Baking Secrets Unveiled: World of Food Leavening Agents

March 7, 2023

Leavening agents are magical ingredients that transform dense dough into fluffy cakes or cookies. From yeast and sourdough to baking powder and baking soda, these leavening agents play a crucial role in the science of baking. However, with multiple options available, selecting the right leavening agent for your business may require time and effort. We will explore different types of leavening agents, their differences, and how to choose the correct one. Let's uncover the secrets of leavening agents together!

1.  What are leavening agents?

1.1 Leavening agents definition

If you've ever baked bread or cake, you know that leavening agents are the key to making them fluffy and soft. Leavening agents are substances added to the raw dough or batter to make the food fluffy or crispy. They undergo thermal decomposition during processing, producing gas that causes the batter to rise, resulting in a dense and porous texture.

1.2 Functions of leavening agents in baking

  1. Fluffy texture: When leavening agents are added to the dough or batter, they introduce gas, which becomes trapped in the mixture and causes it to expand. This trapped gas creates tiny air pockets in the dough or batter, making it fluffy.
  2. Provide a sour taste: Alkaline leavening agents (such as baking soda) react with acidic ingredients to produce carbon dioxide gas. This reaction causes the dough or batter to swell and has a sour or tart taste. Similarly, yeast leavening agents containing natural yeast and lactic acid bacteria can also provide a distinctive sour taste to baked goods.
  3. Tender texture: The gases released during the fermentation process form pockets in the dough or batter, which break down proteins and give the final product a finer texture.

2.  Types of leavening agents

There are two main types of leavening agents: chemical leavener and natural leavener.

Chemical leavener includes baking powder and baking soda, which work by producing carbon dioxide gas.

Natural leavener includes yeast and sourdough. Yeast is a single-celled fungus, and sourdough is a mixture of flour and water fermented with wild yeast and bacteria.

We will introduce the types of food leavening agents according to the products most often purchased by our customers. Here we also introduce you to an incredible physical leavening agent.

3.  Chemical leavener

Chemical leaveners are also known as synthetic bulking agents, and baking powder and baking soda are two of the most commonly used. Although baking powder and baking soda look similar, they have distinct differences in their composition and how they work. Following, we will explore their characteristics, differences, and examples of baked goods using these chemical leavening agents to understand your desired product better.

3.1 Baking Powder

Baking powder is a chemical bulking agent, also known as foaming powder. It is a white powder baking powder made from baking soda with acidic ingredients and cornstarch as a filler. When baking powder is combined with liquid and heat, it reacts to produce carbon dioxide gas, which causes the dough or batter to expand and become light and fluffy. Baking powder is often used in recipes that do not contain acidic ingredients, as it provides its acidic component.

There are two types of baking powder, single-action baking powder and double-action baking powder. Single-action baking powder reacts with liquid and heat to produce gas immediately. Double-action baking powder reacts twice during heating and baking. This means baked goods have more time to rise in the oven, resulting in a lighter, fluffier texture.

3.2 Baking Soda

Baking soda, also known as sodium bicarbonate, is another chemical foaming agent widely used in baking. It is a white crystalline powder that is slightly alkaline (pH >7) and has a somewhat salty taste. When mixed with acidic ingredients such as buttermilk, vinegar, or lemon juice, baking soda reacts and produces carbon dioxide gas, which causes baked goods to swell and become light and fluffy.

While baking soda can be used as a baking agent, it requires the presence of an acidic component. The baked goods may come out heavy and dense if there is not enough acid in the recipe. Too much baking soda can produce a buttery, bitter taste.

3.3 Baking Powder vs. Baking Soda

NameBaking PowderBaking Soda
IngredientsBaking soda, cream of tartar, and a dry acid (such as calcium acid phosphate)Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda)
Mode of ActionReacts with liquid and heat to produce carbon dioxide gasReacts with acid and liquid to produce carbon dioxide gas
Fermentation SpeedDouble-acting: reacts twice - once when mixed with liquid and again with heatSingle-acting: reacts only when mixed with acid and liquid
NeutralizationDoes not require an acid ingredient for leaveningRequires an acid ingredient for leavening
FlavorNeutral tasteSlightly bitter taste if not balanced with acid
Shelf LifeLonger shelf life than baking sodaShorter shelf life than baking powder
Use in recipesBest for recipes that don't have acidic ingredientsBest for recipes that have acidic ingredients, such as buttermilk or vinegar
  1. Different ingredients

First, baking soda is pure sodium bicarbonate, a naturally occurring alkaline compound. Baking powder is a mixture of baking soda, cream of tartar (an acid), and a moisture absorbent (such as corn starch).

