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

May 11, 2016

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. 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."

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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!).

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Top Comment:
“I was given a can of Bakewell Cream by a friend who swear's by it for her biscuits and scones. I gave it my best efforts but found I could not get past a very strong chemical aftertaste and a somewhat 'fizzy' experience on the tongue. It didn't matter what I made with it (biscuits, scones, pancakes, waffles), that aftertaste was there. Thinking maybe the can was off, I ordered a can to give it a fair shot (I really wanted to like the stuff). Same result. Bakewell Cream just isn't for me.”
— jurae

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). 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).

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.

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). 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. 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! 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.

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.

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.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Jodi
  • Poppygold
  • janet voris
    janet voris
  • Laura415
  • audrie
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Jodi June 22, 2016
Hi Susan, the link to "Mom's Coconut Blueberry Muffins" isn't working. Can you re-post that recipe?
Poppygold June 22, 2016
I have never used Bakewell Cream Powder [will try!] but I do use Saco Cultured Powdered Buttermilk Blend with really great results.
janet V. May 22, 2016
I wasn't so convinced after reading this, but my husband ordered some right away (pretty much his M.O.) So I tried it along with Lea's suggestion of Andrew Carmellini's World's Best Biscuits and it was a great success.
Laura415 May 22, 2016
I'm saving this page because of all the great comments and recipes below. I've made really tender GF biscuits with recipes like this too. GF works well for these kind of shortening biscuits. I use a homemade version of Cup 4 Cup GF flour.
janet V. May 13, 2016
Lea, I will. I've been looking for a biscuit recipe that works well in the unique Salt Lake City altitude and atmosphere. I will try anything.
Susan May 14, 2016
Jan, I have lived both at sea level, Maine and Ohio, and at higher altitudes, Denver at 5280 feet and Santa Fe at 7,000 feet altitude. In Denver, I never, ever converted any recipe for high altitude and never had a problem. I mostly baked from an updated version, (1960's era) of the "Settlement House Cookbook". I had huge problems with my pies in Santa Fe and sometimes other baked goods, but not biscuits. It did take forever for potatoes and pasta to cook, but that required planning. I purchased the book "Pie in the Sky" by Susan G. Purdy and used many of her recipes for 7,000 feet when I lived in Santa Fe. Her book is great and the stories about how she baked at different altitudes is interesting. My point being, I am not sure at 4200 feet in Salt Lake City, you will need to do much converting of recipes. But her book makes it all make sense and is very helpful. I baked a lot of her El Rancho Gingerbread with Warm Rum-Lemon Sauce to consistent rave reviews every time I brought it with me to a pot-luck. Good luck with your baking!
audrie May 13, 2016
This article made me SO happy! I, too, have purchased Bakewell Cream over the years (at least 3 times) hoping that my mad biscuit skills had improved enough to deliver the promised BEST BISCUIT EVER. I was disappointed each and every time. Eventually, I stopped buying Bakewell Cream each time I went to the King Arthur Flour store and just stuck to my cream biscuit recipe. I am glad that it (probably) wasn't me all these years. Btw, I can't wait to try the recipe for Delicate Vanilla Wafer Cookies, and I think the explanation about being able to store Bakewell Cream for a long time is probably right on the money!
AntoniaJames May 12, 2016
Hmm. Does buttermilk powder not add acidity? If it does, then it does play a role in the leavening process - certainly when it comes into contact with baking soda. Regular, non-powdered buttermilk does. I agree that this product may not be similar to buttermilk; but I'd like to understand better whether dried buttermilk powder does not in fact contribute to the leavening process. Thank you. ;o)
BakerRB May 12, 2016
I love this - both the article and the comments. I do use the Bakewell Cream (ordered from KAF a decade or so ago when I just never could get biscuits to rise as I wanted), but I've always wanted to know more about it. I can understand the objections to it, and I think there's a lot of personal taste in biscuit style and personal sensitivity to each leavener's chemical aftertaste. Now, who needs another duplicate product? Me! I love trying anything at least once, and for a hobbyist baker this is similar to trying a new food at the farmer's market, or a new seed pack from the dangerously irresistible online seed store: maybe you'll love it, maybe you'll hate it, maybe you'll decide it's fine but once is enough.
jburge May 12, 2016
I have yet to taste better biscuits than my mothers. When she was here. Her secret was simple , if we had bacon with them she would add bacon grease to the dough and take a fork and top the top off with bacon grease. if it was just run of the mill biscuits she added lard. yes lard. She always . used self rising flour. And half and half milk. Dad lived to be 97 so I guess it didn't hurt him, or Mom , she lived to be 88.
