Most people are familiar with two types of muffins. The flat, round disks called English muffins first appeared in cookbooks in the 18th century, but probably were being toasted and buttered for breakfast much earlier. English muffins are leavened with yeast. American muffins are also small and round, but they usually have domed tops and a spongy texture. They did not appear in cookbooks until the 19th century, after the invention of baking powder, a much easier form of leavening.
In early America, baking was no small task. Smithsonian Magazine, in an article titled The Great Uprising – How a Powder Revolutionized Baking, quotes a cake recipe in the 1841 cookbook Early American Cookery which instructs that “The flour should be dried before the fire, sifted and weighed; currants washed and dried; raisins stoned; sugar pounded, rolled fine and sifted; and all spices, after being well dried at the fire, pounded and sifted.” And that was the least time consuming part of the enterprise.
If you wanted a fluffy, airy cake, rather thn a dense, flat one, you had to make the dough rise. That meant, for most of baking history, the use of yeast, unforgiving little fungi which, as they grow and divide, breathe in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Mix yeast into your dough and, as CO2 bubbles accumulate, your baked goods will rise through a process known as leavening.
Until the 19th century, baking relied on the capricious temperament of yeast, which was not available in the conveniently packaged dry or refrigerated forms we have today. You had to make the yeast yourself by allowing fruits, vegetables or grains to ferment. Thereafter, you had to maintain yeast at the proper temperature, neither too hot nor too cold, and away from contaminating bacteria or it could be killed or weakened (Smithsonian tells us that early cookbooks sometimes suggested availing yourself of a manservant for these tasks). And, once mixed with yeast, your dough had to rise at least 12 hours, more likely 24 hours, before it entered the oven. Baking required significant prior planning and preparation. In the 18th century, American bakers experimented with less tedious ways to make things rise, including beating air into their eggs. Potash, which was made from lye and wood ash, was used to replace yeast in creating carbon dioxide, but it was difficult to make, caustic and often smelly. Baking soda, a salt that could react with acid to produce CO2, was introduced in 1846. It made things easier but remained unpredictable, since most bakers mixed it with cheap and readily available sour milk to provide the acid. Since it was not possible to gauge the acidity of the milk you couldn’t be sure how much soda to use or how long to bake your creation.
English chemist Alfred Bird created the first modern baking powder in the late 1840s by combining cream of tartar with baking soda (you bought the powders separately from the drug store and mixed them when you were ready to bake in order to prevent them from reacting too early). But cream of tartar, a byproduct of winemaking that had to be imported from Europe, proved expensive in America.
In 1856 a young American chemist named Eben Norton Horsford created and patented a process of boiling animal bones to extract monocalcium phosphate, an acidic component that reacted to baking soda and created CO2 bubbles. (Chemistry was just emerging as a respected field during this period, and Horsford also made the first modern chemistry lab at Harvard University). He later had the idea to combine the chemicals into a single package, adding cornstarch to absorb moisture and prevent premature interaction. Baking powder sold today is much the same formulation. His work opened the floodgates for adding chemicals to food.
By the end of the 19th century the baking powder industry was worth millions. The Royal Baking Powder Company returned to the use of pricey cream of tartar, while Calumet and Clabber Girl claimed to be modern by using alum, which was cheaper and stronger than other baking powder acids. Hundreds of other smaller manufacturers sprang up.
At the turn of the 20th century the competition grew nasty. As alum companies captured a larger share of the baking powder market, Royal sought to discredit them by touting the “purity” of its product and alleging that alum was “injurious” to human health. The fight reached a dismal peak in 1899 when Royal bribed the Missouri legislature to pass a law banning the sale of alum based powders statewide. The baking powder wars continued for six years, millions were paid in bribes and dozens went to jail for selling baking powder. Press coverage finally forced the resignation of the State’s Lieutenant Governor and, eventually, alum baking powders won out.
Nevertheless, some cooks today object to the chemical aftertaste that commercially prepared baking powder leaves in baked goods, so they make their own. Here’s a recipe from Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock’s The Gift of Southern Cooking:
HOMEMADE BAKING POWDER
Commercial “double acting” baking powder has chemical additives that leave an aftertaste. It’s easy enough to make your own.
¼ cup cream of tartar
2 tablespoons baking soda
1. Sift the ingredients together 3 times, and transfer to a clean, tight sealing jar. Store at room temperature away from sunlight for up to 6 weeks.