  • Speed of fermentation

Baking soda reacts with acidic ingredients immediately upon contact, producing carbon dioxide gas. On the other hand, baking powder contains an acid that reacts more slowly, which means you have more time to process your batter or dough before baking.

  • Different ways of acting

Baking powder reacts with both acidic and alkaline ingredients, which means it can be used in recipes that do not contain any acidic ingredients. Baking soda only reacts with acidic ingredients, such as lemon juice, vinegar, or buttermilk, and releases carbon dioxide gas when in contact with these ingredients.

  • Taste difference

Baking soda has a strong bitter taste, which can affect the flavor of baked goods if misused. Baking powder has a more neutral taste and is less likely to affect the final product's flavor.

In our past post(Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder: Which One Should You Use ), we analyzed the differences between baking powder and baking soda by comparing their chemical composition and application types to help you choose the right leavening agent for you.

3.4 Examples of chemical leavener

  1. Baked goods: When baking powder and baking soda react with acidic ingredients in the batter (such as buttermilk, yogurt, vinegar, or lemon juice), they release carbon dioxide gas. When baked, the gas expands, causing the batter to swell and giving the cake a light, airy texture. Baked goods may require different amounts of baking powder or baking soda, depending on the acidity of the ingredients used and the desired puffiness of the cake.
  2. Pancakes and waffles: Chemical leavening agents react and produce carbon dioxide gas when exposed to moisture and heat during cooking. This gas forms bubbles in the batter or dough, causing it to rise and expand. The heat then solidifies the structure of the pancake or waffle, trapping the carbon dioxide inside, resulting in a light and fluffy texture.
  3. Doughnuts: When cooking doughnuts in the oil, the other ingredients react with the leavening agent due to the heat, releasing carbon dioxide gas. The gas bubbles within the dough, causing it to expand and become light and fluffy.
  4. Instant mixture: When mixed with wet ingredients such as water, eggs, or milk, the leavening agent reacts with acidic ingredients, making it light and fluffy when baked.

As you can see, chemical leavening agents are used in various baked goods and are vital ingredients in achieving the desired texture and flavor.

4.  Natural leavener

If you like using natural ingredients in your baking, you will be interested in natural leavening agents. Natural leavening agents are derived from natural sources such as yeast or sourdough, and they provide a great alternative to the chemical leavening agents typically used in baking.

4.1 Yeast

Yeast is a single-celled fungus, one that consumes sugar and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol during the fermentation process. During baking, yeast is usually activated by dissolving it in warm water or milk and a small amount of sugar and then leaving it for a few minutes until it becomes foamy. Once the yeast is activated, it is added to the other ingredients in the recipe and mixed to form the dough. As the dough ferments, the yeast continues to consume sugar and produce carbon dioxide gas, which causes the dough to expand and ferment. The alcohol produced by the yeast during this process evaporates during the baking process, leaving tiny air bubbles that give the baked goods their light and airy texture.

Yeast comes in two forms: active dry yeast and instant yeast. Before use, one must activate active dry yeast with warm water and sugar, while instant yeast can be directly added to the dough. Using yeast can be a bit fussy, requiring specific temperatures and conditions to activate correctly. But once you get the hang of it, the results are worth it - there's nothing like the taste and texture of freshly baked bread made with yeast!

4.2 Sourdough

Sourdough is pre-fermented by the action of water and the yeasts and bacteria in the flour, which is why it is also known as natural yeast dough. The lactic acid produced by the lactobacilli in the sourdough leavening agent helps lower the dough's pH. This acidic environment creates a sterile environment for undesirable bacteria and molds, allowing yeast and lactobacilli to thrive. The longer the fermentation process of sourdough, the more complex the flavor profile produced, and thus the more distinctive the sour flavor made.

4.3 Yeast vs. Sourdough

NatureSingle-celled fungusMixture of yeast and bacteria
CompositionOnly yeast cellsMixture of yeast and bacteria
Fermentation speedFastSlow
FlavorNeutral, mild flavorTangy, complex flavor
UsesQuick-rise recipesSlow-rise, sourdough breads
  • Nature

Both yeast and sourdough are living microorganisms. However, yeast is a single-celled fungus, and sourdough is a mixture of bacteria and yeast that ferments naturally.