Mary May 11, 2016
I believe that the advantage of Bakewell Cream is that it can be kept in a Maine hunting or fishing cabin for an extended period of time without losing its leavening ability. Because regular baking powder contains an acid mixed with baking powder, the two components react to produce carbon dioxide when exposed to humidity in the air. After the can has been open for a while, baking powder loses its strength. But because you mix the Bakewell Cream with baking soda just before baking, you don't have to worry about the acid component losing its strength. Baking soda itself degrades with time, but much more slowly than when mixed with an acidic compound. So the answer is: If you replace your baking soda often, Bakewell Cream is not superior. If you live in an isolated area and don't get to the store very often, then Bakewell Cream is your ticket.
Andie P. May 11, 2016
I have been using Bakewell Cream for a few special baked items for quite a few years.
Not for biscuits though, or scones, I am partial to Odlum's Self-Raising flour and use that with heavy cream. That's the full ingredient list for biscuits.
However, I do have a vanilla cookie recipe - vanilla wafers that are very versatile, for which Bakewell Cream works better than other leaveners. This is a very old recipe and when I learned it some 60+ years ago the leavening was "Baking Ammonia powder" - or Ammoniun Carbonate, which I still use for some things (crackers) because it produces a very crisp result.
I don't know how old this recipe actually is, it came from my great grandmother and called for "pounding the sugar" because back then sugar was sold in "loaves"...
In any even, my grandmother did some modernizing and I did more. Here's the recipe:
Delicate vanilla wafers
1 1/2 cups flour - I use Odium’s Cream flour
2/3 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon BAKEWELL CREAM (You can use other leaveners but this product works best with this recipe)
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup white sugar
1/4 cup vanilla sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 eggs, large.
Sift the first three ingredients into a medium bowl.
In a mixer bowl beat the butter until fluffy
add the sugars and continue beating, add the vanilla extract.
Add the eggs, one at a time until blended into the mix.
With the mixer running on low speed, add the flour mixture 1/4 cup at a time make sure the mixture remains smooth with no lumps.
As soon as all the dry mixture is incorporated stop mixing.
Remove the beaters, cover the bowl and refrigerate for one hour.
Preheat the oven to 350° F.
Line two baking sheets with bakers parchment.
Use a #40 disher (ice cream scoop) which is a bit more than 1 1/2 tablespoons when level - rounded is 2 tablespoons which is perfect for this cookie
Place on baking sheet about 3 inches apart (they spread)
You can bake two sheets at a time with the shelfs as near as possible to the center of the oven.
If you have an oven without convection, half-way through the baking time, switch the pans and rotate them back to front.
Bake for about 12 minutes, the edges should be just slightly browned.
Remove from oven and place pans on cooling racks for 5 minutes or so and then slide the parchment with the cookies off the pans and onto the racks.
Allow the baking sheets to cool before placing the next batch on them.
You can dish out all the cookies at one time ONTO THE SHEETS OF PARCHMENT PAPER and then just slide the paper onto the baking sheets before putting them into the oven.
This saves a lot of time.
These are great sandwich cookies. They can also substitute for LADY FINGERS in trifles, in puddings
(like the classic banana pudding that goes into a “shell” of vanilla cookies.)
HelenK May 11, 2016
I live in the south, and have found that baking powder does not have a very long shelf life here, as it did when I lived in the Midwest. I tried this product and their baking powder version, and I have found I can use the entire can without any problem. For that reason alone I love Bakewell Cream, and the baking powder. It is so much better than ruining ingredients using baking powder that has outlived it's shelf life in 3 or 4 months.
stingraystirs May 11, 2016
I wholeheartedly agree with Nancy Harmon Jenkins. It is the magic of Maine that lends itself to the magic of Bakewell Cream. I grew up on the Maine/N.H. border and my Grandmother swore by it. Simply looking at the blue can makes me happy. I loved the story Sarah Jampel, but I implore you, next time you're in Maine, try it again. You'll see.
Sarah J. May 11, 2016
I hate to admit it, but I've never been to Maine, stingraystirs! But when I do go, I'm bringing my biscuit-making supplies with me!
Terri June 22, 2016
I too grew up in Maine and Bakewell's was always on the shelf and a biscuit was never made without it
joseph May 11, 2016
Susan, Am I missing something? In your #2 biscuit recipe from Cuisine magazine, in your directions, you ask to mix; flour, baking powder, sugar, ect. but I don't see baking powder in the list of ingredients. Please verify the amount of baking powder necessary for this recipe. Thank you.
Susan May 11, 2016
I'm sorry. There is no baking powder in the recipe. Only baking soda.
bayleaf May 11, 2016
Forget tasteless biscuits and make scones! Use butter always, never margarine or shortening, add an egg and they will rise high and taste delicious.
danielle_centoni May 11, 2016
From all of us with over-crowded pantries, thank you. I agree with Nancy Jenkins that the cream likely needs a little Maine magic to work properly. On another note, the best and most impossibly light biscuits I've ever had were a Southern specialty called Angel Biscuits, made with a bit of yeast as well as traditional chemical leaveners, and butter of course. They take a bit more planning than regular biscuits, which is why I aspire to make them more than I actually do, but I'd love to see what you think of them if you try them.
Sarah J. May 11, 2016
Please share the recipe! Would absolutely love to try.
mela May 11, 2016
The Southern Junior League Cookbook (1977) has a recipe for Angel Biscuits using yeast and baking powder. They do look like a bit of trouble so I haven't made them. And since finding the recipe for Supreme Biscuits in the same book (with baking powder and cream of tartar) I haven't bothered with any other kind. They're perfect.
K June 24, 2016
Yes. Love my well-worn copy for real Southern classics.
Susan May 11, 2016
I am an avid biscuit maker, and these never fail to bring looks and words of ecstasy when sampled. This recipe is from an old used cookbook republished in 1963 under the name “The Family Home Cookbook. Funny that I purchased this cookbook when I lived in Maine. The photographs of food are pretty hilarious, (think slabs of cold cuts, etc.) but these biscuits never fail to please. In the eight years I lived there, I never heard of Bakewell Cream, or remember it in the grocery stores. I never use anything but unsalted butter and buttermilk when making biscuits.
Bake @ 450 degrees for 10-15 minutes, according to how your oven works.
2 Cups of flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
1 teaspoon of salt
51/2 Tablespoons of butter. I use a generous 6-7 Tablespoons
¾ Cup of buttermilk or more if dough is too dry
Milk for brushing – optional
Sift dry ingredients. Cut in butter until in pea-shaped pieces or smaller. Add buttermilk (use more if needed) and stir with a fork until it forms a ball of dough. Scrape bowl as you go. Turn onto a floured board and knead 10-15 times until more incorporated. Pat or roll out ½ inch thick. Cut into whatever size biscuit you like. Brush with milk if desired. Bake. I usually make a double recipe and freeze some for later, if they last that long. Cook’s note. I have sometimes added some dried buttermilk powder, like a heaping tablespoon to the buttermilk to make the
Recipe #2 from Cuisine Magazine from an old lady’s southern restaurant that gave up the recipe. These are incredible super-duper buttery and only make NINE biscuits. Bake at 450 degrees for 25 minutes.
4 cups of flour
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of sugar (I sometimes omit the sugar)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup chilled unsalted butter
1½ cup buttermilk
¼ cup melted butter for brushing on top.
Mix flour, baking powder, sugar, soda and salt in a medium-sized bowl. Cut in the chilled butter until you have coarse crumbs. Stir in the buttermilk. Turn dough onto floured board. Knead about 10 times. Roll out into a thick shape (I didn’t write down how thick, but only makes 9 biscuits) and cut up into biscuits. Butter pan and put in pan with sides of the biscuits touching. Brush the tops with the ¼ of melted butter. Bake for 25 minutes.
Joseph L. May 11, 2016
Susan you're a woman after my own heart. Your biscuit recipe is a mirror image of mine. For me, the butter and buttermilk are the keys. I just decided to give those folks up in Maine a try. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
AntoniaJames May 12, 2016
Thank you so much, Susan. I've copied both to a new document with a note, "Try these soon!" ;o)
Amanda May 13, 2016
.you have no baking powder in the list of ingredients in recipe #2 but it is in the direction
Patricia May 14, 2016
Sounds exactly like my recipe....I add about 2 tsps of sugar, really can't taste it, but I think makes them more tender and browns them. Okay. Now I want biscuits!
Lea May 11, 2016
Please everyone Google "Andrew Carmellinis Worlds Best Biscuits. End of Story." Follow his method exactly, I use frozen grated butter instead of shortening, but you will NOT be disappointed. They look like Pillsbury Grands with the flaky layers, but the flavor is beyond bakewell cream needed...wink,wink!
AntoniaJames May 12, 2016
Interesting! In SeriousEats we trust. ;o)
lindsay |. May 11, 2016
For the secret to great biscuits I think you need to head south. (And pick up a bag of White Lily flour on the way…)
Susan May 11, 2016
Thanks lindsay. I have heard and read that many times. I live in Ohio and they sell it here. I admit that I need to try it and will do so. I have been holding off making biscuits because they are sooo good that I eat too many! But I like to try different things like the White Lily flour. Hmmm. A trip to the store is in my future.
Joseph L. May 11, 2016
Hey Cristina, I have the complete "Joy of Cooking" series but, over time I had moved away from using lard although my girlfriends told me I was stupid for doing so. I must admit that lard does produce the desired consistency I seek. I'm just giving these guys a shot.
Cristina May 11, 2016
Lots of people worry about using animal fat--and many of those same people have no qualms about using butter, which is guess what? Animal fat! After all, how much of it are you going to eat? I'd say go back to lard and back to the heaven of really wonderful biscuits.

For an excellent butter/vegetable fat/lard comparison, read here:
Joseph L. May 11, 2016
That is an excellent article from the Toronto Star. It leads me back to my grandfather's old saying.........."Eat whatever you want, just don't become a glutton."