09 June 2010

Home-made baking powder

Do you know about single-acting and double-acting baking powder? I admit I was only vaguely aware of the two types of what in France is called levure chimique — chemical leavening — as opposed to natural leavening, or yeast. What I don't know is whether the two different types of baking powder are on the market in France.

The active ingredients in single-acting baking powder are an alkaline, usually baking soda — bicarbonate of soda or, in French, bicarbonate alimentaire — and an acid, usually cream of tartar — potassium bitartrate or, in French, crème de tartre or acide tartrique. The baking soda and cream of tartar react with each other when they come in contact with a liquid, and the reaction releases gas bubbles that make a pastry dough or cake batter rise.

Double-acting baking powder contains a second acid that only reacts with the baking soda only at elevated temperatures. In other words, it acts twice, making the batter start rising as soon as a cold liquid is added, and then making it rise again when the liquid in the batter gets hot. The second acid is usually an aluminum salt — sodium aluminum sulfate, for example, or soldium aluminum phosphate.

In his book Classical Southern Cooking, Damon Lee Fowler says that single-acting baking powder is no longer made commercially. You can make your own, if you have both sodium bicarbonate and cream of tartar. The latter is a by-product of wine making, by the way. Ironically, cream of tartar is not widely available in France.

Fowler says that using double- rather than single-acting baking powder has two drawbacks. First, most older recipes specify quantities for baking powder based on the single-acting variety, and if you put in that same quantity of double-acting powder your cakes, breads, and muffins will rise too much. Besides, the aluminum salts in most commercial baking powders give baked goods a metallic or sour aftertaste, he says — especially if you put in too much of it.

A first look at the cherry cake, or cake aux cerises

The proportions for single-acting baking powder are two parts sodium bicarbonate to three parts cream of tartar. To make a small quantity, for example, mix 2 tsp. bicarbonate with 3 tsp. cream of tartar. If you want to store the mixture for a while, add to it 3 tsp. of wheat flour, rice flour, corn starch, or potato starch. The inert flour or starch will absorb moisture and prevent the alkaline and acid ingredients from reacting with each other before you intend them to.

Yesterday, I made that cherry cake I talked about, using the cherries I pitted at 6:00 a.m. (Yes, I've always been an early bird. Un lève-tôt, they call it in French. I'm matinal by nature — a morning person.) To make the cake, I made my own baking powder, according to Damon Fowler's instructions. Luckily, I have brought little containers of cream of tartar back from the U.S. on past occasions. On the other hand, finding sodium bicarbonate in French supermarkets is not a problem.

The cherry cake seemed to rise differently. Instead of forming a round top and splitting open, the way most loaf cakes do when they cook, this one rose evenly and had a basically flat top. I don't know if that's the work of the single-acting baking powder. Now I'm trying to pay attention when I'm eating a slice of the cake to determine if it tastes any different from the ones I've always made using commercial double-acting baking powder.


  1. I make my own baking powder too, but I think bicarb of soda has an equally metallic aftertaste. In breadmaking, cracking of the top crust means a dough which is slightly too dry. Maybe it's the same for cake.

  2. Do you use something instead of bicarb?

  3. Love the thought of that cherry cake, Ken.
    Looking at yesterdays post I can reccomend the cherry pitting machine they sell in the Bricomarche[s]. They really work, and if you have a harvest similar to Susan's in her post today, well worth the 22€ price.
    We wouldn't be without ours now.

  4. What!?! No photo of a slice of the cake!? I'm longing to see the inside. It will make enjoying it vicariously more delicious of an experience :))

    This is very interesting info on single vs double-acting baking soda. I've often wondered about that, but clearly never enough to research it :)


  5. For a wonderful chocolat cake, I've used baking soda and vinegar and they work together beautifully!

  6. FWIW, there are now aluminum-free DA baking powders readily available in the US that eliminate the problem of the metalic taste.

    I tend to prefer double acting types when making things like pancakes when the mixed batter is going to sit for a while. The bubbles made by the single acting type tend to dissipate if you don't bake the stuff right away.

  7. What conclusion did you reach on the taste tests?

  8. Very interesting lesson on baking powder...I never knew the difference before. Thank you!

    Being a matinal person myself, I can totally understand pitting cherries at 6 in the morning...and I sure would love a second look at that cherry cake...a taste would be even better of course. I shall have to content myself with the recipe, if you have it here...I haven't read past this post yet.

  9. Ray makes his own baking powder, too. A local grocery sells cream of tartar in bulk at a fraction of the price of the stuff that comes in the little spice bottles. I have no complaints about the quality of the baked goods he produces, only about the calorie count.

  10. And how many pieces of cake did you have to eat to decide on the merits of single vs double acting baking powder. ;-)


  11. Hi BettyAnn, hehehe. A question indiscrète,réponse honnête : un morceau par jour jusqu'à épuisement du gâteau.

    I really do think I can taste the difference between the single-acting and double-acting powders in this gâteau. It's milder and less salty tasting.

    Thanks for the tip, Tim, but I think my days of processing kilo after kilo of cherries are finished. The novelty has worn off slightly, though a few cherries here and there really are good. You can only deal with so many jars of sauce and jelly and jam.

    Ellen, yes, baking soda with an acid like vinegar or lemon juice, or even yogurt or crème fraîche, works perfectly. Sour milk, too, which you can make by putting a little vinegar in fresh milk.

    Hi Tom, I have to do more research on the kinds of baking powder available here in France. Another trip to the supermarket...

    Susan, one (thin) slice a day, I guess. And a lot of walking.


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