Leavening before baking soda/powder?
June 16, 2009 10:15 PM   Subscribe

How did people leaven things like scones and other fluffy pastries before baking soda/powder were invented?
posted by archagon to Food & Drink (37 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Yeast? Is this a trick question?
posted by 0xFCAF at 10:18 PM on June 16, 2009

You can google this, but a lot of older recipes contained a lot of eggs because the more air whipped into the eggs, the lighter the batter and the higher the product would rise. Hence you'll see older cake recipes that contain an astonishing number of eggs, upwards of 10.
posted by nonmerci at 10:21 PM on June 16, 2009

Eggs, and having a sturdy manservant beat the batter for an hour.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:25 PM on June 16, 2009

Interesting! Are there any websites that collect such recipes?
posted by archagon at 10:38 PM on June 16, 2009

Archagon, this isn't going back to the time before baking soda/powder, but if you look at a Joy of Cooking, you can see cake recipes from before the electric mixer was really mainstream. They contain lots of eggs. (Actually, having just glanced at the history of the electric mixer, I wonder if the technology advanced during the 30s as a response to the cost of eggs during the Depression; that's why Miracle Whip become famous.)
posted by acoutu at 10:47 PM on June 16, 2009

Any base & acid reaction would work in theory. Potash is basic and egg yolks by themselves have a pH of 6 (says random web pages) or you could use vinegar. It would taste like hell but it would leaven a bit. Random web pages put the use of potash in the 1700's and baking soda in the early 1800's. And some fluffy pastries don't rely on leavening - Croissants and other similar pastries rely solely on the expansive power of water vapour from the butter. Fried treats, like donuts, would be like cakes and rely on a combination of eggs to hold air and the heat of cooking in oil to get leavening via water vapour.

And you can make pancakes without baking powder - they're just a lot chewier and kinda crappy. But it's possible.

And like 0xFCAF sez, yeast.
posted by GuyZero at 11:00 PM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hartshorn/baking ammonia was used particularly in northern Europe prior to baking soda or baking powder.
posted by flod logic at 11:05 PM on June 16, 2009

Do you consider biscuits to be "fluffy pastries"? During the California Gold Rush, they made 'em using sourdough starter, which is lactobacillus bacteria.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:08 PM on June 16, 2009

By the way, your question assumes that scones etc. were commonly made before the development of baking soda and baking powder. Are you sure of that? Maybe the answer to your question is "They didn't make them."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:11 PM on June 16, 2009

This site claims that the word scone dates back to the 16th century.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 11:18 PM on June 16, 2009

Chocolate Pickle: By the way, your question assumes that scones etc. were commonly made before the development of baking soda and baking powder. Are you sure of that? Maybe the answer to your question is "They didn't make them."

I'm pretty sure that scones are older than chemical leavening agents. (This is actually one of the reasons I'm asking this question. I couldn't find any scone recipes that didn't use baking powder or soda, which made me wonder how they used to make them before chemical leaveners were invented.)
posted by archagon at 11:26 PM on June 16, 2009

I'm pretty sure that scones are older than chemical leavening agents.

Why? If you can find a cite for this it'll probably help lead to finding how it was done, if it was.
posted by RustyBrooks at 11:41 PM on June 16, 2009

I looked up an 18th century cookbook, and it looks like the cake recipes involve lots of butter (often as much butter as flour), lots of eggs (8-12 for a pound of flour), and lots of whipping (45 minutes to an hour). Doesn't say anything about scones, though.
posted by nasreddin at 12:03 AM on June 17, 2009

The cakes were the closest thing I could find to scones, so it could be that Chocolate Pickle is right.
posted by nasreddin at 12:05 AM on June 17, 2009

Well, forget the scones then. It's clear that other (non-yeast) fluffy pastries existed before leavening agents.
posted by archagon at 12:09 AM on June 17, 2009

Does anyone know if creaming was commonly used?
posted by archagon at 12:10 AM on June 17, 2009

Ahem. More here, including cites to the OED for that 1513 date. Now, I haven't actually seen the OED entry myself, but why would these people make that up?
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 12:31 AM on June 17, 2009

This site claims that the word scone dates back to the 16th century.

Yes, but that doesn't mean a 16th century scone bears any resemblance to an 19th century scone.

