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Baking Soda Bonanza, 2nd Edition
By Peter A. Ciullo
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Peter A. Ciullo
All right reserved.
Baking Soda Rises
Baking soda in America began, naturally enough, with baking. Its foothold in American homes was based on its use as a leavening agent.
The Pearlash Evolution
The discovery of baking soda began with potash, a crude potassium carbonate extracted from wood ashes. American colonists learned how to purify potash into the pearlash (a more concentrated potassium carbonate) that became an important ingredient to their booming soap-and glass-making businesses. By the mid-eighteenth century, production of potash and pearlash had grown from a cottage industry to a major commercial enterprise. The colonies, with trees to burn, began exporting huge amounts of these carbonates to England's glass and soap factories.
It was during the 1760s that the use of pearlash in baking became popular. Bakers had been using tedious and difficult hand kneading as well as long-rising sourdough starters to leaven bread. Pearlash's high potassium carbonate content made it quite alkaline, so it was initially added as a natural counter to the sourness caused by the acids in sourdough. Bakers discovered, however, that besides sweetening the dough, pearlash accelerated its rising by liberatingcarbon dioxide gas bubbles as it reacted with the sourdough acids and baking heat. This ability of pearlash to create in minutes the leavening gases that required hours from the natural sourdough yeasts revolutionized baking.
The popularity of pearlash was fueled by two nearly concurrent developments in the United States. In 1796, Amelia Simmons published the first American cookbook, American Cookery, which featured several recipes requiring pearlash. At the same time, Oliver Evans was pioneering the fine grinding of wheat into lighter, airier flour. Almost at once, the home baker had pearlash, a growing body of instructions on how to use it, and finer, increasingly available flours.
The Soda Ash Revolution
Although pearlash remained the premier industrial carbonate in America well into the nineteenth century, the American Revolution convinced the governments and industries of western Europe that their rapidly expanding need of American carbonates was politically and economically unwise. There was precious little European woodland left to sacrifice to wood ash, and the only natural alternatives were the limited supplies of crude carbonates produced from the ashes of seaweeds and plants. The situation became so alarming that in 1783 the French Academy of Sciences offered a prize for the best process for converting common salt (sodium chloride) to soda ash (sodium carbonate). Nicolas LeBlanc won the prize in 1791 for his method of reacting salt, sulfuric acid, coal, and limestone. Soon soda ash plants proliferated in Europe. The now plentiful local supply of sodium carbonate replaced imported American potassium carbonates.
The development of today's leavening bicarbonate from the industrial carbonates of yore took different routes in Europe and America. European chemists bubbled carbon dioxide gas through solutions of sodium carbonate to form the less alkaline sodium bicarbonate. This chemical was dubbed saleratus, meaning "aerated salt." Saleratus was adopted by the medical community as a safe and effective treatment for acid stomach. By the 1830s, America's home bakers had discovered that the sodium bicarbonate imported for medical use was a superior (albeit expensive) leavening alternative to pearlash or the American version of saleratus. It released its carbon dioxide quickly in recipes and was less prone to bitter aftertastes.
American saleratus, potassium bicarbonate, was first made by Nathan Read of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1788. He suspended lumps of pearlash over the carbon dioxide-rich fumes of fermenting molasses. The dry pearlash absorbed the carbon dioxide, converting its potassium carbonate to potassium bicarbonate. By the early nineteenth century, brewers and distillers were making saleratus as a sideline in much the same way by taking advantage of the carbon dioxide released from their fermentation vats. American saleratus was less expensive than the imported variety, but it was not as pure and did not leaven as dependably.
America's bakers were ready for a saleratus that would work as well as the imported sodium bicarbonate but be as cheap as the domestic alternative. Two American entrepreneurs--one a doctor and the other a salesman--accepted the challenge to provide the sodium bicarbonate that would in time become the baking soda found in nearly every home.
