Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Early Chemical Leavening Agents and a Recipe for Saleratus Cake

Saleratus Cake

About Saleratus
Saleratus (potassium bicarbonate) is a chemical leavening agent similar to baking soda (sodium bicarbonate).  Sal Aeratus or Saleratus literally translates as “aerated salt.” Chemical leavening agents to lighten breads and cakes were not popular in America until the 19th century, emerging in the very late 18th century. The first popular chemical substance added to lighten breads or cakes was potash, an unrefined form of saleratus made of potassium carbonate.  Potash, also called pearlash, was obtained by leaching water through wood ashes, or from burned pea and bean stalks, certain ferns, or seaweed.[1]  Potash/Pearlash, was the only real chemical leavening agent available in the 18th century (except for ammonium carbonate used for very limited baking purposes due to its high rate of evaporation and stench while baking).

Both saleratus and baking soda were actually developed years before they were used in cooking applications. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, saleratus as a culinary product dates back to 1837 when Sylvester Graham mentioned it in his Treatise on Bread MakingHowever, evidence dates culinary saleratus back to at least as early as the 1820s, and possibly earlier. Here are some examples:
  • 1814: The earliest possible reference to saleratus I could find is from a rootsweb.com description of pioneer women of Madison, Ohio. A woman named, Mrs. Elisha Wood (Polly Doty), evidently arrived in Madison in 1814, “when saleratus was made by burning cobs in an outdoor oven . . . ” (it is possible they were making the less refined potash though).[2] 
  • 1820s: 
    • Research into store account books from the 1820s and 1830s in New England, conducted by Old Sturbridge Village indicates that saleratus was sold for household use in very small quantities.[3]
    • 1828: Eliza Leslie’s 1828 edition of Seventy-Five Sweetmeats for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, contains a recipe for Lafayette Gingerbread that calls for pearl-ash dissolved in milk to lighten the cake[4]; however, the 1832 edition suggests that sal-aeratus may be substituted for pearl-ash in the Lafayette Gingerbread recipe.[5]
  • 1830s: 
    • An early account of saleratus comes from an advertisement in the November, 8, 1830 edition of Baltimore’s American and Commercial Daily Advertiser. The advertisement reads:  “Sal’ eratus – 20 boxes best quality just received and for sale by W. Rhoads, 12 Bowley’s Wharf.”  
    • Lydia Marie Child’s 1830 cookbook, The Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy,  has a recipe for Indian Cakes that requires, “a handful of saleratus.”[6]   
    • Eliza Leslie also suggested using sal-aeratus in the 1832 edition for a recipe for Gingerbread Nuts
    • Old Sturbridge Village documents also reveal that an 1836 Treasurer’s Report from the Shrewsbury Female Charitable Society lists saleratus as an item to be donated to a Mrs. Carey.[7]  
Tracking the culinary application of saleratus can be further confounded by the confusing tendency for people of the time to use the words “saleratus” and “soda” interchangeably!  For example, Dwight's Saleratus, made with sodium bicarbonate not potassium bicarbonate, was introduced in 1847![8] In any event, the Saleratus Cake recipe was clearly written in the time period (1840s) in which its use can be documented with evidence.

How to Use Saleratus
Both saleratus and baking soda are alkaline substances that can be easily substituted for each other, measure to measure. In addition, both require an acid in the recipe to activate the leavening process. Consequently, sour milk, lemons, vinegar, and eventually cream of tartar (bitartrate of potassium) and other acidic substances were used in recipes with these “sodas.” You will notice that the original recipe lists "milk" as the ingredient, not sour milk. Early recipe writers would have just assumed you understood that the milk needed to be sour.
Importantly, recipes in which saleratus is used require that it be mixed with water or milk before being added to the recipe to reduce its bitterness.  Notice that the original recipe contains a relatively small amount of saleratus compared to the amount of baking soda you would normally see in a cake.  For the amount of flour in this cake, the measure of baking soda would normally be around 3/4 teaspoon as opposed to 1/2 teaspoon as it is written.  This may have something to do with the potentially bad aftertaste too much saleratus can impart in the finished product.  I am assuming that because baking soda doesn't give off the same aftertaste it could be used in slightly greater quantities.

The Recipe: Saleratus Cake
Source: The Sarah D. Griffen, Clyde Griffen, and Margaret Thibault Collection of Goldsborough Family Papers, Maryland State Archives, Baltimore, 1845 (MSA.SC 2085-0-13-1) 

1 1/2 pounds of flour, 1 1/4 pounds sugar, 3/4 of butter—4 eggs—1 pt milk, 1 teaspoon saleratus, a glass of brandy, a tablespoonful of mixed spices, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, a few cloves, 2 lbs of fruit, the raisins must be cut small.

Modern Recipe Adaptation 
(This recipe makes half the amount of the original recipe.)


  • 2 2/3 Cups Flour, Divided (make sure your flour is whisked until it is light)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Ceylon Cinnamon
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Nutmeg
  • 1/4 Teaspoon Mace
  • 1/4 Teaspoon Cloves
  • 1 Pound Dried Fruit (golden raisins, Zante currants, raisins)
  • 6 Ounces Butter (1 1/2 sticks) Softened
  • 1 1/3 Cup Granulated Sugar
  • 2 Eggs
  • 1 Cup Sour Milk, Divided - (this can be cultured buttermilk or just 1 cup milk with 1 tablespoon white vinegar or lemon juice)
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Saleratus (or baking soda)
  • 1/4 Cup Brandy

  1. Preheat the oven to 375ยบ F.
  2. Grease a cake mould such as a tube pan or a bundt pan.  Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and place the prepared cake pan on top of it.
  3. In a medium sized bowl, mix together 2 1/2 cups of the flour with the spices and set aside.  If you are using baking soda instead of saleratus, you can whisk it into the flour and skip steps 6 and 7.
  4. Mix the remaining 1/4 cup flour with the dried fruit in another medium sized bowl and set aside.
  5. Mix together the butter and sugar with a wooden spoon or an electric mixer.  Add the eggs, 3/4 cup of the milk, and the brandy.  Mix until well blended.
  6. In a small bowl, whisk the saleratus into the remaining 1/4 cup of milk.  
  7. Add the saleratus/milk mixture to the batter and mix together until well-blended.
  8. Add the flour.  Mix until well blended but do not over mix the batter.
  9. Add the flour-coated dried fruit and mix until evenly distributed.
  10. Spoon into the prepared cake pan. Bake for 50 minutes or until a knife inserted comes out clean.
  11. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes.
  12. Remove cake from baking pan and dust with powdered sugar while still warm.

This cake is filled with fruit!

1.  Food History News, Vol. IV, No. 2 
2.  http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~ohlake/history/mpwmadis.html
3.  Food History News, Vol, IV, No. 2, p. 4
4.  Leslie, Eliza. Seventy-Five Sweetmeats for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, 1828 ed., p.67
5.  Leslie, Eliza, Seventy-Five Sweetmeats for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, 1832 ed., p.?
6.  Child, Lydia Marie, The Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy, 1830 ed.
7.  Food History News., Vol. IV, No. 2., p. 2.
8.  http://www.joepastry.com/2011/saleratus-to-soda/

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.