For instance, what the Brits consider a biscuit bears no resemblance to what I eat for breakfast.
posted by Netzapper at 12:34 AM on June 17, 2009

Any base & acid reaction would work in theory.

You're thinking of an acid + carbonate reaction. An acid + base reaction will create water and a salt but will release no gas. An acid + a carbonate, on the other hand, will release CO2.
posted by TungstenChef at 12:43 AM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Scones, by the way, seem to have evolved from the bannock which was a "heavy, flat cakes of unleavened barley or oatmeal dough formed into a round or oval shape, then cooked on a griddle." If you follow the footnote for that bit in Wikipedia though, it says that before chemical leavening agents were invented, bits of dough from the last batch were used to leaven a bannock which would make it a type of sourdough. Wikipedia cites BREAD: the breads of the world and how to bake them at home several times, so you may find more info and old recipes there.
posted by TungstenChef at 12:55 AM on June 17, 2009

Indeed. The second link I cited says, "Scones that we know today are leavened with modern baking powder/soda, both mid-19th century inventions." So if you accept what that author says, then it ties in nicely to the OP's question - modern scones seem to have come about due to the modern invention of baking powder & baking soda.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 1:42 AM on June 17, 2009

I just surveyed a bunch of books at Google Books from the first half of the 19th century and none of the recipes for scones that I found contained any leaven. And the term seemed to be used more broadly than it is today; in some cases it was used to describe what I think is sago bread, sago being something kind of like tapioca cultivated in New Guinea, but then also for what sounded like a sort of meat dumplings.

A sample from A Treatise on Medical Police, and on Diet, Regimen, &c by John Roberton, 1809, describing the diet of the poor in Edinburgh:

Among them, the food is in a great measure composed of oat and pease-meal, prepared for use in a variety of ways. The first of these, when gradually mixed with water and a little salt, and boiled in a pot over the fire constitutes porridge; and the other forms which this may, in common with the pease-meal, be put to, are brose, scones, or bannocks, and cakes. The brose is formed by a quantity of meal with a little salt, which is put into a dish, and while one person stirs it another, or perhaps the same person, pours boiling water upon it, till the mess becomes of an ordinary consistence. This and the porridge are eaten only while warm, and are used, often in amazing quantities, with milk or beer. The scones or bannocks, and cakes, are formed by the same kind of meal, kneaded with water and a little salt, and toasted over or before the fire. These are used cold as a substitute for loaf bread.
posted by XMLicious at 3:56 AM on June 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

See here for a Scottish variation of vintage
posted by A189Nut at 4:25 AM on June 17, 2009

Or even Here
posted by A189Nut at 4:26 AM on June 17, 2009

It depends whether you're conceptualising scones as "quick breads" or "hot breakfast pastries". There were no quick leavened breads back in the day. Back in the day, poor people ate griddle cakes (like pancakes but not as nice) for breakfast and rich people had cooks and therefore ate whatever they felt like. With the advent of chemical leavening you could have leavened cakes that were also quick and easy to prepare.

Anyway, here's an example of a scone-like thing that rich people might have eaten for breakfast. I grew up eating Pogácsa, Hungarian scones which are halfway between flaky and fluffy. They're leavened with yeast and repeatedly folded to create a flaky texture. They're very nice with jam, especially cherry jam.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:33 AM on June 17, 2009

Medieval cookery: nope, didn't make them. Pastries just weren't fluffy; if you actually make them they're generally yummy as anything, but not fluffy.

There were fried pastries, which may have had a little fluff with the air expansion as they were fried, but nothing like what we're used to.

Leavened puddings were generally bread-based, so the leavening agent was yeast. Often the bread-based ones are in the form of "take some bread and add stuff to it" (so gingerbread was bread + honey and ginger).

Tarts, shortcrust pastries, breads basted in honey and spices, rice pudding, yes; fluffy pastries, no.

My culinary knowledge stops around 1500, so I don't know when chemical leavens came into use.

Also - drat this thread! I now want oatmeal bannocks and dropped scones and don't have time to make any!
posted by Coobeastie at 5:43 AM on June 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Cream of tartar is a byproduct of winemaking, and even today is often combined with baking soda to produce baking powder.