The Determined Doctor
As America discovered the advantages of saleratus over pearlash, Dr. Austin Church, a Yale graduate, started experimenting with a new way to make sodium bicarbonate. On the basis of promising work begun in his kitchen in Ithaca, New York, Dr. Church decided to trade his medical practice for the commercial production of saleratus. In 1834 he uprooted his wife and children and moved to Rochester.
The process Dr. Church perfected in his Rochester factory started with the meticulous purification of English soda ash. This refined sodium carbonate was then spread thinly over canvas-covered wooden frames stacked in a sealed room. For three weeks, this room was filled with hot gases containing carbon dioxide from coal-fired ovens. By this dry carbonation method, the purified sodium carbonate was entirely converted to food-grade sodium bicarbonate.
It is not surprising that Dr. Church, with a physician's training in chemistry, saw opportunity and financial security in the commercial manufacture of a pure sodium bicarbonate. His choice of Rochester was equally well reasoned. Following the opening of the Rochester and Lockport section of the Erie Canal in 1823, Rochester's proximity to the wheat fields of the Genessee Valley had propelled it to the status of leading flour milling center of the United States. When the Church family arrived in 1834, Rochester had just recently received its city charter, Genessee Valley flour had earned worldwide fame, and the Rochester mills were turning out more than 300,000 barrels per year. Dr. Church's intent was presumably to produce saleratus in bulk for sale to the flour mills' far-flung customers.
The bulk saleratus business allowed the Church family an adequate existence, but apparently not an especially prosperous one. After a brief return to doctoring in Oswego, in 1846 Dr. Church moved his family to New York City, where he and his entrepreneurial brother-in-law, John Dwight, founded John Dwight and Company.
Dwight realized that the key to success, in addition to bulk sales to commercial bakers and drug companies, would be to build a consumer franchise by selling packages of saleratus through the retail trade. The busiest port of the nation proved itself an excellent headquarters; in their first year of operation, distinctively red-labeled Dwight's saleratus was offered to New York's storekeepers in bags of one pound or less.
Within a few years, Dwight's Saleratus capitalized on its claims of superior quality and value. It captured the New York market, and started expanding into every inhabited part of the United States and eventually into Canada. Its prime competition, especially in rural areas, came from the well established imported saleratus sold loose in kegs. But the distinctive red-wrapped bags of Dwight's Saleratus became the baker's choice. By 1850, the American housewife could purchase Dwight's Saleratus from the general store for 4 a pound--quite an improvement over the $1.25 a pound her mother had paid for the import in 1820.
Success, of course, bred competition as other manufacturers saw there was money to be made in tapping this new market for low-cost, high-quality domestic bicarbonate. The 1860s witnessed new brands from small firms like Philadelphia's Burgin & Sons to the mighty Pennsylvania Salt Manufacturing Company. The most effective competition to emerge from the 1860s, however, was from Dr. Austin Church.
Arm & Hammer
In 1865, the sixty-six-year-old Dr. Church retired from John Dwight & Company, and two years later helped his sons, James and Elihu Church--both successful businessmen in their own right--found Church & Company. Recognizing there was sufficient need in the rapidly expanding United States to accommodate a competitor with quality equal to Dwight's Saleratus, they constructed a factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, devoted to the manufacture and sale of sodium bicarbonate.
James had been a partner in the Vulcan Spice Mills, a Brooklyn mustard and spice business, from which he acquired the Arm & Hammer logo. This symbol represented the arm of Vulcan, Roman god of fire and metalworking, with hammer raised. While perhaps better suited to the spice trade, this trademark was distinctively recognizable and soon intimately associated with what became the country's bestselling bicarb. Dwight's Saleratus eventually adopted a memorable trademark of its own, modeled on Lady Maud, a famous Jersey cow from the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Soon thereafter it became known as "Dwight's Soda," "Cow Brand," and in time simply "Cow Brand Soda." Cow Brand and Arm & Hammer Bicarbonate of Soda became the dominant products in the chemical leavening business, but the rivalry was friendly and mutually beneficial.
Excerpted from Baking Soda Bonanza, 2nd Edition by Peter A. Ciullo Copyright © 2006 by Peter A. Ciullo. Excerpted by permission.
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