Category Archives: FOOD FACTS

A Chemistry Lesson! Of Baking Powder, Baking Soda, and Why & How They’re Different

It’s one of those things so many people who bake wonder about, and I’ve always done too, yet never gotten around to trying to figure it out.  Until this afternoon, when I decided I REALLY needed to get a hang of this (and since I’ve taken the day off work, and so wanted to do more  than just catch up with work e-mails after a visit to the doc).
So I googled “What is baking powder made of”, and found some really informative stuff which answers some of the most common questions about baking powder and baking soda – can they be used interchangeably?, is it okay to mix the batter and leave it for a while before baking?, why does stuff baked with baking soda sometimes end up with a slightly metallic taste? and so on.

And if you’re really looking for inspiration, there are even recipes for making one’s own baking powder, to avoid the aluminum present in many commercial brands. Now there’s an idea!

I began with this one- by far the most detailed article I found on the subject – here, on, which  explains that baking soda is  sodium bicarbonate, a chemical with a basic (high) pH.  When baking soda is mixed with an acid (low pH), the two instantly react to produce carbon dioxide (CO2) gas.   So if baking soda alone is added to a recipe, there must also be a complimentary acidic ingredient such as buttermilk, citrus juice, or cream of tartar in order to produce CO2. Ideally, the amount of acid present in the recipe is balanced to perfectly neutralize the amount of base (baking soda) added. It is in case of a lack of this balance , says this second article, here,  that the food ends up with a metallic taste. However, this balance is hard to guarantee, the first article explains, since food acids from natural products can vary based on growing, storage, and manufacturing conditions. So, subtly different results might be seen at different times of year, by using an older lemon for example.

The first article also explains in wonderful detail how baking soda enhances browning, because of the Maillard reaction, and that swapping baking soda for baking powder “…WILL impact your results, even if it’s subtle.” I for one, am kinda convinced after this that the only thing to do, if you like to bake, is to keep enough stock of both so as not to run out of either and thus not to have to consider this substitution.

Of baking powder, the first article says “  is like baking soda’s more sophisticated big sister. Whereas baking soda is made up only of sodium bicarbonate, baking powder contains both sodium bicarbonate and the acids needed to react with it.” The article also explains why many commercial brands of baking soda contain two acids – one, a fast-acting acid that releases a small burst of CO2 to give the batter body before cooking begins, and a second acid that becomes more soluble at higher temperatures, so  it begins to dissolve and produce CO2 during the actual cooking. It is this second acid-base reaction  that accounts for the lion’s share of CO2 produced by baking powder and results in a fluffy cake, since the late-stage CO2 produced has less time to escape before the batter sets.

And finally, a recipe for baking powder, if you want to skip the aluminum that’s present in the commercial versions (in the form of sodium aluminum sulfate) -there’s one on the good old beeb’s Good Food site, here, where I’ve found many a great recipe over the years (including a super recipe for the very southern Indian sundal). And if you love a chemistry equation, get your recipe here !

Now that’s what I call a productive afternoon 🙂 Mystery, solved.

Kuzhi Paniyaram

So pleased to have begun the new year with this new dish in my breakfast and  lunch-box repertoire !

For brunch today I made paniyaram (more correctly, Kuzhi Paniyaram, which is the formal name of this dish in Tamilnadu), a sort of idli but one that is  different to the latter in three or four  chief ways. The former are much smaller in size; are cooked by stove-top baking instead of by steaming -as idlis are; and they have a lot more flavor because of the addition of a variety of things – grated ginger, a tempering with mustard seeds and curry leaves, and sautéed onions – to regular idli batter. Of course, the shapes are quite different too. Paniarams look quite like muffins, unlike the distinctive, flying saucer-like shape of idlis.


I re-discovered paniyaram at breakfast one day during our recent trip to Nasik,  and was glad to see that Noor and Shri seemed to like them quite a bit. In fact both the girls said they knew these from their friends’ lunch boxes. So I wasted no time in picking up a paniyaram pan on my first trip to Dorabjee after we got back, so pleased was I to find another possibility for a healthy  snack!

Paniyarams are so simple to make too. Here’s how I made them this morning, after browsing through some recipes I found online –

Masala Kuzhi Paniaram
(makes about 18)

14-16 tablespoons of idli batter (of a cake-batter-like consistency, and to which enough salt has been added already)
3/4 teaspoon of freshly grated ginger
2 quite small onions, finely chopped
2 teaspoons of skinless urad daal
1 tablespoon of finely chopped coriander leaves
1 tablespoon of sunflower oil, for tempering
1 teaspoon of mustard seeds
a few finely chopped curry leaves
1 or 2 finely chopped green chillies (optional but will add a great zing)
some oil to coat the holes in the paniaram pan

In a small pan, heat the oil and add the mustard seeds. When these begin to splutter, add the daal and as its grains start to turn pink, add the onion and sauté till the daal is a golden brown and the onions are soft. Add this mixture, the ginger and the coriander  to the batter and mix everything well.

Heat the paniyaram pan over medium heat, after drizzling just a little oil (2-3 drops will do) in to each indentation so that it’s sides are coated. Now add a tablespoon (and perhaps a little more, depending on the size of the indentations) of batter to each slot in the pan and then cover the pan to allow the batter to cook. Each paniyaram will rise like a cupcake as it happens. When the sides start to look done (this will take just a few minutes) – tip out one or two of these little beauties to check for a slightly crispy, golden color all over the sides at this point – flip over each one to cook the other side till it is a very light golden color too.

Et voila. In just a few, un-messy minutes- for I LOVE how easily these close cousins to the idli come out of the cooking pan – you have the makings of a great breakfast. Some piping hot sambhaar and a tangy coconut chutney – and it’s good to go !

Interesting trivia that I gathered on this one from googling for the recipe – the pan used for these little idlis is of the exact same kind that they use in Denmark for a particular kind of pancake. Because these pancakes were traditionally made with bits of apple, the pan is called an “ebleskiver” (Danish for apple slices) pan. So basically you could make paniyarams anywhere in the world, as long as you’ve bought yourself an ebeleskiver pan ! Really neat, I thought, this serendipitous sameness of cooking forms/gizmos in two parts of the world so distant and different from each other.

Vegan-and healthy-substitutes for common dairy products

When I mentioned to Ingrid last week that I had been looking for vegan/non-dairy versions of some Indian desserts because one of the women coming to the lunch at Jenny’s next week (for which I’ll do the catering) is lactose-intolerant, she loaned me a couple of her books on the subject.

Browsing though those books has been so much fun – the writers of each have a very droll style – as well as being informative. I have in fact often wondered, especially after tasting in recent months the delicious and all-vegan cupcakes that Ingrid makes, whether I ought to substitute ingredients like egg and butter with healthier alternatives when I bake, at least some of the time. But so far my efforts to bake healthier cakes were limited to using wholewheat flour instead of the bleached sort, and cane sugar instead of white sugar.

So it all came together nicely when the lunch next week provided me the impetus to foray in to vegan cooking.

Here are some alternatives for common dairy products, as suggested by Tanya Barnard and Sarah Kramer, the authors of “How it all Vegan” –

For 1 egg – they suggest using instead 1/2  a banana or 3 tablespoons of applesauce or 3 tablespoons of flaxseed paste (should be like a thick milkshake; to make: blend 1 part seeds – first crushed to a mealy texture – with three parts water). One more substitute that caught my eye was a mixture of 1 tablespoon of psyllium husks and 2 tablespoons of water(the authors say that the longer the psyllium husk sits in water, the more egg-like it becomes). The former is what is commonly prescribed in India for constipation; how I hated this stuff, called “Isabgol” in India,  when I was a child !

Butter – can be replaced, they say, with applesauce, or nut butter (made from almonds, cashews or other nuts) or vegan butter (to make- blend 3/4 cup soft tofu, 2 tbsp olive oil, a pinch of salt and turmeric).

