January 23, 2016

Baking With Wood Ash? (Part 3: The Results!)

When my ash water/vinegar experiments were a bust (see Part 2), I felt like I was at a crossroads. I could continue researching the chemistry of the process, or I could get on with my baking experiments. I opted to do some baking!

In preparing the ash water for baking I made a few changes from the way I did my test batches. This time I increased the amount of ashes to make a 1:1 solution of equal parts hardwood ashes and water. Also, I followed Farmer Liz's and Jake's suggestions to use hot water. According to The Caveman Chemist, hot water should extract about 225% more potassium carbonate from the ashes (which is what causes the leavening action by reacting with the acid to make carbon dioxide bubbles). I let the solution sit overnight and then strained out the ashes the following morning.

For the baking part of my experiment I decided to make drop biscuits. I used one of my standard recipes but quartered the amounts. My base recipe was
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/8 cup (2 tbsp) palm shortening
  • 1/4 cup (4 tbsp) milk
  • 1/2 tsp vinegar
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda

I used white flour and white vinegar in all the recipes, I only changed the baking soda in my experimental samples (details below). I made four batches with four biscuits each and baked them in my toaster oven at 425°F (218°C) for 8-10 minutes. Here's how they looked after baking.

Samples #1-4 - top (above) and side view (below)
From left: base recipe (#1) with 1/4 tsp baking soda and 1/2 tsp vinegar 
Next (#2): I replaced 2 tbsp milk with 2 tbsp ash water plus 1/2 tsp vinegar 
3rd: replaced milk completely with 1/4 cup ash water plus 1/2 tsp vinegar 
Right (#4): 1 tsp dry sifted wood ash with 1/2 tsp vinegar

Next I broke a sample of each biscuit open.

They are in the same order as the above caption. 

Obviously the baking soda and vinegar biscuit on the left rose the best. #2 (2nd from left) with 2 tbsp ash water rose well, but 4 tbsp (#3) less so. The same was true for the dry ash (#4 on the right), however, they both still rose! Since I added more ash water to batch #3, I might have suspected a higher rise. What I think is that it would have benefited from more acid (vinegar) and I would have gotten a better rise. Ditto for the dry ash biscuit on the left - more vinegar to make more carbon dioxide bubbles. If I were to continue experimenting, that would be my next step.

When they were cool, I sliced them open. This gives us a better idea of texture and color.

Left: baking soda biscuit. Right: #2, the 2 tbsp ash water biscuit.

Left: #3, the 4 tbsp ash water biscuit. Right: #4, the dry wood ash biscuit.

One thing I noticed immediately was that all three batches with wood ash were not completely dry inside. In other words, they could have baked a little longer.

Color? I expected the dry ash biscuit to be more grayish than it turned out, but I don't find the color objectionable at all. What do you think?

How did they taste? [Drumroll................] They tasted like biscuits. No odd flavor or bitter or soapy aftertaste, which apparently is a problem when baking with pearlash (which is more concentrated because it is purified and refined). Batch #3, in which the milk was replaced with ash water, actually had a pretzel flavor. Pretzels are dipped in lye water before baking to give them their characteristic shiny pretzel brown (known as the Maillard reaction), but apparently the lye water adds a characteristic pretzel flavor as well. If you take a second look at the photo of #3 above, you can see that the surface of that biscuit is somewhat shiny like a pretzel.

My next test was to have Dan try them. He liked them too!

So, back to the original question. Can hard wood ash be used in place of baking soda for baking quick breads? Absolutely. The ash water method took a little advance preparation and had less impact of biscuit color, but in a pinch hardwood ash could be used too, although I would recommend a very fine sieve to prevent random grittiness.

Anyone game? If you do try making your own ash water, keep in mind that results can vary because the chemical composition of hardwood ash varies according to wood type and burning temperature. I would recommend a small test baking with each new batch of hardwood ash.

