Vanilla Wafers and a Tale of Two Leavening Agents

BY HELEN S. FLETCHER, ON
COPYRIGHT, HELEN S. FLETCHER, 2020. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
ALL PHOTOS BY PASTRIES LIKE A PRO UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.

Vanilla WafersIf you read this recipe for Vanilla Wafers really early, please check again as some of the instructions have changed.  

In the States, we generally use baking powder or baking soda for chemical leavening agents. I used baking powder on my way to homemade vanilla wafers.  But something strange happened.

I made the first batch and they pretty much looked like vanilla wafers.  They were the right size, slightly rounded on top and uniform, everything a vanilla wafer should be.  But when I tasted one, it seemed a bit flat and not as crispy as the bought ones.  I suppose this is the time to tell you I love vanilla wafers.  Mostly just out of the box.  Mike does too so you might find them in my pantry from time to time.

Ammonium Carbonate

I started thinking about what I could do to up the crispness and give it more flavor. That’s when I thought of ammonium carbonate also known as baker’s ammonia.  It’s hard to find on a grocery store shelf but very available online.  I got mine from Lorann Oils.  It was the leavening agent used prior to the 19th century before baking powder and baking soda came into existence.  It is still used in European and Middle Eastern baking where it is also known as hartshorn.Ammonium Carbonate

Ammonium carbonate is used when you want the end product to be very crispy such as crackers and crunchy cookies.  This texture is caused when the tiny crystals dissolve during baking leaving very small air cells making it easier for the moisture to escape.  In addition, a very clean taste is left, none of the soapy aftertaste that baking powder or baking soda can leave.

One of the things to be aware of is the smell.  Ammonium carbonate is also used to revive people who have fainted.  If you’ve seen a period movie in which someone, usually a woman, is on the verge of or has fainted and something is being waved under their nose – you’re right – it ’s ammonium. So when you open the bottle DO NOT take a big whiff, it’s noxious but harmless.  The kitchen may also smell of it when the cookies are baking but there will be no trace of it in the baked product and the smell dissipates quickly.

It is not used for cakes since the gaseous ammonia given off during baking cannot escape the thicker, higher batters and would make the baked goods smell bad.

Substituting Ammonium Carbonate for Baking Powder

While some articles say you can substitute baking powder measure for measure, this is not a good idea.  The ammonium is more powerful than double acting baking powder.  I used the same amount of baking powder and ammonium carbonate in two different batches.  I scooped both of them using a #100 disher (about 1 1/2 teaspoons).  The cookie on the left is noticeably larger than its counterpart on the right.  You will also notice the top of the cookies looks quite different.  The cookie on the left leavened with the ammonium has visible holes while the cookie on the right, leavened with baking powder, is smoother.  Outside of Cookies forBeing unhappy with the holes left in the exterior of the cookies, I continued my research and found that you have to dissolve the ammonium in liquid before using to make sure it is evenly distributed in the dough.   Another test shows the dramatic difference when it was dissolved in the flavorings.  In the left vanilla wafer, it was combined with the flour and undissolved.  In the cookie on the right, the ammonium was dissolved in the liquid flavorings.  Undissolved and dissolved ammonium carbonate in Vanilla Wafers.

Substituting Baking Powder for Ammonium Carbonate

I have corrected the amount of ammonium carbonate used in this recipe to keep the cookies the same size.  If substituting ammonium carbonate for baking powder in other recipes, use  about1/3 less.

When broken apart you can see more holes and a lighter texture in the ammonium cookie on the left. The baking powder cookie has a tighter texture and is not as crisp.Comparison of the inside of the Vanilla Wafers

Flavoring the Vanilla Wafers

To solve the taste of the cookie I used vanilla, almond and lemon extracts which gives the wafers a more exciting taste than vanilla alone.  You could also flavor these any way you wish, lemon, almond, coconut, peppermint, whatever you like.

I actually made these as one of the ingredients in Banana Pudding recipe which I will post next week.  In the meantime, you can make your vanilla wafers, store them in a container and be halfway to a great banana pudding made from scratch.  They are really easy to make and for the pudding, it doesn’t make any difference which leavening you use.  However, if I am going to eat them by themselves, I prefer ammonium carbonate for the crispy, lighter texture.

Vanilla WafersIngredients

1 1/4 cups all purpose flour (175 grams or 6 1/8 ounces)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ammonium carbonate OR 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened (114 grams, 4 ounces or 1 stick)
1/2 cup granulated sugar (100 grams or 3 1/2 ounces)
1 egg

Preheat the oven to 350°F /175° C.  Line two baking sheets with parchment and set aside.

Whisk together the flour, and salt. Set aside. If using the baking powder, add it to the flour mixture.

Stir together the vanilla, almond and lemon extracts.  If using  the ammonium carbonate add it to the liquid.  Stir to dissolve.  Set aside.

Beat the butter and sugar together until very light and fluffy.Creamed butter ad sugar

Add the egg.  Stir the flavorings with the ammoniuum and add it also.   Beat to combine. Egg and flavoring addedThe mixture may curdle (mine did each time).  curdled mixtureRaise the speed of the mixer and continue beating.  If the mixture doesn’t come together, don’t worry about it, adding the flour will take care of it.

Add the flour mixture all at once and beat on low until all of the flour is incorporated.  The dough will be very thick.  Finished doughWith a #100 disher/scooper drop the cookies about 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. If the dough is too soft, refrigerate it to firm it. Alternatively, drop by rounded teaspoons.  Flatten slightly with the heel of your hand or two fingers.Flattened and double panned

Double pan and bake for 18 to 20 minutes until golden brown and completely set.  Cool on racks.  Store in an airtight tin.

Yield:  About 46 cookiesTray of Vanilla Wafers

If you enjoyed this article, you might want to take a look at these:

The Frustrating Facts about Measuring Flour
The World of Cinnamon
All Salt is Not Created Equal in Baking
Baking Powder vs. Baking Soda – Where and When to Use Which

Additional recipes using ammonium carbonate can be found at:

Vanilla Dreams
Polish Rolled Sugar Cookies
Swedish Dream Cookies – I would dissolve the ammonium in the flavoring.

Pastry has not only been my profession, but my passion. If there is anything in particular you would like to see or any questions about baking or pastry, please let me know. Be sure to subscribe so you don't miss a post!
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23 thoughts on “Vanilla Wafers and a Tale of Two Leavening Agents

  1. Jen

    Hi Helen, I read these comments, but I just don’t see if you can substitute the ammonium for baking soda in a recipe. And if so, do you just do the same reduction of 1/3rd.

    Thank you!

    Jen

  2. Debbie

    Thank you Ms. Helen, I have learned something new about baking products. Love your site. It is so informative and delicious recipes to go with it, my go to blog for learning new things about baking. Your the best thank you for all the research you do and the information you share so we don’t have to.

  3. Rose Mueller

    Hello Helen, I’m not sure if this is the place to ask my question, but here goes. I have a very good recipe for cranberry orange muffins, the always turn out great. A friend of mine loves them and I’ll make a batch for her every so often. She was recently diagnosed with something that requires her to be gluten free. I made them with gluten free flour and they were not good. I guess I’m asking if there is any way to make them using the gluten free flour and still have them tasty as before?
    Thank you for any advice you can give,
    Rose Mueller

    1. hfletcher Post author

      Hi Rose – A lot depends upon the GF Flour you used. My son had to go GF a few years ago. I started testing with different flours on the market and got staggeringly different results. The one that I found to give the closest results to flour was King Arthur’s measure for measure. Unfortunately, you have to mail order it. They have another GF flour that is on grocer’s shelves but it isn’t the same. The taste will never be exact because you will be using white or brown rice flour instead of wheat as the main ingredient. You, nor she should expect the same results but the KA measure for measure does a good job. If you haven’t tried that I suggest you do.

  4. Kim

    Very interesting article Helen. Does the ammoniun have an expiration date like baking power? I fear I wouldn’t use it up before it expired. Looking forward to the banana pudding recipe as it’s my dad’s favorite and his birthday is coming up in March. Will look forward to making it for him.

  5. CNNY

    Another big fan of ammonium carbonate here. Some questions: can it be used in place of baking soda as well as baking powder? Have you ever used it in a cookie that is not plain, but has things added to it? I have been trying to make a super crisp chocolate chip cookie. (So far have made only this one attempt.) I followed the standard Toll House recipe, but used baker’s ammonia instead of the baking soda; I reduced the amount of the ammonia, but the cookies had a strange taste. They were well baked. I am wondering if the ammonia somehow adhered to the chocolate chips? I did not dissolve the ammonia, but mixed it together with the other dry ingredients. I will try again but dissolve it this time. Do you think it should be used only in plain cookies?

    1. hfletcher Post author

      I have two thoughts not having tried it for chocolate chip cookies. Anything with a lot of moisture in it is not a good candidate for ammonium. The ammonium gets trapped in moist products and can’t escape, so that might be a problem. The second thing is ammonium must always be diluted in liquid. So put it in the vanilla and stir to dissolve. If you read the header of the article, I showed the difference between the diluted and undiluted aluminum. However, I will say that the only difference I noticed was in the looks if it was used undiluted. The taste and crispness were not affected.

      1. hfletcher Post author

        Hi Karen – while I find the article interesting it doesn’t address the problem about which CNNY was writing. The problem isn’t additional acid. The ammonium carbonate will leave an off taste if the product has any moisture at all left in it after baking.

        It is only meant for dry crackers or dry cookies. I have seen it used in biscotti and I have just listed 3 other cookies using it as the leavening agent. I pulled out my professional references regarding baking ammonia. “How Baking Works’ by Paula Figoni is the professional baker’s go-to source. She states, “Baking ammonia should only be used in small products that bake to low moisture content (less than 3% moisture) so that the ammonia gas can completely bake out. Otherwise, baked goods will have an ammonia off flavor. This means that one should never use baking ammonia in muffins, biscuits, cakes or soft and moist cookies.”

