Before baking powder, there were woods

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In the days before baking powder, old English recipes called for hartshorn, which begs the question, “What is a deer?” According to Atlas Obscura, “hart” is an Old British term for stag or buck deer. It was once a tradition, after a dinner of game, for cooks to heat and pulverize the deer’s antlers to form a powder that they could add to their baked goods. It served the same purpose as baking powder, but the chemistry behind it was a bit different.

When deer horn powder is hydrated and heated, it releases carbon dioxide and ammonium gas, producing the rising effect desired by bakers. The obvious problem here is that ammonium has a notoriously bad smell, as anyone who’s ever cleaned a cat’s litter box will know, and while most of it dissipated in the oven, Atlas Obscura notes that the aroma couldn’t really be escaped.

Eventually hartshorn was replaced with a synthetic substitute called ammonium bicarbonate, also known as ammonium carbonate, per Cook’s Illustrated. This was also used as the base for many scent salts, according to the Los Angeles Times, indicating that aroma was still an issue. Baking powder has inevitably taken over the baking world, surely helped by its non-trivial smell, but you can still buy ammonium bicarbonate. According to Cook’s Illustrated, it produces a lighter, crispier end product than baking powder, but it’s only useful for thin items like cookies or crackers. Anything bigger, the ammonium will not completely dissipate.

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