Cookie Leavening Q’s

Reader Anna writes in with some interesting questions about chemical leaveners in cookies.

Baking hundreds of Christmas cookies every year, here are a few questions that are troubling me:

1) a lot of recipes mention adding the baking powder or the bicarbonate of soda and then keeping everything in the fridge for up to 24 hours. Wouldn’t that counteract the very action of the leavener?

2) some recipes (mainly handwritten, from Aunt X or Mrs.Y) specify in the procedure: mix this and that ingredient, add the flour, mix and in the end add the leavener mixed with a couple tablespoons of milk (or some other liquid).

3) when do you use baking ammonia as a leavener?

Interesting stuff, Anna. Regarding question #1, you can store cookie and muffin doughs containing chemical leaveners in the refrigerator. It is true, especially in the case of baking soda, that the reaction starts when the leavener gets wet (the other occurs when the chemical gets hot…this is the second action in “double acting” baking powder). However cookie doughs especially contain more fat than moisture, so there’ll definitely be enough “pop” left in the dough to raise the cookies the next day.

Concerning question #2 it’s hard to know without seeing the recipe, but the technique of mixing the leavener with liquid probably does two things: initiate the reaction and disperse the leavener evenly through the dough. Not being a regular cookie maker I haven’t seen that before, but it doesn’t strike me as a problem, particularly if the cookies are going to be baked fairly soon after.

Regarding baker’s ammonia, you’ll only want to use that in recipes that specifically call for it, usually Scandinavian or Northern European cookie recipes. Baking ammonia (also called “hartshorn” because it was originally derived from deer antlers) is generally used for very thin and crispy cookies, since it’s important that all the ammonia be able to escape during the bake. Some people are alarmed when they use the stuff for the first time, when the kitchen suddenly fills with a strong ammonia odor. That’s actually a good thing, as it means the ammonia is leaving the cookies! However it’s perfectly safe to use and creates a flavor and texture that can’t be achieved via any other means.

Hope this helps, Anna!

22 thoughts on “Cookie Leavening Q’s”

  1. Yes, it does, thank you. Apart from the science, it helps me trust old recipes more; whenever I have a confusing moment like this, I remember my grandmother’s oven, no thermostat, no fan, no thermometer, batter mixed with a wooden spoon in a bowl – and boy, you took a bite and you were in heaven.

    1. Yep, I knew a baker or two like that growing up. Now we’re all science-y, but no better in the kitchen!

      Thanks for the great questions, Anna!

      – Joe

      1. Thanks Anna and Joe for the Q/A. I had been looking at my moms old handwritten Danish recipes and kept seeing “harts of horn” in the ingredients. I had never heard of that before so now I know what it is. What would be a good substitute for hartshorn?



        1. Eva, I think you should be able to substitute potash/potassium carbonate – Joe, is this right? At least, I use potash in place of harts-horn! Potash is not easy to find, but if you have a German or pan-European fine foods store in your area they may have it or know where you could get it (it will probably be labelled “pottasche”). I have seen it in two types of packaging: little sachets and tubes (similar to the tubes vanilla pods come in, but clear). It should be in the form of tiny little balls; if it’s powdery instead, it means that moisture has contaminated it and it has spoiled – you’ll be able to tell as soon as you open it because of the awful metallic smell. By the way, the raw batter will develop a faint “metallic” taste as well but it goes away – almost entirely less – after baking.

          1. I had no idea that potash can still be found in packages, Jen! Baking powder can also be used, but of course it doesn’t provide the same texture. Thanks for a very interesting comment!

            – Joe

        2. Hey Eva!

          Baking powder can be substituted 1-1 for bakery’s ammonia. You won’t get the same crispness, but the result is similA enough!

          – Joe

          1. If you live in a area heavily populated by the Dutch, try going to a local bakery (not grocery store) and asking if they have baker’s ammonia that you could buy. I worked in a bakery in Lynden, WA and we used baker’s ammonia for certain baked items. Be VERY careful not to hold your head over the can/box while opening or you’ll really clear your sinus’! 😉

  2. Great post, thank you. Can I ask another leavening question? I’m working my way through several batches of Snickerdoodles (experimenting with spice combinations and use of brown sugar), and just about every recipe I find calls for Baking Soda (BS) and Cream of Tartar (CofT), rather than baking powder. (My understanding is that baking powder is essentially BSand CofT.) But I can’t think of any other cookie recipe that calls for BS and CofT instead of baking powder. Is there any reason why Snickerdoodles has held on to this leavening combination, while other cookies use baking powder? Or is it just about tradition and what people are used to?

    Thank muchly for your thoughts.

    1. Hey Ted! That’s interesting. It’s the old Pennsylvania Dutch recipes that call for both. People in New England have been enjoying snickerdoodles since at least 1890, and in those days it was common for people to mix their own leaveners to get the reaction they wanted. Newer recipes use baking powder, but the effect is the same!

      Thanks for the question and send me your best recipe! 😉

      – Joe

    2. Alice Medrich uses a combination of baking soda and cream of tartar in some of her cookie recipes. She claims that this essentially homemade baking powder gives a lightness that is similar to baking ammonia, but without the undesirable odor.

  3. If you use packets of dried yeast as a leavening agent, you’re generally supposed to leave them in lukewarm milk for about 15 minutes to start off the whole process, so that’s probably why the recipes call for a couple of table spoons of milk to go in with the leavener as this will kickstart the process.

    1. The difference being that dried yeast is alive, and it needs food and warmth to grow and make bubbles. Chemical leaveners don’t.
      On the other hand, sometimes people change recipes without quite knowing what they’re doing, so at some point someone may well have swapped out yeast for a chemical leavener without removing the warm milk. I saw a recipe the other day, might have been on Pioneer Woman actually, that had yeast and baking powder. Not quite sure why you would want both.

  4. I have twice made a superdelicious loaf cake that calls for soaking dates in coffee — and adding baking soda, the only leavening involved, to the warm soaking liquid. And that’s the first step in the whole recipe, so it’s a while before the flour will meet the liquid and get into the pan. I’ve never seen anything else like it, but it works; I just don’t know how. (I’m making it again tomorrow.)

    1. Interesting…but again it takes heat to complete the reaction, so you’re not losing all the pop just because it’s wet. That’s a cool sounding recipe though. Send it to me sometime!

      Merry Christmas, NBM!

      – Joe

      1. Doesn’t baking soda react with dairy products? I have a chocolate cake recipe that calls for BP & BS and when I mix the yoghurt with the baking soda it starts bubbling a little.

        1. Hi Nuha!

          It depends on the degree to which the dairy product has been fermented (allowed to sour). The longer bacteria go to work on it, the more acidic it becomes. Yogurt is well fermented, so is quite acidic relative to fresh milk which is almost neutral right out of the cow.

          Thanks for a great question!

          – Joe

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