        Baker’s ammonia doesn’t need an acid or alkaline to react as baking powder and baking soda do. It completely dissipates if used in the proper formula or recipe. When properly used it leaves no chemical residue. The cookie would have to be reformulated to use baker’s ammonia so that it would contain no more than 3% moisture at which point it probably wouldn’t resemble a chocolate chip cookie as we know them.

        This chemical reaction stuff is a doozy – that’s for sure.

        1. CNNY

          Thanks so much for all that information. How can I know the percentage of moisture? I understand that Baker’s Ammonia cannot be used in cakes and cake-like items, but cookies? Especially if my goal is to have a crisp chocolate chip? (Like Tate’s CC Cookies.) I am thinking I might try it again, but this time I will a) dissolve the BA in the vanilla; b) use mini chocolate chips rather than regular. I’m not sure it will make a difference, but I’ll give it one last try. (I’ll report back.) Thanks again.

          1. hfletcher Post author

            Therein lies the problem. A lab would have to test for that. If you are going to use the Toll House recipe, I would suggest removing one egg to make a thicker batter and yes, use mini chips. Do no use the ammonium, use whatever leavening agent they suggest After you have dropped the cookies, flattened them slightly with the heel of your hand. Bake immediately.

            Alternatively, here is a recipe off the net for flat and crisp chocolate chip cookies (https://divascancook.com/thin-crispy-chocolate-chip-cookies-recipe/). The cookies certainly look thin so follow their directions. I would use all butter in place of the half butter, half shortening since the butter spreads more. I wouldn’t flatten these. Keep in touch and let me know if either of these work for you.

          2. CNNY

            Just a partial follow-up: I tried the recipe on the divascancook.com website. I used all butter. The dough is extremely soft. She suggests a 7-8 minute baking time. For the first sheet I baked 9 minutes. Cookies were golden at the edges and on the bottom. Nice flavor, but not crisp at all. I covered the rest with plastic and put it in the fridge until it hardened. I baked these for 12 minutes. They were crisp, but not as crisp as I would have liked.

            Have not yet redone the Toll House cookies, couldn’t find mini chips. Will try next weekend, but I still want to try with baker’s ammonia. The last ones I made, which had an aftertaste, had the perfect texture, exactly what I wanted. But of course they have to taste good, too, that is not an option.

            It seems that baker’s ammonia crisp is simply a different animal than any other type of crisp. I don’t know if it can be achieved with a different leavening agent. I haven’t tried the Stella Parks recipe mentioned above (which I would do as-is, no substitutes), but I am curious to see what “type” of crispness it achieves. What can I say? So many crisps, so little time!

      1. hfletcher Post author

        Hi Jen – why are you subbing anything? Why not just make it as it reads? They seem really thin and I am assuming very crispy on their own. The only substitute for baking ammonium is baking POWDER. Baking soda is not a substitute which is why you don’t see one listed. Baking ammonium only works in certain applications and under certain circumstances. Not sure why you want to use it here.

        Have you made the recipe as called for to see if it works? That is the first step before changing anything. Altering recipes can be tricky, made more so by changing leavening agents.

        Personally, I would not use baking ammonium in this application, especially without making the recipe as called for first to see if any changes need to be made.

  6. Thelma Kessel

    Thanks for doing the groundwork on Hartshorn! A few of my German cookie recipes use it and I can easily get it at the Polish/European stores here in Ontario, Canada, but never actually did the trial to see what the difference was. And I always hate buying vanilla wafers just for a particular recipe, so this recipe is grand to have. Thanks so much.
    And the #100 disher is a perfect size for cookies, especially when baking for cookie platters- just enough for a good taste, but small enough so we can have another :)

    1. hfletcher Post author

      Hi Thelma – Happy to hear you use ammonium. German cookies often call for it, I agree. I also agree that the #100 disher is a perfect size for cookies, although here in the states many prefer the monster version.

  7. Rocky

    Hi Helen,
    Can’t wait to try these. I have used ammonium carbonate for years to make cookies crisp and I am always looking for other recipes to try.

    The recipes I used always melted the powder in the extract in the cookies. Have you seen the ones on the King Art site, vanilla or chocolate dreams?

    We have never been fans of banana pudding but maybe if you made it we would. I am looking forward to seeing that recipe.

    I hope that your new cookie book has some recipes with ammonium. We love crispy cookies in our house. If my cookie experiments turn out soft, my husband is known to leave them out all over the counter, overnite so they get stale.

    1. hfletcher Post author

      Hi Rocky – Happy to hear from you. I love the stale cookie bit. Does your ammonium cake up and become a block after you open it. The humidity in our house is very low (too low) despite using humidifiers in the winter. How do you keep yours in powder form?

      1. hfletcher Post author

        Hi again Rocky – I just wanted to make sure you re-read the recipe as the instructions changed. I don’t use the ammonium dry, it is dissolved in the liquid flavorings.

  8. Bruce

    In the article, you say to dissolve the ammonium in the liquid, but in the recipe, you say to put it in the flour.

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