© Denzil Green
Baking Soda (aka sodium bicarbonate, aka NaHCO3) is a white, powdery alkaline substance. When an alkaline is mixed with acidic ingredients, it reacts and creates bubbles of carbon dioxide (the same gas that yeast would produce.) For instance, yoghurt, sour milk, buttermilk and molasses contain acid (lactic acid) that the Baking Soda can react with. (Yes, molasses has lactic acid.) These bubbles are trapped inside a batter and help the baked good to rise.
The non-chemical way of raising a baked good is by using yeast, and kneading the dough until a gluten develops strong enough to trap indefinitely the carbon dioxide exhaled by the yeast. Chemical leaveners such as Baking Powder and Baking Soda are obviously faster than all the kneading; which is why these baked goods are often called “quick breads.”
Sodium bicarbonate is inexpensive to produce, tasteless, non-toxic and easily purified in production. It comes from soda ash. The soda ash itself can come from a rock named “trona”, which is mined, or be made via a method called the “Solvay” process, which involves introducing carbon dioxide and ammonia into a solution of sodium chloride.
You never want to add too much Baking Soda to something you are making. It only gets neutralized in roughly the proportions mentioned below. Beyond that, when there is nothing to neutralize it, it will just remain unacted on and can give your cooking a soapy or bitter taste from its alkaline, and the food will have a coarse crumb.
Rules of thumb:
- 1 cup (8 oz / 250 ml) of sour milk and 1/2 tsp Baking Soda will interact and neutralize each other;
- To sour 1 cup of milk, add 1 tbsp lemon juice or vinegar, or 1 1/4 tsp cream of tartar.
Potassium bicarbonate (sodium-free; substitute measure for measure), but note that this substance tends to absorb moisture, react prematurely and can have a bitter taste;
- Baking Powder (which has Baking Soda in it), but with Baking Powder, you can leave out needing to add an acid to the recipe.
Vegetables cooked in water mixed with Baking Soda don’t lose as much colour. English cooks used this trick in the 1800s, which caused the French to despair, because the Baking Soda tended to make the vegetables mushy.
We know now it also greatly speeds up destruction of vitamin C in the cooking process as well. So don’t do it — especially with broccoli (it causes the florets to disintegrate before your eyes) and asparagus (makes the skin tough, and inside, the asparagus turns into a gelatinous gloop.)
One tablespoon of Baking Soda = 1/4 oz = 7 grams
16 oz = 2 1/3 cups = 128 tsp
Store in a sealed container at room temperature indefinitely.
American colonists got the idea of using a chemical reaction to leaven baked goods from the American Indians. Well before the start of the 1800s, the colonists would combine Pearl Ash with an acidic liquid in their cake dough.
By 1824, recipes for Baking Soda were common. Mary Randolph included a Soda Cake recipe in her book, “The Virginia Housewife”, in 1824.
“Dissolve half a pound of sugar in a pint of milk; add a teaspoon of soda, pour it on two pounds of flour–melt half a pound of butter. Knead all together until light. Pour it in shallow moulds and bake it quickly in a quick oven.”
Baking Soda didn’t reach Ireland until the 1840s, so the famous traditional “Irish Soda Bread” is actually a relatively new recipe in the scale of things.
Cow Brand Baking Soda
© Denzil Green
In 1846, two New Englanders named John Dwight and James A. Church started making Baking Soda in the kitchens of their own homes, which they sold in paper bags that they filled by hand. They called it “Saleratus” (aerated salt.) A year later, Dwight felt that business had taken off enough to expand. He choose a cow as part of his trademark logo because sour milk was the most common ingredient used to trigger the Baking Soda, and thus Cow Brand was born. (Apparently, they had an actual cow in mind — Lady Maud, a prize-winning Jersey cow at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.)
Church set up a separate company in 1867 which he called “Arm & Hammer”. In 1896, the two consolidated their two firms under the name “Church & Dwight”, which still today owns and produces Arm & Hammer products. The Arm & Hammer Baking Soda became more popular in America; the Cow Brand became more popular in Canada.
In the late 1990s, the Cow Brand boxes seem to have disappeared altogether and have been subsumed by the Arm & Hammer branding.
Literature & Lore
Baking Soda causes chocolates such as Cocoa Powder to redden when baked — thus the name Devil’s Food Cake because the cake has gone red in the heat.
The old home remedy of putting Baking Soda on a bee sting was actually sound scientifically: Baking Soda, being alkaline, would help to neutralize the pain of the bee’s sting, which is acidic.