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Baking Powder Experiment – Biscuits

In my previous article So Many Baking Powders… I examined the differences between the many baking powders which are available in your local grocery store, to help provide you with a greater understanding of how they differ, and give you some guidelines to determine how one might be preferable over another for a particular baking application. I also challenged you, my reader, to experiment with the different baking powder formulations to determine which was best for your specific baking project.

As a follow up to that article, I conducted an experiment in the Lukewarm Legumes Test Kitchen of available formulations of baking powders using a basic recipe for making biscuits utilizing baking powder as a leavening agent. The Baking Powders tested were: Argo, Calumet, Clabber Girl, Rumford, and a Homemade formulation. These are all of the major baking powder formulations available to the general consumer in grocery stores nationwide. The formulation of the store brand baking powder offered by my local grocery matches that of Calumet, which my grocer does not carry, and for which I made a special trip to a local “Epicurean” market to obtain.

Baking Powders


In conducting a controlled experiment, the goal of the methodology used is to eliminate all variables except those which are the subject of the experiment.

This experiment was conducted according to the following process, and to the best of my knowledge eliminated all variables except that which came from the addition of baking powders with different formulas:

1. All biscuits were made using the same recipe. The recipe used to conduct this experiment was the one which is included below.*

2. All biscuits were prepared simultaneously, in the same kitchen, using (other than the baking powder formulations) the same ingredients (from the same batch package), baked in the same oven, at the same temperature, and at the same time.

3. All biscuits were formed with the same cutter to ensure they were of uniform size when going into the oven.

4. All baking powders came from new, unexpired and unopened containers.

Mise En Place - Biscuits


Judging was performed by a panel of impartial individuals according to three categories of predetermined standards.

The predetermined standards used for judging the biscuits were as follows:

1. External Characteristics

a. Height

b. Weight

c. Spread

d. Crust

e. Color

2. Internal Characteristics

a. Color

b. Moisture

c. Fluffiness

d. Graininess

3. Flavorlevel of pleasantness

A copy of the judging form used in this experiment can be downloaded here.

Biscuits - Baking Powder Experiment

Judging was done by a panel of eight judges in the Lukewarm Legumes Test Kitchen and the biscuits were examined and tasted right after they came out of the oven; while they were still warm and fresh. Baking was done in three batches with separate formulations segregated and served in dishes marked numerically.

Judging results are as follows:

1. External Characteristics

a. Height – All biscuits before placing in the oven were 1/2 inch in height. The biscuit heights after baking were on average the following : Homemade 3/4″; ARGO 1″; Rumford 3/4; Clabber Girl 1″; and Calumet 1 1/4″.

b. Weight – Weight in proportion to size according to the judges were all average, or what was expected.

c. Spread – All biscuits started at 3″ diameter.  The Homemade, Rumford, and Calumet shrunk to 2 1/2 or 3/4. The ARGO and Clabber Girl remained at 3″ diameter.

d. Crust – All biscuits had a balance between crustiness and softness, except the Rumford which was deemed below standard.

e. Color – All  biscuits exhibited an external color which was to be expected.

2. Internal Characteristics

a. Color – All exhibited an internal color as was to be expected.

b. Moisture – All exhibited an internal moisture level as was to be expected.

c. Fluffiness – The Homemade Baking Powder ranked lower than the others for level of fluffiness.

d. Graininess – The Homemade Baking Powder ranked lower than the others for level of graininess.

3. Flavor – level of pleasantness

The judges by far preferred the flavor of the biscuits made with ARGO and Rumford. These are the formulations, other than the Homemade, which do not contain aluminum.


As was to be expected, the baking powders did not affect the characteristics of weight, moisture level, or appearance. These are the product of the other ingredients in the recipe. Also, the preparations other than the Homemade did not affect the texture (fluffiness or graininess) of the biscuits.

Where the different formulations did make a significant difference was in their leavening ability.  Here, the ARGO and Clabber Girl were the superior performers.  Also significant and unrelated to their ability to provide leavening, but important in their role as a biscuit ingredient, was flavor.  Clearly, the aluminum free formulations (ARGO and Rumford) won out over the Clabber Girl, Calumet and Homemade in the flavor category.  The judges felt overall the ARGO was the superior Baking Powder formulation in this test.




*Baking Powder Biscuits

2 c Flour, All Purpose
1 T Baking Powder**
1 t Salt
1/3 c Shortening, Vegetable
1 c Milk


In a medium mixing bowl, stir together flour, baking powder and salt. Using a pastry blender, cut in shortening till mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Make a well in center; add milk all at once. Using a fork, stir just till moistened.

On a lightly floured surface, knead dough just until the dough is nearly smooth.

Pat or lightly roll dough to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut dough with a 3 inch biscuit cutter, dipping the cutter into flour between cuts.

Place biscuits on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake in a 450° oven for 10 to 12 minutes or until golden. Serve warm.


