The formulas used to make baking powders today are much more carefully calibrated than when this leavener was first packaged for home cooks nearly 200 years ago, but the chemistry remains the same. Baking powders depend on the inclination of an alkaline substance (sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda) and an acid (originally cream of tartar, but today there are more options) to react and produce carbon dioxide gas bubbles, thereby leavening batters for muffins, cakes, and other baked goods that need a quicker rise than can be provided by yeast.
Baking soda has always been a pretty good buy, while cream of tartar, a byproduct of wine making, has never come cheap. It was first used in prepared baking powders in 1835, but by the 1850s a cheaper alternative, monocalcium phosphate (MCP), was introduced, and it continues to be used in baking powders today. MCP is similar to cream of tartar in that it reacts with baking soda immediately when the two are combined with water. (Cornstarch is a component of all baking powders. It absorbs moisture, thereby helping to keep the acid and the baking soda from interacting during storage; it also helps to disperse the acid and baking soda evenly throughout a batter.) What this immediate reaction means in professional baker's terms is that MCP gives a batter more bench rise (the leavening that takes place before a batter goes into the oven) than oven rise (the leavening that takes place in the oven). This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does require the cook to get the batter into the oven fairly quickly; if not, the baking powder will exhaust much of its leavening power on the bench, and the muffin or cake will not rise as much as it could or should in the oven.
Enter the acidic leavener sodium aluminum sulfate (SAS), added to many baking powders since the beginning of the 20th century. SAS and a compound used interchangeably with it today, sodium aluminum phosphate (SALP), don't react with baking soda and water at room temperature. It's only in the oven, when the temperature rises above 120 degrees Fahrenheit, that their leavening power goes to work. Several top-selling brands of baking powder make use of both MCP and one of the aluminum compounds as a kind of insurance so the home cook gets both good bench rise and good oven rise. (Another popular brand uses only MCP with no aluminum compounds.) The MCP goes to work as soon as liquid is added to the dry ingredients, and the SAS or SALP kicks in when exposed to the heat of the oven. In most such formulations, about one-third of the leavening takes place on the bench and the balance in the oven. These baking powders are all referred to as double-acting, in reference to the fact that the leavening action takes place twice-once outside the oven, once inside the oven.
Does any of this make any difference in the kitchen? To answer this question, we made biscuits, scones, and yellow cake with the aluminum-free brand and baking powders containing SAS or SALP. We then compared the results. Both types of baking powders performed well in terms of creating a good rise; thus, the brands containing aluminum do not guarantee more oven rise as long as the mixed batter made with aluminum-free baking powder isn't left to sit around before baking. The other issue is taste. Critics of baking powders containing SAS or SALP state that these compounds give baked goods a slight but unpleasant metallic flavor. A couple of our tasters could indeed detect a very slight metallic flavor in each baked good made with the baking powders containing aluminum, but most tasters could not discern a difference.
The answer? Aluminum-free baking powders work just as well as brands made with aluminum compounds. If you have a keen palate that is highly sensitive to metallic flavors or if you wish to limit your ingestion of aluminum, choose an aluminum-free powder.
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its “big olive aroma, big olive taste” with a “buttery” flavor that is “sweet” and “full,” with a “peppery finish.” One taster said: “It’s very green and fresh—like a squeezed olive.” Another simply wrote: “Fantastic.”
|Spain||$19 for 17 oz|
Tasters noted this oil’s flavor was “much deeper than the other samples,” describing it as “fruity, with a slight peppery finish,” “buttery undertones,” and a “clean, green taste” that was “aromatic, with a good balance.” “It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have,” said one admiring taster.
|Italy||$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed “round and buttery,” with a “light body” and flavor that was “briny and fruity,” “very fine and smooth,” and “almost herbal,” with “great balance.” “Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it,” approved one taster. In a word, “pleasant.”
|Italy||$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted “overall mild” flavor and “very little aroma,” with only a “hint of green olive” and a “hint of spiciness at the end.” In pasta, it was initially “not complex,” but gradually “bloomed in your mouth.” Overall, it was “worthy of a second bite.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
While some tasters found this oil “sweet” and “buttery” with “medium body” and “slight spice at the end,” others complained that it had “zero olive flavor” and was “so floral it’s almost like eating perfume”; still others noted a “bitter” aftertaste. In pasta, it was “extremely mild” to the point of being “boring.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were “mild” and “neutral.” Some liked it on pasta (though one called it “Snoozeville”), but complaints were myriad: “metallic,” “soapy,” “briny,” “hints of dirt.” Carped one taster, “I can’t imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.”
|Spain||$13.99 for 1 liter|
For complete access to the results,
start a 14-Day Free Trial.
Start Your 14-Day Free Trial Membership
Every Recipe. Every Rating. Every Video from
Every Magazine & Every Episode!
- 8 years of Cook’s Country Foolproof Recipes
- Complete Cook’s Country TV Video Library
- 2,900+ Equipment Ratings and Ingredient Taste Tests
- Step-by-Step Technique Photos
- Save Favorites, Create Menus, Print Shopping Lists