  • Fermentation speed

Yeast is a fast-reacting microorganism that produces carbon dioxide gas quickly so that it can ferment rapidly. In contrast, sourdough ferments much more slowly, often taking hours or days to develop a strong flavor and texture.

  • Flavor

Yeast produces a relatively neutral flavor in baked goods. When used in bread baking, yeast has a mild, slightly sweet flavor that complements the other ingredients in the bread.

On the other hand, Sourdough has a distinctive, strong flavor due to lactic and acetic acid. The longer the fermentation time, the more complex and sour the flavor becomes.

  • Uses

People commonly use yeast in recipes that require rapid fermentation, such as bread, pizza dough, and rolls.

People typically use sourdoughs in recipes that require longer fermentation times and have a unique flavor profile, such as yeast bread.

4.4 Examples of Natural leavener

Yeast is used in cakes, pizza crusts, cookies, pastries, and other foods. And because yeast converts sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide during fermentation, it is also used to produce alcoholic beverages.

Sourdough is mainly used to produce sourdough bread because of its unique flavor. It is also used in other baked goods, such as pancakes, waffles, and cookies, to add a stinky flavor. Some people also use it to make sourdough drinks such as kefir and kombucha.

5.  Physical Leavening Agents

5.1 Air and steam

Air and steam are two other factors that cause baked goods to rise. When mixing ingredients such as butter, sugar, and eggs, people incorporate air into the mixture. During baking, this air expands and helps the dough or batter to rise. On the other hand, the moisture in the dough or batter evaporates during baking, creating steam. As the steam rises, it lifts the dough or batter, helping it to increase further.

5.2 How they work?

Air is added to the batter or dough during the mixing process, and when the mixture is heated, the air expands and creates tiny air pockets, resulting in a light and fluffy texture. This process is known as mechanical rising.

On the other hand, steam is created when water or other liquids evaporate during the baking process. As the liquid evaporates, it becomes steam and expands, forming small pockets in the dough or batter. This process is known as steam fermentation.

Both air and steam promote fermentation in baked goods. However, they are not reliable leavening agents by themselves. They work best with other leavening agents, such as baking powder or yeast.

6.  How to choose the right leavening agent?

The type of baking agent you choose can affect the texture and flavor of your baked goods. With so many choices of bulking agents, it can be challenging to determine which is best for your recipe. Below, we will provide some factors to consider when choosing a bulking agent and helpful tips based on our experience with our customers during the selling process to ensure it helps your business.

6.1 Factors to consider

  1. Recipe: The type of leavening agent you choose should match your recipe. For example, you can't use baking powder if the recipe calls for yeast.
  2. Desired texture: Consider the surface you want to achieve. A chemical foamer-like baking powder is probably best for a light, fluffy texture. A natural starter like sourdough may be a better choice if you want a chewy texture.
  3. Fermentation time: Consider the amount of time you have available for fermentation. Chemical starter works quickly, while natural starter takes more time to ferment.
  4. Flavor: Fermenters can affect the flavor of your baked goods. Some people like the foul taste of sourdough, while others prefer the neutral taste of the baking powder.
  5. Allergies or dietary restrictions: Some baking agents contain ingredients that may trigger allergies or dietary restrictions. For example, the baking powder may contain corn starch, which may not be suitable for people allergic to corn.

6.2 Specific applicability

Different types of baked goods require bulking agents to achieve optimal results.

Yeast is often used in bread to create a light texture, while baking powder and baking soda are often used in cakes, cookies, and muffins to provide a more delicate texture.

Baking powder is a good choice when making quick bread or pancakes because it reacts with the moisture in the batter and the heat of the grill or oven to make it rise quickly. On the other hand, cakes and muffins usually require a more gentle rise, which can be achieved by combining baking soda with an acid such as buttermilk or vinegar.

For pastries and other delicate baked goods, whipped egg whites are often used to add air and provide lift. Steam is also an essential factor in certain baked goods, such as puff pastry, which relies on the expansion of steam to create a light texture.

7.  Tips for Using Leavening Agents

Bulking agents are an essential ingredient in baking that can make or break a recipe. Knowing how to use them correctly can help you get the perfect texture and flavor in your baked goods.

