Action and More Action

Reader Dan, who is working on financiers this week, has a very interesting question about baking powder:

If you’re using [baking powder], why rest the mix in the fridge? Surely the [baking powder] is activated, and loses its potency before you actually come to baking?

It’s very reasonable to assume that, Dan. Conventional wisdom holds that whenever you get baking powder wet you need to hurry it into the oven so you don’t lose any volume. That actually isn’t the case. It’s certainly true that you get a gas-producing “pop” when the baking powder gets wet. That’s the first “action” of double-acting baking powder. The second action happens when the baking powder gets hot.

The question is: is that first action wasted if the batter isn’t in the oven when it occurs? The answer is: not really. Why not? Because that first action is by design the one that creates what you might call “seed bubbles”, little cells in the batter that will fill with gas and steam once the batter is heated. The creaming method does something similar, using granules of sugar to poke holes in solid fat. Those little cells get incorporated into a batter where they wait for heat to be applied.

So the message is: as long as the batter isn’t agitated a whole lot — which would pop the little bubbles — the first action will have done its job and its effects will be preserved. When the batter heats up later the second action will take place, more CO2 will be produced (along with plenty of steam) and the batter will inflate.

I once worked in a bakery where we made baking power-leavened muffin batters that held in the walk-in for a week. We just scooped them, plopped the scoops into forms and baked them up. No problem, and no discernible difference even after seven days. Great question, Dan!

9 thoughts on “Action and More Action”

  1. So after I mix up my pancake batter and it gets all bubbly, I should leave it alone until I scoop it onto the griddle? I have a bad habit of stirring before each ladle-ful. And no one in my family really likes my pancakes, either. Hmmmm….

    1. Hey Amanda!

      Yes, try not to stir. I can understand why you might need to move the batter around a little if some part of it is settling to the bottom of the bowl, but stirring pops bubbles and activates gluten, so they end up both tough and flat. If that sounds familiar you need to find something else to do with your hands while the pancakes cook. May I suggest smoking? 😉

      – Joe

  2. Thanks Joe. That makes sense.

    Though I’m wondering now what qualifies as too much agitation – scooping out portions to put in muffin tins or financier moulds is fairly destructive to a nice, mild-mannered batter that’s been sitting in the fridge.

    1. Hey Daniel!

      Fair enough! In that case the cold had made the batter quite thick, like leftover mashed potatoes. My sense is that those tiny bubbles were more or less frozen in place. The scooping and plopping action might have broken a few, but not enough to make a difference.

      Another good question!

      – Joe

  3. While I agree with Joe’s response to baking powder, I would add that resting the finacier batter is designed to fully hydrate everything.

    1. Oh I’m with you Toby. I’m completely down with the resting idea. It also helps bubbles rise out. My point was that it’s totally OK to rest it. Maybe I need to go back and make that clearer. Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

  4. So…I read a recipe recently (though I don’t remember where or what for) that called, very specifically, for single-action baking powder. (I think the concern was that double-action has aluminum in it , and single-action doesn’t.)

    How does single-action handle differently to double-action?

    Thank you.

  5. I have also wondered about single acting baking powder. I have been wanting to make a jar of Edna Lewis’ cream of tartar-baking soda recipe to keep on hand but worry that it will mess some of my recipes up. How did they manage to make enough fluffy pancakes from one batter for a family of 12 in the South, using the above? Work in portions?

    1. Hey Dani!

      I’m not sure of the exact formula but it may leave enough undirected soda in the mix to provide some pop when the pancakes are heated. But even if not there are probably enough bubbles floating around that if you don’t stir the batter too much you’ll have enough to raise the pancakes. Most of them anyway…the last ones might be a little flat. Try it and get back to me!


      – Joe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *