Pearlash


Yes folks, don’t flip the pancakes so high they go up and out the chimney. I like the idea of putting nutmeg on the pancakes though. I’ll have to try that over spring break, maybe with a bit of cinnamon. Mm!

On another note, I noticed the ingredient pearlash, and looked it up to see what kind of leavening agent it was. I came across a very interesting history on the King Arthur flour website of early leavening agents when yeast wasn’t available, a frequent problem in early colonial America.

The main agents are salt of hartshorn, or ground up deer antlers, (how do you figure out deer antlers can serve as a leavening agent??), pearlash, which is a derivative of potash which is a derivative of lye which is a derivative of ash, which is of course a derivative of trees.(The last one’s a bit of a stretch.) And the third is plain old saleratus, or baking soda, which I didn’t include below, but you can click the link to read its history if you are so inclined.

Salt of hartshorn (Ammonium Carbonate).

Hartshorn is one of the oldest of “chemical” leavens. It was actually in use for many centuries before the predecessor of modern baking powder was developed in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The original hartshorn, as its name implies, was ground from deer antler and used primarily in Scandinavian countries. Today it is almost unknown although there is a chemical version of the original, better known as “baker’s ammonia,” available from King Arthur Flour – The Baker’s Catalogue.

A dough that contains hartshorn produces a strong smell of ammonia when it’s in the oven, but the ammonia dissipates completely during the cooking process leaving no aftertaste or odor. Its unique action makes extremely crisp cookies and crackers.

Pearlash (potassium Carbonate)

On this side of the Atlantic the early colonists were blessed with hardwood forests as far as the eye could see. Aside from being a logical building material and fuel, hardwoods provided another important resource, ashes. Ashes were a major export two hundred years ago, both to Canada and Britain. They were valuable for sweetening gardens and providing lye for making soap. They were also a source of potash and its derivative, pearlash, another creative leavening agent.

To make pearlash, you first have to make potash which itself is made from lye. To make lye, you pass water through a barrel of hardwood ashes over and over until an egg can float on the residue. (To make soap you boil this “lye water” with lard or other fat until it is thick, pour it into molds and harden it into cakes.) To make potash, you evaporate lye water until you have a solid.

Pearlash is a purified version of potash. It is an alkaline compound which will react with an acidic ingredient such as sour milk, buttermilk or molasses to produce carbon dioxide bubbles, the very same thing that yeast produces. Pearlash was used primarily in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but because of its bitter aftertaste, it not only did not replace yeast but was eventually replaced by “saleratus.”

 

Fascinating history.

(image via here, information via here.)

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