For want of baking powder

Today I learned what happens when you forget to add baking powder to biscuits. More accurately, maybe I learned to read the recipe more carefully. :/ I was merrily talking with my sister and trying to throw together some quick biscuits to go with our chicken curry (yeah, we have weird menu combinations sometimes). This recipe seemed like a good google-find, with final-product photos of light, fluffy, delicious biscuits. I mixed up the dough, kneaded, rolled it out, cut circles, and put them on the baking sheet. We popped them in the oven. Oddly, 13 minutes later, they were still flat. I figured I’d missed some sort of rising agent, but it took a more careful read to figure out what that was:

1/2 cup cold butter or margarine
2 1/4 c self rising soft wheat flour
1 1/4 c buttermilk (or whole milk with a tablespoon of lemon juice added)
flour for dusting
melted butter for brushing baked biscuits

Yeah, I’d read right over the “self-rising” part. Whoever heard of “self-rising” flour anyway? Not me! I’d skipped ahead to the recipe steps, which simply refer to “flour”. My post-mortem inspection also revealed this note, which I should have spotted the first time around:

To make your own self rising flour, simply add 1 1/2 tsp baking powder and 1/2 tsp salt for EACH cup of all purpose flour.

Oddly enough, I had noticed (and even commented on) the lack of salt in the recipe… but completely missed the lack of baking powder. Duh! What a stupid mistake! And here I had been all proud because I made risotto last night without a recipe (and with new ingredients I’d never tried) (and it was *good*!). The “biscuits” came out as little flat wafers that are basically inedible (especially if you were hoping for fluffy jam-platforms instead). I won’t even bother with a photo (too embarrassing). Well, next time I hope I’ll pay more attention to the recipe. Excuse me while I return to my self-flagellation.

2 of 4 people learned something from this entry.

  1. Terran said,

    March 4, 2009 at 1:45 am

    (Knew it already.)

    Ugh. Yeah, I agree. I basically hate self-rising flour. It’s such a scam. It’s both a cheat for recipe writers who don’t want to be specific (or for cooks who are afraid of mixing or something) and it limits you by forcing you into their version of leavening. You can’t control the leavening or the salt in your recipe anymore. You have to live in the subspace of baking spanned by SR flour, which leaves out lots of interesting stuff. I stay far away from the stuff myself.

    And I feel your pain. I just got stung by this myself the other day. For my birthday, we usually make a cake (because I love cake and I love baking and a birthday is a good excuse). For curiosity, we pulled a basic chocolate cake recipe out of one of our landlords’ cookbooks. Problem is that it called for SR flour as well, we didn’t have any, and I didn’t want to go get some just for this. So we wanted to hack it by building our own, as your recipe indicates.

    Now the problem is that, when you begin to look around on the net, you find that there are many recipes for SR flour. They all call for baking powder and salt, but they vary by amounts of each, from 1 tsp BP/cup flour to 1.5 tsp/cup.

    ?!?!? A 50% margin of error? That’s crazy! Sure, when you’re making a stew, you can be very sloppy about amounts. But not when you’re baking. Chemistry is much more precise than that. How the hell can you be sure of replicating a given recipe with that kind of uncertainty?

    To compound things, the recipe we had called for both SR flour and baking powder! Talk about overkill. Plus, of course, being in a British kitchen, our measuring instruments were primarily weight rather than volume anyway.

    So we cobbled it together and made our best guesses on amounts. In the end, our problem was that our cake rose too much rather than too little. It was so light and fluffy that it had essentially no structure — it crumbled when you tried to cut it, or even to move it during assembly. Plus, it came out tasting a tad bit salty or baking-powdery or something. Overall it was still tasty, but there was definitely a slightly odd overtone to it.

    Anyway, yes, I agree that SR flour is the bane of real baking and recipes based on it are a pain in the ass. But, take heart. All learning involves mistakes, and every chef has produced a few culinary disasters. I bet your next batch of biscuits will be divine. :-)

  2. wkiri said,

    March 4, 2009 at 7:28 am

    (Learned something new!)

    Thanks for sharing! I hadn’t gotten as far as looking for other self-rising flour recipes — 50% variation is totally bizarre, for something as sensitive to chemistry (and stoichiometry) as baking. I’m sorry to hear about your cake frustration. Do you recall how much you ended up using (which was a bit too much)?

    I’m going to try to talk my sister into tackling the biscuits again, this time with some baking powder. (I’m tempted to split it into several smaller batches and do each one with different amounts of baking powder, as an experiment. But whenever I say things like this, I get the strangest looks from her.)

  3. Jim in PA said,

    March 4, 2009 at 8:48 am

    (Learned something new!)

    I smell a paper on OOB: Object Oriented Baking. This disaster could clear have been prevented by a more rigorous ingredient subtyping system – ideally something supporting multiple inheritance. A better recipe compiler would have checked that your flour implemented the “self-rising” interface as well as the “flour” interface.

  4. Judson said,

    March 4, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    (Knew it already.)

    On the flip side, a little polyurethane and you’ll have some really unique coasters.

    (@Jim: but that assumes the interpreter actually checks values against their declared types, which was the problem here. Hard to get type-safety when the baker ignores your types.)

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