Understand the science behind your ingredients, and you will be able to manipulate the recipes to your liking.
Baking powder is a chemical way to leaven a cake, cookie, or another type of dough or batter. For first-time “leaveners”, to leaven a dough means to cause an expansion, and make it “rise”.
There are many leavening agents like yeast and baking powder, but also steam and air. This is why, in the process of baking, it isn’t only baking powder responsible for the cake rising. The moisture in the cake dough, and fat, also sugar all play a vital role in the cake reaching and keeping the desired height.
What is Baking Powder?
Baking powders (yes, there is more than one) are chemical leavening agents. All contain baking soda and acid in the form of acid salt, but for simplicity's sake, acid salts are just called acids (in the baking context).
The most common combination is baking soda and tartaric acid. Tartaric acid or cream of tartar is a byproduct of wine production and it dissolves in water. Baking soda then reacts with the dissolved acid and releases carbon dioxide. The gas expands and tries to break free, resulting in the cake rising.
Naturally, this is an oversimplification of the whole leavening process. But for the beginner baking enthusiasts, I believe, is enough.
All baking powders release the same amount of carbon dioxide. This is regulated by different governments. For example, in The USA, the federal law says 12% of the weight of baking powder.
What Does Baking Powder Do in Cookies?
Let’s say you have a basic chocolate chip cookie dough. The recipe that I love to use, contains 1% of baking powder on the weight of flour (I’ll explain the baking percentages in another post). So, 1% seems like very little, but it does exactly what I want in the cookie dough.
Baking powder, together with other chemical leaveners like baking soda and baking ammonia has three functions.
When the leavening agents break down the gases are released. Their expansion is what causes the leavening of the dough or batter.
Chemical leaveners also tenderize a finished baking product. Let me elaborate a bit.
Tenderizers are making the cake soft, fluffy, chewy, and tender. For example, sugar is a tenderizer, it attracts water. Flour tries to do the same thing to form gluten, but sugar is faster and wins the race. This is why it is important not to simply reduce the sugar in a recipe when you want to make it “healthier”, you have to properly replace it.
Adjusting PH Levels
Another function baking powder has in cakes and cookies is to adjust their PH levels. Changes in PH result in different colors, flavors, and textures. For example, if we go back to chocolate chip cookies. The cream of tartar in baking powder reduces the PH level of the cookies, this weakens the gluten development and results in more tenderness.
What Can You Use Instead of Baking Powder, and Why?
As a pastry chef, I have nothing against baking powder, and I don’t consider it unhealthy. I mean, there are so many “unhealthy” ingredients in a chocolate chip cookie, that 1% baking powder or a percentage of that in an amount of acids and sodium bicarobante (what is often considered unhealthy), just doesn’t make a difference.
Unless you over do it in a cake. But you already learned that this wouldn’t result in a better cake, because all ingredients have to be in balance, tenderizers, strengtheners, etc.
What is possible is that you are alergic to baking powder or a component in it. This is quite rare, but a justified reason to replace baking powder. For example, you could be alergic to cream of tartar or sulfites in it. In that case, you could use baking soda in combination with lemon juice (freshly squeezed).
Easiest Replacement For Baking Powder
Baking soda is usually a part of any kitchen, home or restaurant. And if you don’t have it, you can find it in almost any supermarket. Keep in mind that baking soda is four times stronger than baking powder.
So, if you have 10 grams of baking powder in a recipe, and you want to replace it with baking soda, you will use 2.5 grams(read 3) of baking soda plus a source of acid. Acid can be buttermilk, lemon juice, and even vinegar. With 10 grams of baking soda you will need 12 grams of lemon juice.
You can play with recipes as much as you want, but always keep in mind that every ingredient has a purpose. If you want to remove it or reduce it, you have to understand why it is there and how to replace it.