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Is This Ingredient the Secret to the Best Biscuits of Your Life?!

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I wanted the headline of this article to be "The Secret to the BEST, FLUFFIEST, MOST INCREDIBLE, STRAIGHT-FROM-HEAVEN-ABOVE, YOU-WON'T-BELIEVE YOUR TASTE BUDS Biscuits You'll Ever Make... Ever."

I wanted that badly.

So badly, in fact, that I made six (maybe more) batches of biscuits in a number of days, convinced I was doing something wrong. I must be doing something wrong!

Is this the secret ingredient we've all been searching for?! I wish! ...But not quite.
Is this the secret ingredient we've all been searching for?! I wish! ...But not quite. Photo by James Ransom

Because the can—cerulean and old-timey, with instructions to send away $6.00 to Hampden, Maine in exchange for a cookbook—promises "better baking!" and the King Arthur Flour website, where you can purchase Bakewell Cream, claims that "New Englanders swear by it for unforgettably light, fluffy biscuits."

The New England Cupboard, producer of the Original Bakewell Cream, furthers that assertion: Not only does Bakewell Cream produce biscuits that are superior in texture, but it also makes for "better tasting baked goods," too: "Those who try it have become loyal customers for life" (and there's a six-pound, $47 tub of the cream for those who do!).

Bakewell Cream is not a cream, confusingly enough, but a powder: According to King Arthur Flour, it's "the Maine equivalent of cream of tartar," invented in Bangor by the chemist Byron H. Smith in response to shortages of the ingredient during World War II. (For the science inclined, cream of tartar is potassium bitartrate; Bakewell Cream is acid sodium pyrophosphate.) Since cream of tartar, when mixed with baking soda, gives us baking powder, and Bakewell Cream is a cream of tartar equivalent, you can use a combination of Bakewell Cream and baking soda as a baking powder substitute (just swap 1 teaspoon of baking powder for 2/3 teaspoon of Bakewell Cream plus 1/3 teaspoon baking soda).

Bakewell Cream (left) versus baking powder (right).
Bakewell Cream (left) versus baking powder (right). Photo by James Ransom

Scroll through the comments on the King Arthur website and you'll see that Bakewell Cream really does have a legion of devoted fans: Debby from Chelsea, Maine credits it for her blue ribbon in the Girl Scouts forty-five years ago; SuzSouthern uses it for biscuits that are (unbelievably!) even better than her mother's 4H winners; and countless others testify that Bakewell Cream has produced the loftiest biscuits they've ever made (and some darn good pancakes, too).

As Posie Harwood, a writer at King Arthur and a regular contributor to Food52, told me: "The reason most people seem to love it is that it works beautifully as a leavener but doesn't have any taste, so your biscuits are super fluffy but just taste really like the biscuit ingredients... no metallic or noticeable taste like the one cream of tartar can give snickerdoodles, say."

I didn't need any more convincing. With all of this in mind, I set out to put Bakewell Cream to the test. First, I made a run-of-the-mill buttermilk variety—and the Bakewell Cream did seem to produce taller, cakier biscuits.

Baking powder (left) versus Bakewell Cream (right).
Baking powder (left) versus Bakewell Cream (right).

But both biscuits, however, were kind of strange—sort of undercooked—so I called the test a draw and decided to try again, this time using a well-trusted, time-tested recipe: Merrill's cream biscuits.

Cream Biscuits

Cream Biscuits

Merrill Stubbs Merrill Stubbs
Makes 8 biscuits
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon sugar 
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • Melted butter
Go to Recipe

The biscuits made with Bakewell Cream were the slightest bit taller than those made with baking powder (they also had a yellowish hue, oddly enough). And the crumb was a tad more open, which meant they dissolved on the tongue more quickly.

But there was still no consensus on which batch was superior: Some tasters said the Bakewell biscuits were saltier; others said they were less flavorful—that you couldn't taste the cream at all. Some said they had a chemical-y, soda flavor; some described them as chalky and powdery. I, for one, could hardly tell the difference. Bakewell Cream made good biscuits, but were they superior to the standard variety?

