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Sorting Out Leavening Agents

| 12/7/2016 10:26:00 AM

Country MoonScents of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves fill most kitchens this time of year. Even better than the treats themselves are the childhood memories that they bring back.

Sometimes re-creating those delicious treats can be a bit challenging, as hand-me-down recipes are sometimes vague. This is especially true when it comes to leavening agents because they can be so confusing. So, I decided to get to the bottom of this rising issue.

Baked goods need something to help the dough rise or "leaven." This something can be anything that produces gas in the dough to cause expansion. The simplest way to do this is by manually turning the dough or beating air into it. However, this method usually doesn’t give enough rise to bread, souffles, cakes, and other desserts. A substance that produces gas — namely carbon dioxide gas — is usually needed. Yeast, baking soda, and baking powder are the three main agents that are used in baking to produce this lift. They can be used singly or in combination. The big question is knowing which one to use when.

Yeast are little organisms called fungus which, when activated, consume the sugars in flour and releases carbon dioxide as waste. Whenever yeast is used, the dough usually needs to be kneaded, which means turning the dough out on a floured board and actually working it with your hands. When dough is kneaded, a protein inside produces a stretchy matrix called gluten. This traps the tiny gas bubbles produced by the yeast, causing the expansion. Without this action, bread dough would end up as a dense blob, like building material.

The more times this process is repeated, the lighter and fluffier the finished product will be. Once this ball of gas-filled-gluten is heated, it turns into the tasty treats we all enjoy, whether it be bread, rolls, or any number of other baked goods.

Yeast’s downside is that it takes time to work. There are faster options. One of those is baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate. It reacts to liquid acidic ingredients such as vinegar or lemon juice to produce carbon dioxide. When you add a little vinegar to baking soda, the fizz that you hear is this reaction. Just like when using yeast, the carbon dioxide bubbles that are formed causes the rise in baked goods.

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