Milk– they suggest replacing the dairy kind with milk made from soy/rice/oats/coconut or almonds.
To make almond milk, blend 3/4 cup raw, peeled almonds (crushed beforehand in the blender to a mealy texture), 2 cups of water and 6 pitted dates. Though I’d skip the dates, I think, unless the milk is for adding to a bowl of cereal.

Coming up – Vegan gajar ka halwa made in almond milk, vegan cakes made with flaxseed paste and applesauce instead of egg and butter, and vegan crepes made with flaxseed paste and almond milk instead of eggs and regular milk.  From a nutrition point of view, they would be such winners, each of those substitutions, apart from the fact that they replace dairy products which are a source of  extra fat and cholesterol.

Say no to white bread, eat potatoes in moderation

I tend to be very anti-white bread because I view it as a zero-benefit food, since it is made of white flour which offers no significant nutrients.

This also makes it a high glycemic index food, like potatoes. The risk from these as well as other high GI foods – which raise the level of blood-sugar too quickly – is described here and here. Both stories profile a recently concluded study that links the consumption of high-glycemic carbohydrates to the increased risk of coronary disease in women.

The surprising thing was that the list of high GI-foods includes watermelon, which one might imagine is quite harmless, and brown rice, which one is always exhorted by most informed/medical opinion to choose over white rice.

Just goes to show that probably moderation is the key though with bread I believe it is best to skip the white variety altogether.

And the combination of bread and potatoes – which probably counts as double-trouble, in view of  the science- in bread rolls is what decided my mind against writing the recipe as I completed the post about this dish today morning !

The small bit of good news is that when I looked up “glycemic index” just now, I saw on the Wikipedia link that Basmati rice is listed under “medium” GI foods.

Phew !  That’s one less worry for an Indian kitchen !


We eat this so often – it is my favorite mix of salad greens – that I thought it merits a mention here.

According to sources such as wikipedia and wisegeek, Mesclun (“to mix” in the Provencal language of the south of France) is a mixture of young greens (i.e. harvested while they are young, for a great flavor)  and can include  dandelion leaves, sorrel, rocket or arugula, mache or lamb’s lettuce, other leafy lettuces, spinach, mustard, swiss chard, chicory, frisee and sometimes edible flowers such as rose petals and nasturtiums. The original mix apparently consisted of chervil,rocket, types of lettuce and endive mixed in equal amounts.

A delicate olive oil and lime juice dressing is all a Mesclun-based salad needs, I feel, so that the fresh flavors of the leaves are not subdued.

Peanut Butter-The Good and the Bad

The girls – and, I must confess, Shri and I too – have taken to peanut butter in a big way in recent months.  A spoon of it on a crepe, or a slice of bread -or just heaped on the spoon ! -makes for a very satisfying snack. The girls sometimes have a peanut butter sandwich for breakfast now, with a glass of milk.

Hence this post, as  I try to find out whether it is all good or whether there are things about it we need to know.

It seems that trans fats, which are part of the problem  in all processed foods, are the chief villain here too. The mostly fat-derived calories are not such an issue – though eating this food in moderation would therefore be a good idea – because the fat in peanuts is supposed to be the good sort.

From the sources I have looked at so far, it looks like switching to an organic variety should allow us to continue indulging – but only once in a while.

Getting to grips with Jowar/Bajra/Ragi

Neelam asked some weeks ago if I knew whether ragi flour is available here. That was the first time I actually looked for the French – or indeed the English – name of this flour since I have never cooked with it.

Turns out it’s called finger millet in English and eleusine cultivee, coracan or koracan in French.

She has also been trying to find out about jowar and bajra, two other very healthy grains that are popular in India but which I have no experience of.

While bajra is another variety of millet – pearl millet in English, millet perlé in French – ,

jowar, I believe, is a variety of a group of grasses/cereal crops called Sorghum

I believe millet is very rich in calcium and that’s the reason I remember Harshini used it a lot to make baby food for Kavana.

Now to start the search for these flours here. It would open up whole new possibilities for our daily bread, so to say !