Andreae Prozesky has known the evenings, mornings, afternoons / Has measured out her life with tablespoons.

Friends and compatriots, I owe you an apology. It has come to my attention that my recipe for biscuit dough, printed a few weeks back, was riddled with errors. Somewhere between my brain and your eyes, some key small-t-teaspoon measurements got translated into big-T-tablespoons. Like salt. And baking powder. So if any of you dear readers actually tried to make biscuits or one of the many thrilling variations thereof, I am truly sorry.

I found out about the typo when a dear friend left a panicky message on my machine. She had made some of her famous borscht and had attempted to whip up a batch of biscuits to go with it. She was following my directions diligently when she found that she was out of baking powder. On advice from her lovely, and presumably quite hungry boyfriend, she substituted baking soda.

This was the first mistake.

By the time I called her back to explain that, no, you can’t use baking soda in place of baking powder, her boyfriend was already on his way to the store to get the correct ingredient. There was still hope in her voice when she said, “okay, so it’s three tablespoons, right?”
So the second mistake was mine. Now it was my turn to get panicky. Three tablespoons of baking powder is a lot of baking powder.

“No!” I cried. “Teaspoons! Three teaspoons!”

Baking is about precision. When you’re cooking, say, a soup, you can add a little of this and a little of that until it looks and tastes right. Too thick? More stock. Too thin? Some barley or rice will oomph it up, or you can stick a cup or two of the soup in the blender, whirr it around and pour it back in the pot. Too salty? Throw in half a potato, then take the potato out before serving. You can fiddle until you’ve got it the way you want it.

But when you’re baking, there’s not much room for messing about. Sure, you can substitute raisins for chocolate chips, or hazelnuts for walnuts or add a pinch of cinnamon, but all the proportions have to stay the same. The oven isn’t really the place for wild improvisation.

This is because baked goods, most of them at least, depend on “leaveners,” which are essentially “puffer-uppers,” to make them all light and fluffy and delicious. Baking powder and baking soda are both leaveners. And leaveners like math. You can’t go changing their amounts on them. They can’t cope.

Three tablespoons of baking soda is enough to make biscuits rise and rise, but they’ll end up tasting like kitchen cleanser.

So my friend learned her lesson: don’t listen to your boyfriend when he says that baking soda works fine in biscuits

And I learned mine: spell out your measurements, Food Jerk!

What’s the difference?

Remember chemistry class? Baking soda is pure sodium bicarbonate, which is a base. When it comes in contact with something moist and acidic (yogurt, buttermilk, chocolate, orange juice), there’s a chemical reaction and bubbles of carbon dioxide are produced. Just like that science experiment where you use baking soda and vinegar to make a volcano. If there isn’t enough moisture and acid to cause a reaction, your baked goods won’t rise and will taste metallic and horrible. Yuck b’y.

Baking powder is part base (baking soda) and part acid (usually cream of tartar). There’s often a starch, like cornstarch, added as a drying agent. Most baking soda is double-acting, which means that there’s an initial reaction when the baking soda comes in contact with moisture, and then another one brought on by the heat of the oven.

If you’re out of baking powder, you can make your own. Try ½ teaspoon cream of tartar, ¼ teaspoon baking soda and ¼ teaspoon cornstarch for one teaspoon of baking powder.  Or just go to the store.

Send your questions, comments, suggestions and disaster stories to dreae@thescope.ca

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