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Quick breads (chemically leavened) were not developed until the end of the 18th century. Up until that time, to make light baked goods, you had to beat air into the dough with eggs or egg whites, or by using yeast (or beer).
     These 'quick breads' originated in America, where pearlash (made from wood ash) was discovered. It produces carbon dioxide gas in dough. In ‘American Cookery’ (1796 - the first American cook book) Amelia Simmons published recipes using pearlash, and we exported some 8,000 tons to Europe in 1792. Saleratus was used later.
See below for more details.

NOTE: I have shortened and changed the above entry, thanks to some additional information sent to me by Linda Trent, below.
Susan L. Hughes, editor of the Citizens’ Companion (Camp Chase Publishing) and Linda Trent have both graciously given permission for me to publish the information here.

March 1, 2003
Hi Chef James,
I did an article for the Citizens' Companion (American Civil War civilian magazine) on the Rise of Chemical Leavening in the 19th century. [April/May 1997 issue]
My research has shown that there was a definite difference between the two substances [pearlash and saleratus].  Pearlash, for example:

  • Pearlash:  "A somewhat impure carbonate of potassa, obtained by calcining potashes upon a reverberatory hearth."
    Webster, Noah, LL.D., *An American Dictionary of the English Language.*  Springfield, Mass.: George and Charles Merriam, 1853.
  • Pearlash... "refined potash."
    Webster, Noah, LL.D.  *A High School Dictionary of the English Language.*  Springfield, Mass: G & C  Merriam & Co., 1868.
  • Pearlash "This is the crude potassium carbonate, called, when purified by recrystalization, pearlash."
    The Oxford English DIctionary, Second Edition.  Vol. XIV.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Saleratus was originally potassium bicarbonate, and began to replace the pearlash in cookbooks in the early 1850's.  As sodium bicarbonate (soda)  became more common and the use of potassium bicarbonate was discontinued, a few people continued to call soda 'saleratus.' 

  • By 1878, the saleratus "now generally sold is bicarbonate of soda." Oliver, Sandra L., ed. "Joy of Historical Cooking" pt. 2 Food History News, Vol. IV #3, Winter 1992, p.2.
  • "Sal aeratus--see Bicarbonate of Potash."
    Imray Keith, MD.  *A Popular Cyclopedia of Modern Domestic Medicine.*  NY: Gates, Stedman and Company, 1850. p. 839.
  • Saleratus... “A bicarbonate of potash, used in cookery. Webster, Noah, LL.D.  *A High School Dictionary of the English Language.  Springfield, Mass: G & C  Merriam & Co., 1868.
  • Saleratus (Potassa Bicarbonas)”
    Pierce, R.V. MD.  *The People's Common Sense Medical Advisor.*  Buffalo:  The World's Dipensary Printing Office and Bindery, 1895. (originally published 1875) p. 309.

I used 13 cookbooks published between 1796 and 1861 and a cookbook from 1880 and one from 1884.  My findings were that prior to the 1830s pearlash was most frequently found only in gingerbread, but by 1833 it was found in numerous other receipts as well.
Saleratus began to replace the use of pearlash by the early 1850's.  Showing 43 receipts in Mrs. Chadwick's ‘Home Cookery’ NY: Crosby, Nichols, and Company, 1853.  To Pearlash's 2 receipts.
Soda or sodium bicarbonate showed up minimally prior to 1861, but it was in 1861 that it began to take center stage with 59 receipts calling for its use and another 27 for soda's use with tartar.  My 1861 source is a reprint of Mrs. Haskell's ‘The Housekeeper's Encyclopedia...’ NY: D. Appleton and Company, 1861.
Baking powder was just starting to make its appearance in 1880 with 4 receipts from the ‘Buckeye Cookery.

Linda Trent




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