Lastly, here are links for part of my bibliography plus some other related stuff:

Now available: How To Bake Without Baking Powder: modern and historical alternatives for light and tasty baked goods. Includes 54 non-baking powder recipes. Click here for chapter titles and where to buy.

© Jan. 2016 by Leigh at 

27 comments:

  1. Such a great experiment, I've read about these type of things but rarely do the people doing them ever try out what they're talking about.
    Good alternative that you never know we might have to use one day.

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    1. Thanks Kev! I've noticed that too, that there is a lot of information out there that seems to be ideas and assumptions without experience. It isn't always offtrack, but sometimes it is. I think if more of us were willing to test some of these ideas ourselves, or at least go back to source materials, there would be less misinformation on the internet.

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  2. Fascinating reading your wood ash experiments, There has been a program on over here called Victorian Bakers some of the stuff they would add to bread was unbelievable, I want to try some with brewers yeast a waste product from beer.

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    1. Dawn, yeast from brewing, yes! The foam that is on the top of the brew is called "barm," and the dregs of the keg are called "emptings" (or emptins or emptyings). Both are rich in yeasts. I'm mentioning them in my upcoming How To Bake Without Baking Powder because I have colonial recipes using barm for cakes. But I also eventually plan to do a How To Bake Without Yeast and will definitely have to do some experimenting myself!

      I don't know if what we think of as "brewers yeast" is the same thing. In the US, brewers yeast is a health food supplement known as a rich source of vitamin B complex. Not sure if the yeasts are still viable in that product or not. I'll have to research that and also find out if I can get episodes of Victorian Bakers on my computer!

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  3. Another session of Homeschooling with Leigh! I absolutely LOVE how much I learn with you!! Thank you for this lesson. As I sit here with the wind howling around my house and the first real snow of the year falling, I know I will have some hardwood ash by the end of the day:)

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    1. Barb it was educational plus fun. :)

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  4. I'm so tickled that it turned out for you. I wouldn't mind pretzel biscuits at all! :D Something tells me that you probably won't do this unless you really have to though. ;) But good info to have.

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    1. Well, you know me, simplest and easiest is always best! That being said, I like knowing that I have alternatives. I plan to try all three wood ash recipes in a full-scale batch, and include the recipes in my eBook. I'll the one "Pretzel Biscuits"!

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  5. Thanks for doing all the legwork in this experiment. It doesn't really surprise me that wood ash didn't rise as much as baking soda. If it rose more, we might be having this same discussion on how to use baking soda right now. You have shown it to work and it does get tasteful results so if the world baking soda market ever goes up in smoke, I can still get my biscuit fix on Sunday!

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    1. Ed, it's been a lot of fun. I'm still digging on the chemistry side, which is fascinating. Baking soda is definitely the superior product, but I like knowing there are other options in an emergency.

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    2. I also wanted to mention that I think the rise could be improved with some experimentation. I just happened to get a result my first time around, but I'd like to see if I could do better by increasing the vinegar.

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  6. What fun. I just thought of something else as well. I think the term 'biscuit' used to mean more of a larger denser 'cracker' depending upon where one was geographically. That would go right along with what you discovered re. pretzels - yum. This has been fascinating. Thank you for going through the research, experiments, and sharing with us.

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    1. Yes, you're right about terminology, it changes and it varies all over the world. I think American biscuits would be called "scones" in the UK, while we would call their biscuits "crackers." I was very relieved that all were so tasty, and would like to work on that pretzel biscuit recipe a little more.

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  7. Great research and very interesting results, Leigh. There are many of us that have plenty of wood ashes, I just wouldn't have thought of eating them.... (-: I have given thought to making lye from them for soap, though. Fern

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    1. I always though of wood ash for soap too, until I read that statement in Wikipedia. The lye from wood ash isn't as strong as the sodium hydroxide sold as drain cleaner and for hard soaps, but I believe it makes a good softer soap. Still, to be able to make these ourselves! Priceless!