7.1 How to activate different types of leavening agents

  1. Baking powder

Mix the baking powder with a liquid such as water, milk, or egg to activate it. It will trigger a chemical reaction that produces carbon dioxide gas, which causes the batter or dough to expand. And be sure to use fresh baking powder, as old or expired baking powder may not activate properly and may result in flat, dense baked goods.

  • Baking soda

To activate baking soda, you need an acidic ingredient such as buttermilk, yogurt, vinegar, or lemon juice. When mixed with acid, baking soda reacts chemically to produce carbon dioxide gas, which helps baked goods rise.

3. Yeast

To activate the yeast, mix it with warm water (or other liquid) and a source of sugar (such as honey or granulated sugar). The water temperature should be between 105°F and 110°F (40°C-43°C) to activate the yeast, but not so hot that it kills the yeast. Sugar provides food for the yeast and helps it to reproduce and grow. Mix the yeast, warm water, and sugar and let sit for 5-10 minutes until the yeast becomes foamy and begins to give off a slightly sweet yeast aroma. This indicates that the yeast is active and ready for use. It is essential to use activated yeast immediately as its effectiveness will decline after about 30 minutes.

7.2 Proper measuring techniques

When using leavening agents in baking, proper measurement techniques are critical.     

  • Baking soda

As a general rule of thumb, recipes can use 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda per cup of flour. However, it also varies depending on the acidity of the other ingredients. Too much baking soda can produce a metallic taste in the final product.

  • Baking powder

First, mix the flour to be made at a rate of 2-3% baking powder (adding too much baking powder can cause the food to taste bitter), then knead or stir in a moderate amount of warm or cold water to give it some time to ferment.

  • Yeast

Active dry yeast is the most common type of yeast used in baking. For most recipes, you will need 1 packet (2 1/4 teaspoons) of active dry yeast for every 3-4 cups of flour.

Instant yeast is more potent than active dry yeast and requires less yeast. You will need 1 teaspoon of instant yeast for most foods per 3-4 cups of flour.

8.  Fermentation problems and solutions

8.1 Common issues

The followings are some of the most common problems and their possible causes.

  1. Flat baked goods. If your baked goods come out flat, it may be due to an expired or inactive leavening agent, overmixing the batter, or not correctly preheating the oven.
  2. Rough baked goods. If your baked goods become hard and rubbery, it may be because you have made too much dough or batter, used too much flour, or baked at too high a temperature.
  3. Uneven rise. Unevenly mixed leavening agents or overloaded baking pans can cause uneven rising. Make sure to mix well and distribute the batter evenly in the pan.
  4. Dented center. If the center of your baked goods sinks, it may be because you opened the oven door too early, didn't bake long enough, or used too much leavening agent.
  5. Bitter taste. If your baked goods taste bitter, it may be due to using too much baking powder or baking soda.

To avoid these common problems, it's essential to follow recipe instructions carefully, measure your ingredients accurately, and use fresh leavening agents.

8.2 Solution

Check expiration dates frequently: Expired leavening agents can lose effectiveness and lead to poor results in your baked goods. Make sure you use fresh ingredients.

  1. Measure accurately: Using too much or too little leavening agent can lead to problems such as flat or dense baked goods. Use proper measuring techniques; if unsure, use a kitchen scale to measure by weight.
  2. Follow recipe instructions: Each recipe has specific instructions regarding leavening agents. Follow them carefully to ensure the best results.
  3. Allow enough time for fermentation: Depending on the leavening agent you are using, you may need to allow enough time for your dough or batter to ferment. Follow the instructions in the recipe regarding fermentation and rising time.
  4. Store leavening agents properly: Some leavening agents, such as yeast, must be stored in the refrigerator or freezer to maintain their effectiveness. Follow the instructions on the package for proper storage.
  5. Don't overmix: Overmixing can cause too much air to be released from the batter, resulting in less soft and less puffy baked goods.

In conclusion, leavening agents play a vital role in baking by adding air or steam to create light and fluffy baked goods. Chemical leavening agents such as baking powder and baking soda, as well as natural leavening agents such as yeast and sourdough, all have unique properties that work best for different types of baked goods. Proper measurement techniques and activation of yeast are essential for successful baking. As a food additive supplier, we recognize the importance of providing high-quality leavening agents to help our customers achieve the best results in their business.

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