Bakewell Cream biscuits (left) have a slightly airier crumb than baking powder biscuits (right).
Bakewell Cream biscuits (left) have a slightly airier crumb than baking powder biscuits (right). Photo by James Ransom

I gave the biscuits a break and instead, used the Bakewell Cream to make muffins—because "Its not just biscuits any more [sic]," the can reminds bakers. I made Mom's Coconut-Blueberry Muffins, using the same standard formula to convert baking powder to a Bakewell Cream-plus-baking-soda combination.

Bakewell Cream (left) versus baking powder (right). The muffin shapes are different, but it's probably because I didn't weigh my batter.
Bakewell Cream (left) versus baking powder (right). The muffin shapes are different, but it's probably because I didn't weigh my batter. Photo by James Ransom

This time, the difference was even less noticeable. The muffins made with Bakewell Cream neither tasted different nor had a noticeably lighter texture (though, in the picture below, it does appear that the crumb structure is a little airier—but, considering the number of blueberries in the mix, it was almost impossible to judge).

Is the crumb on the Bakewell Cream airier? Beats me!
Is the crumb on the Bakewell Cream airier? Beats me! Photo by James Ransom

So I had concluded that Bakewell Cream makes a perfectly good biscuit—and a perfectly good muffin, too—but it didn't seem worth a special mail order.

But surely, if this product was what so many bakers claim as their "new secret ingredient" to "glorious biscuits," there was something I was missing. More testing was necessary. I decided to give the biscuit recipe on the can a fair shot. After all, when I called for Bakewell Cream experience on the Hotline, I got one lonely response, from BakerRB, who said:

The biscuit recipe on the can is the closest to foolproof I've ever used: mile high and golden brown; neither too dry nor too moist; neither tough nor crumbly. I haven't made anything else with it or tested out the baking powder or cream of tartar substitutions in any of my recipes.

What was I doing messing around with other biscuits recipes? I needed to beeline straight to the source! So I made the Bakewell Cream Biscuits, exactly as written on the can.

And they were real lookers: the most perfect biscuit specimens I'd ever made myself.

But the taste? Non-existent. The texture was airy, sure, and they were quick to melt on the tongue, with little chewing necessary, but they were a little... papery.

Bakewell Cream Biscuits
Bakewell Cream Biscuits

Maybe I was not doing the recipe justice. Maybe I should employ my culinary license and make the recipe the best it could be. So I made it again, this time following King Arthur Flour's version—using the more flavorful butter in place of vegetable shortening—and swiping the biscuits with a generous coat of melted butter (and a sprinkle of flaky salt) before baking.

These biscuits were high and lofty and tasted more like something (though they still benefitted from a smear of jam and butter).

Bakewell Cream biscuits, made with butter (not shortening).

Would I make them again, if I happened to have Bakewell Cream on hand? Yes. But would I buy Bakewell Cream just to make these? Probably not. As Posie put it, "I wouldn't buy it OVER cream of tartar or baking powder but when I've used it, I loved it. I think if I were say, making biscuits for a living, maybe I would?"

Maybe I needed to do more testing: to make the King Arthur Flour version of Bakewell Cream Biscuits but with high-quality buttermilk instead of whole milk; to make plainer muffins without pesky blueberries interrupting the crumb structure; to make cakes and cookies and scones and... Or maybe I just had to accept that I wasn't going to be making my fortune by publishing a book called The Life-Changing Magic of a Little-Known New England Ingredient.

Not going to lie: This is a good-looking biscuit.
Not going to lie: This is a good-looking biscuit.

But maybe I'll find my jackpot-secret-miraculous-yet-to-be-discovered elixir somewhere else?

Or maybe it just goes to show that if there's a "magic" ingredient that's still little-known, perhaps there's a reason for it.

Tags: Breakfast, Bake, Long Reads, Ingredients