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Chinese Baking: Ammonia and Ammonia Bicarbonate

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I've figured out that pretty much all white steamed Chinese buns and cakes require ammonia for color and lightness. It's especially crucial in cha siu bao. I have two questions:

1) How unhealthy is ammonia?

2) What's the difference between ammonia and ammonia bicarbonate? Are they one and the same?

Thanks.

David A.

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  1. That might be a substitute ingredient. Chinese are most likey to use "kansui" which is potassium carbonate. As a "cheat" for cha siu bao dough, I've heard of people using "double acting: baking powder; don't know what's in that, though.

    Link: http://eatingchinese.org

    1 Reply
    1. re: Gary Soup

      It is hard to find baking powder which is not double acting anymore. Double acting has 2 leaveners baking soda and in the case of Rumford calcium acid phosphate and a little cornstarch.

    2. My grandmother passed down a cookie recipe that called for ammonia carbonate, and my family has made this for years. Ammonia carbonate used to be available at our local pharmacy, but for the last few years we've picked it up at a local spice shop. The clerks always jockey NOT to be the one to bag it for me - the smell is VERY potent. The smell dissipates during the baking process, but will give you a jolt if you open the oven too soon. I've also been advised not to eat the raw dough, something I've never been tempted to try.

      1 Reply
      1. re: James

        My mom made what she called Ammonia Crackers every year at Christmas. Here's her recipe:

        *Ammonia Crackers*

        2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
        1 cup butter
        2 cups milk
        1/4 tsp salt
        1/2 tsp lemon oil
        1 1/2 tsp carbonate of ammonia
        2 eggs
        8 cups flour
        __________________________________________

        Mix all ingredients, adding the flour last and using only enough to make a dough stiff enough to handle. Chill for at least one hour.

        Roll thin (about as thick as a saltine cracker) and cut into 2" squares. Prick each cookie with a fork three times (as for a cracker).

        Bake on a greased cookie sheet at 350 degrees for ten minutes. Cookies should not brown. Cool and decorate--my mom piped a squiggle of very pale green decorator icing to make a Christmas tree on each one and piped tiny pale pink 'lights' onto each tree.

        Store in tins in layers separated by wax paper.

        The recipe makes a whole lot of these little crackers. My mother, God rest her soul, often made and decorated as many as 10,000 cookies each Christmas.

      2. I con;t know the answer but I know that dry ammonia is used in Greek cookies and you can buy it in small quantities in Greek and Middle east stores.

        1. You wouldn't cook with regular ammonia as it's a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen.
          Ammonia Bicarbonate though is the precursor of today's baking powder and baking soda. It's still called for in some European baking recipes, mainly for cookies. It can be purchased in drugstores but must be ground to a powder before using. Also known as hartshorn, carbonate of ammonia and powdered baking ammonia .

          1. Very unlikely that you want to use ammonia because it is a gas at rt and toxic. What you need is ammonium bicarbonate which can be also substituted by potassium bicarbonate because the anion is the important part for the baking which is the same in both compounds.

            2 Replies
            1. re: honkman

              Look for a pharmacy that compounds medicine, they will carry it.

              1. re: honkman

                Amplification: ammonia is NH3, 1 atom of nitrogen combined with 3 atoms of hydrogen and is a toxic gas. Ammonium bicarbonate/hartshorn is a salt, NH4HCO3 whose breakdown components ( NH3, H2O, and CO2 ) are all volatile, thus providing leavening.