**Baking Powders used and their formulations:
Argo – Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Sodium Bicarbonate, Corn Starch and Monocalcium Phosphate
Calumet – Baking Soda, Cornstarch, Sodium Aluminum Sulfate, Calcium Sulfate and Monocalcium Phosphate
Clabber Girl – Cornstarch, Sodium Bicarbonate, Sodium Aluminum Sulfate and Monocalcium Phosphate
Rumford – Monocalcium Phosphate, Sodium Bicarbonate and Cornstarch
Homemade – 2 parts Cream of Tarter [Potassium Bitartrate] to 1 part Baking Soda [Sodium Bicarbonate] mixture

So many baking powders…

Ah, baking powder, that essential ingredient in most of what are commonly known as quick breads, including: pancakes, biscuits, cakes, Clabber Girl Baking Powder muffins, cookies and pie crusts. A recent perusal of the baking isle at my local grocer turned up no less than four baking powder brands all with different chemical formulations. Some were labeled ‘double acting’ and some boasted of being ‘aluminum free.’

Of course, baking powders are not the only way to leaven breads without yeast: there is baking soda in combination with an acid ingredient, such as buttermilk or cream of tartar; steam from liquids in the batter; and the foam from whipped egg whites. But the introduction of baking powder into the mix to provide leavening is convenient, consistent, and simple.

Baking powder works by producing bubbles of carbon dioxide when the main ingredient(s), come into contact with an acid through the introduction of water. Most baking powders include an ingredient, such as corn starch, to absorb moisture and preserve Calumet Baking Powder the strength of the formula. Some baking powders are double acting meaning they contain two acids; one that reacts with the introduction of water, and one that reacts in the presence of heat after the batter has been placed in a hot oven for baking. This results with an end product that is lighter and fluffier than that made with a single acting baking powder. Not only too little, but too much baking powder can result in quick breads that do not rise as expected.

Three companies produce the majority of baking powders distributed to grocery stores in the U. S.: Clabber Girl Corporation; Kraft Foods; and a newcomer, ACH Food Companies, Inc., also the maker of ARGO Food Starch and Fleischmann’s Yeast. All of the major baking powders are double acting, but not all are the same or produce the same results.

As stated before, some acids react immediately with the introduction of water, and some react when heated in the oven, but not all react with equal intensity. Some react with varying degrees at different stages of the process: mixing, baking, and even the time between the two which is described by Shirley Corriher as “bench action.” Rumford Baking Powder

In Harold McGee’s book “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” he offers this comparison of the reaction times of leavening acids: Immediately during mixing – Cream of Tarter (Tartaric Acid) and Monocalcium Phosphate; Slow release after mixing – Sodium Aluminum Pyrophosphate; Slow Release and Heat Activated – Sodium Aluminum Sulfate; Heat-Activated, Early In Cooking – Sodium Aluminum Phosphate and Dimagnesium Phosphate; and Heat-Activated, Late In Cooking – Dicalcium Phosphate Dihydrate.

Shirley Corriher offers this chart comparison, which is also helpful.

Reaction Times of Leavening Acids During Cake Making

click on the chart to enlarge

It is extremely important to thoroughly mix chemical leaveners into the dry ingredients before the introduction of water. The introduction of water not only starts the reaction with some acids in the baking powder, but too much mixing can result in lessening the effects of carbon dioxide production in the batter through its dissipation from handling as well as produce an excess of gluten.

At this point I am reminded of a story by Alton Brown against handling biscuit dough too much, which is included in his book “I’m Argo Baking Powder Just Here For More Food” (pp. 6-7). For years he had tried to “clone the tender little jewels of goodness that came out of her (his grandmother’s) oven.” He tried everything from copying her recipe to checking the variables of her kitchen: elevation, weather, temperature, even the calibration of her oven, all to no avail. It wasn’t until he closely observed her preparing the biscuits that he realized what he had been missing. “I watched her remove her rings, slowly twisting them over her arthritic knuckles…a ritual she undertook whenever she thought she might get her hands dirty. Since her hands were always their stiffest in the morning she rarely made biscuits for breakfast because…hey, wait a minute! The very affliction that caused her so much pain was also the secret to her biscuits. Because she could barely bend her fingers she handled the dough without really kneading it at(sic) all. She simply patted it. This is a small detail, yes…but in the end it’s the detail that made all the difference in the world.”

So which baking powder to use? My answer – ‘it depends.’ One obvious option is to use an aluminum free formulation which, until ARGO, was essentially only Rumford. However, even though Rumford is labeled as ‘double acting’ you will see from the chart above that Monocalcium Phosphate is not as effective a double acting agent as some other choices because it releases 60% of its carbon dioxide during mixing leaving only 40% for during baking.  Davis Baking Powder

Additionally, all the major baking powders I investigated which are available in the U. S. are certified Kosher. So, to determine which one (or ones) are best for your kitchen, my advice to you is to experiment with the different formulations to see which produces the results you are looking for. I would also suggest you try different baking powder formulations for different products.  Please let me know your results.

Of course if you aren’t interested in experimenting, that’s fine too. You will be safe with just about whichever baking powder you choose as long as they are all of high quality. Just be sure to store them properly, in tightly sealed containers, and away from moisture.