lewis organizes the cookbook around the major family and community events of the seasons as she recalls them from her childhood on a Virginia farm in the 20’s and 30’s. She presents a typical meal for each of these events, and prefaces each meal with some recollections of these foods and events. She offers, for example, “An Early Spring Dinner After Sheep-Shearing”, and a “Morning-After-Hog-Butchering Breakfast”, and “A Dinner Celebrating the Last of the Barnyard Fowl”. In all of these recipes, she emphasizes ingredients that are grown locally and in season, and she prefers recipes that are traditional and made in traditional ways, even if they take a bit more time and labour.

As I was looking through the table of contents for something that might resemble a pancake, eventually settling on Sour-Milk Griddle Cakes from “Breakfast Before Leaving for Race Day”, I came upon a reference to “A Note on Baking Powder”, which was in the appendix. I will admit at this point that I am an easy sell for an interesting appendix, reference, annotation, index, or other marginalia. I have been known to photocopy the index and leave the rest of the book. It is a sickness, but a sickness that I have no intention of curing, so, of course, I immediately flipped to the back of the book. The note on baking powder is short, so I will quote it in full:

“I have discovered recently that Royal Baking Powder, which I call for throughout the book, is no longer being made because of the rising cost of cream of tartar. I would hope that the fact that it will no longer be available will stimulate an interest in searching for other forms of leavening. For my tastes, double-acting baking powder – the only kind you’ll be able to buy now – contains so many chemicals that it gives a bitter aftertaste to baked goods, and even more if the product is held over a day or so.

“The women of Freetown used to make lovely cakes and breads that rose by the power of beaten egg whites, which were folded in at the last minute. For biscuits and corn breads they relied upon sour milk and baking soda as the raising agent, and, of course, yeast can be utilized in many types of cakes as well as breads. If cream of tartar is available, good results can be achieved by mixing 2 parts cream of tartar with 1 part baking soda, and using this in place of baking powder in the same amount the recipe calls for.”

This is the reason I read notes and appendices, for the little things I would never find otherwise. I had never really thought about what baking powder was until I read these two short paragraphs, and I had no idea that there was anything except the double-acting stuff that I bought in the can. I was intrigued, which means I did a little searching online. I did not find a brand of baking powder that still includes cream of tartar, though I have not entirely given up on this possibility. I did find that there are actually two kinds of single-acting baking powder. One mixes cream of tartar or a phosphate with baking soda to create a chemical reaction before heating, producing a powerful but short-lived rising action, useful for pancakes and other quick cooking batters. The other mixes alum with baking soda to create a chemical reaction during heating, producing a less powerful but more sustained rising action, useful for breads and cakes. Double-acting baking powder, as you might expect, contains both tartaric/phosphate and alum, and so can be used in all sorts of recipes.

I also learned that the bitterness Lewis tastes in the commercial double-acting powders is not only from a greater amount of chemicals but from the presence of alum, which is also a primary ingredient in the second kind of single-acting baking powder. What Lewis really wants is the first kind of single-acting baking powder that has only cream of tartar, because this kind does not have the bitterness of the alum. As her own two-ingredient recipe indicates, it is not difficult to make this powder on your own. I did so this morning, and the results were very nice. Because this homemade baking powder is alum-free, however, it should probably not be used in breads and cakes that rise slowly during long baking, not without a willingness to fail in the experiment. On the other hand, the homemade powder should do very well for making cookies and other quickly baked recipes without any residual bitterness. I can hardly wait to try this experiment on my favourite recipes.

  1. Hello –
    I am a filmmaker in Atlanta. I read your latest blog with the mention of Edna Lewis and her recipes.

    I just wanted to let you know I produced a 21 minute documentary about Miss Edna Lewis and its viewable in its entirety on Internet at a Gourmet Magazine website:


    and at a Georgia Public Broadcasting website:


    My documentary is called Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie.

    My website, http://bbarash.com/bb_friedchicken.htm has more information about the film and the story of Miss Lewis.

    Bailey Barash

  2. k45ss said:

    This made me get the baking powder out of my store cupboard to see what it contained (I’m in the UK)

    Ingredients are

    Disodium phosphate
    Sodium Bicarbonate
    Rice Flour

    Maybe baking powders are different around the world!

  3. Emma said:


    It must be different – mine has cornstarch instead of rice flour. So interesting to see the differences. I never gave any thought to what baking powder was actually made of!

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