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  8. Impressive experiment, and documentation. Definitely "how to" book worthy.

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    1. Thanks! I plan to work in my wood ash recipes to include - not that I think anyone will actually try them, but it will round out the collection. :)

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  9. They say 'a day in the library can save a week in the lab,' but sometimes it works in reverse, too! I'm glad to see that, even if the texture is a bit different, there's no bitter or soapy flavor when you use straight ashes.

    Also, thanks for posting your bibliography; I'm also still curious about the chemistry of your ash water and the pearl ash.

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    1. It's all been very fascinating. I see the ash water as an emergency measure, and the pearlash of historical interest, although I can't help but wonder if it isn't too concentrated. For myself, I'll keep a good stock of baking soda around, with the security of a back up in the hardwood ash. :)

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  10. Well that's interesting. Need to file this under very useful information.

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    1. Definitely. Good emergency info to have just in case.

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  11. Leigh,

    I've learned something new about ash. Very interesting!

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    1. You know, I've seen a lot of "X amount of things you can do with ashes," but I don't ever recall seeing baking with them on any of those lists!

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  12. I can't wait for winter to do some experiments of my own! Thanks so much for sharing what you figured out and getting the rest of us thinking.... I particularly want to try using wood ash to make soap...

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    1. Soap making is on my to-do list too. :) And you'd probably enjoy the "Lye Soap" page at the old Caveman Chemistry website, here. It doesn't specifically mention wood ash, but I was particularly interested that he said lye was easy to make.

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  13. Hi Leigh, I'm a long time reader but this is my first time posting. I tried commenting under your "Part 2" post but for some reason it doesn't seem to have worked! I'm currently working on a chemistry PhD, so I wanted to chip in my two cents. I love that you are experimenting with this, so many people think chemistry isn't relevant to their everyday lives, but all baking and cooking is in fact chemistry! I wanted to say that if you evaporated the water you would get solid potassium carbonate, which is a white powder, and that's probably why it was called "pearlash" (coming from pearl colored ash, but this is just me speculating). So if you wanted to make sure you were using equivalent amounts of potassium carbonate as sodium carbonate (baking soda) you could try to dry it into the powder. I wonder if the bitter/soapy taste people complain about comes from the leftover potassium in the baked goods compared to leftover sodium. Another possibility (if the problem was in fact that there was just too much used) is that the carbonate base reacted with the fats in the milk to make soap (because fat/oil + base = soap, which is how people make homemade soaps). Also, definitely try experimenting with acid amounts too. In order for the max amount of carbon dioxide to be produced you have to have the equivalent amount of acid molecules as base molecules. Also, one reason the store bought baking soda works best is probably because it is in a pure form. Lots of other things will get extracted out of the wood ash in addition to the desired potassium carbonate! I'm excited to read about your future experiments, so unleash your inner researcher :)

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    1. Hi Stephanie, I'm so glad you took the time to comment!

      You're questions are exactly along the lines I've been thinking and what I've been researching. In fact, this is the section I'm working on in my upcoming eBook. I have to say that the more I dig into the science of cooking, the more fascinated I become.

      You are correct about evaporating the water from the ash solution, and I found several places online that gave instructions for that. The resulting residue is potash, but I wanted to keep it simple to start, so I stayed with the ash water. Apparently it takes a lot of ashes to make a little bit of potash.

      From what I understand about the bitter taste, it occurs because the potassium ions combine with the water’s hydroxide ions to produce potassium hydroxide. Hence the bitter or soapy taste. Increasing the acid helps neutralize the potassium hydroxide like you suggest.

      Based on the frugalness principle of "less is more," I made a couple more batches of biscuits the other day, trying a less strong solution (4:1 water to ash and 2:1 instead of 1:1), but left the vinegar amount the same. I still got decently risen biscuits, although I couldn't replicate the pretzel flavor with the weaker solutions. Next step is to try full size batches!

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