by Diana Bulls,
Reedley Historical Society
Only in the last hundred years has making light, airy breads been a certainty. Before that, bread making took years of experience and a generous measure of luck.
Ancient Egyptians are credited with making the first leavened bread. Perhaps the cook was interrupted, leaving the dough to stand; wild yeast cells settled in and grew, making the dough rise. The bread was softer and easier to digest, so cooks began letting the dough rest before baking. Some days there was no suitable yeast, so this didn’t always work. Finally, a baker discovered that a little dough raised this way could be used as a starter for the next batch of bread. This was called leaven and it was the forerunner of today’s sourdough bread.
The first use of yeast. Romans used leaven made of grape juice and millet. The foam that forms on beer during fermentation was used as leavening by the Celts in Britain.
When the colonists arrived in the New World, the yeast organism had been identified and the brewing industry had started. A byproduct of beer making was brewer’s yeast, which could be used as a starter for bread. However, it often made bread taste bitter so homemakers had to wash it in cold water in order to render it fit for use.
During the 19th century, Austrian chemists perfected a system for mass-producing yeast; forming it into ready-to-use cakes. American Charles Fleischmann developed a good quality baker’s yeast which he began selling in 1868. In 1943, Fleischmann’s company produced the first active dry yeast — most commonly used for home baking today.
Chemical leavenings. Before the mid-19th century, the only leaveners available were the early forms of baking powder and baking soda: yeast and eggs, and pearl ash and saleratus, respectively.
In colonial America, cooks used pearl ash and saleratus (both strongly alkaline) with sour milk (an acid) to form carbon dioxide gas which caused the dough to rise. The dough was then quickly placed in the oven before the gas escaped. Even then, it often ended up as a heavy cake or loaf of bread.
In the 1840s, cooks got a substitute for sour milk: cream of tartar, which produced more consistent results in baked goods.
In 1855, suppliers began packaging the correct quantities of baking soda and cream of tartar in twin envelopes. Just as cooks were learning to enjoy the advantages of leavening with cream of tartar, France, the major supplier, put an export tax on it and the price soared.
The first baking powder. Harvard professor Eben Horsford suggested calcium acid phosphate as a replacement to cream of tartar and it worked! However, Professor Horsford wanted cooks to have the convenience of a single product. He succeeded by adding a third ingredient: cornstarch. Cornstarch caused the action between the soda and the calcium acid phosphate to be suspended until the baking powder was added to the dough.
In 1856, Professor Horsford received a patent for his discovery, and the first modern-day baking powder was born. It was named after the Rumford chair of chemistry Horsford held at Harvard University. It is believed that Rumford Baking Powder was introduced in 1859. The new product was immediately popular, although some women doubted the newfangled “yeast powder” could last.
As a marketing ploy, the Rumford Company began offering cookbooks as premiums — most homemakers couldn’t resist a free gift. The Rumford Company utilized home economy experts of the day, Lily Haxworth Wallace and Janet McKenzie Hill, to edit a series of booklets on every aspect of home management. These experts stressed the use of consistent measurements and cooking temperatures along with the use of quality ingredients. Recipes and cooking standards were developed in the Rumford “kitchens.”
Over the years, the Rumford Company also offered a variety of kitchen utensils such as spatulas, spoons, forks, various cutters and measuring devices as premiums. These are highly sought after collectibles today and are easily spotted since they are all marked “RUMFORD the Wholesome Baking Powder.”
It wasn’t long before many other commercial baking powder companies came into existence and popularity: Royal (1866), Calumet (1889), KC (1898) and Clabber Girl (1899). They also offered marketing premiums which are just as collectible.
Few people realize that the cream of tartar baking powder, the first type of commercial baking powder, has practically disappeared from the market. Combination baking powder now dominates the field. It contains phosphates and aluminum as do our natural foods.
Rumford Baking Powder can still be purchased today. It is an all-phosphate baking powder (containing calcium acid phosphate — no aluminum). It is now owned and produced by the Clabber Girl Corporation.
Sandra Day, Country Home Magazine, and Linda Stradley, What’s Cooking America, are both cited in this article.