The Wikipedia article on leavenings gives the following list of biological leaveners:

beer (unpasteurised—live yeast)
ginger beer
sourdough starter
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:47 AM on June 17, 2009

Butter was also used to leaven pastries. Puff pastry is only flour, water, salt, and butter. Layering the butter between thin sheets of dough and baking it causes the steam from the melting butter to lift the layers of dough. Pate a Choux dough, for eclairs, uses eggs. Modern style pastries came about when refined sugar became widely available. Leavening dough is easily done with eggs, butter, or yeast, but producing a sweet light dough required using sugar instead of honey.
posted by calumet43 at 7:10 AM on June 17, 2009

Not really a pastry, but I have a recipe for pancakes that uses nothing but eggs, flour, milk, butter, and salt.

Evidently pancakes are sometimes called scones in England, so far all I know some people might identify them as scones. (I wouldn't be one of them, and I also pronounce scone to rhyme with "cone")
posted by yohko at 7:22 AM on June 17, 2009

An excerpt from an essay of mine about maize, gender, and cultural identity:
Homegrown yeast skimmed from beer or salvaged from an unwashed kneading trough lightened the final product, as did the incorporation of air into the dough through vigorous kneading and fermentation of standing dough, or the judicious use of fire-ash as a chemical leavener.
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750. New York: Knopf. 1982. (pg 21.)

McMahon, Sarah F. “A Comfortable Subsistence: The Changing Composition of Diet in Rural New England, 1620-1840.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 42, no. 1 (1985). 26-65.

Fussell, Betty. Translating Maize into Corn: The Transformation of America’s Grain. Social Research 66, no. 1 (1999). 41-65. (passim)

Forgive the formatting; I haven't had coffee yet.

Though contemporary reports indicate that the cornmeal doughs described above weren't fluffy and light as desired (nor could they be, with the low gluten content), I include this here because the leavening techniques help to answer your question.

As others have said above, non-chemical leaveners include vigorously creamed butter, whipped egg whites, and layered butter and flour (e.g., puff pastry, pie crust).
posted by Elsa at 7:46 AM on June 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

One more leavening method not mentioned yet is salt-rising, which is not the same as sourdough. Don't know that that would be used in things like scones, though.
posted by madmethods at 8:34 AM on June 17, 2009

According to the book "2 Million Years of the Food Industry", we went 770,000 years between the discovery of fire, and the first oven. They claim the first domestication of yeasts occurred 3000 years ago, and "Up to 50 years ago, our bread yeast was essentially the same as that used in the bakeries of ancient Egypt."
posted by nomisxid at 8:45 AM on June 17, 2009

Wow, this thread is a great history lesson. Thank you!
posted by archagon at 11:30 AM on June 17, 2009

A little additional background:

There are two ways to leaven things: physical and chemical.

The physical way is with steam or with air placed or beaten into the batter/dough. Eggs fall into this category (the moisture in them evaporates, causing the dough to rise) and also give structure. Eclairs and other things made with pate a choux are leavened physically, as one example. You can put yeast in this category as well -- the yeast produce carbon dioxide, which physically causes bread to rise.

Chemical leavening can be done with baking soda (must be combined with an acid just before baking, like vinegar, buttermilk, or lemon juice) or with baking powder (activated by heat). Most quick breads (muffins, scones) and cakes are leavened this way.
posted by fiercecupcake at 11:50 AM on June 17, 2009

Southern beaten biscuits are leavened by pounding the dough with whatever is handy, be it rolling pin, mallet, or axe handle. Most recipes I've read mention that the biscuits predate baking powder or baking soda.
posted by zombiedance at 3:18 PM on June 17, 2009

Just to clear up the British scone/pancake derail.

Our 'drop scones' or 'Scotch pancakes' (and maybe a few other regional names) are similar to the American pancake, but they are smaller (about 2" across), but do contain baking powder. Our pancakes are what I think Americans would call crepes (but are smaller than a French crepe) and don't have leavening in them. From my experience of American bakeries, the scones you serve are more like rock cakes. Seriously, if your scones are coming out like rock cakes, you're doing it wrong, the dough's too dry. Scones should be round, smooth on top and rising slightly more one side than the other, with a bit of crack on that side. Which you use to break it into two halves (with your hands, not a knife!) to put the clotted cream and jam on.

Carry on!
posted by Helga-woo at 4:58 AM on June 18, 2009

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