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Chinese Baking: Ammonia and Ammonia Bicarbonate

  • d

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?


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.

              2. They also use it in seafood as well. Mostly shirmp, to give them the nice crunch when you bite down on it.

                1. No they are not the same thing, and it is Ammonium Bicarbonate.
                  Baking powder is made from 2 parts Baking Soda and 1 part Cream of Tartar and is ALWAYS better than shop-bought.

                  1. You can also get Baker's Ammonia from the King Arthur catalog:


                    6 Replies
                    1. re: gooddog

                      In the UK, chemists are more generic and don't stock such interesting items, but I did find it on ebay UK, a guy called kitchen-chemistry sells it and it's reasonably priced too.

                      1. re: ballisticbrian

                        UK members:
                        I bought some Ammonium Carbonate yesterday, instore from the Scandinavian Kitchen in London. The manufacturer is the delightfully named "Kockens" it comes in a pack and is called Hjorthornssalt
                        I used it to make pineapple buns (AKA melonpan) with this recipe
                        Total cost was £1
                        The result was a much crisper topping than without the Ammonium Carbonate.

                        1. re: MoGa

                          I wouldn't use Ammonium Carbonate MoGa, that's what is used in smelling salts, it's Ammonium Bicarbonate. If you check on wiki they are two different substances.

                          1. re: ballisticbrian

                            Very confusing as one website sells Hjorthornssalt as Ammonium Carbonate: http://www.totallyswedish.com/en/webs...
                            and the Scandinavian kitchen website I had already linked to calls it Ammonium Bicarbonate.
                            Not sure why you'd advise not to use Ammonium Carbonate pointing to wikipedia for reason as the same English wiki articles say both are used for cooking.

                            Wikipedia in Swedish confirms that it is Ammoniumvätekarbonat (Ammonium bicarbonate) and not Ammoniumkarbonat that Hartshorn salt is made from

                            Good job I have no pretensions to any scientific knowledge. I just wanted some baking ammonia. The proof I have it is in my delicious crispy topped dessert bread (AKA pudding in some households)

                            1. re: MoGa

                              Ammonium Carbonate breaks down very quickly without heating, that's why when you lift the lid off the jar of smelling salts, the gas knocks you off your feet. (you don't have to cook smelling salts). If you keep Ammonium Carbonate in the cupboard not properly sealed, or in a half used container, it could all turn into gas and simply "disappear" in a very short period. The "Ammonium Bicarbonate", on the other hand, needs to be heated to release the gas, but even so you can still smell the Ammonia when opening the pack to some extent. This disipates in the cooking. It looks like we are both pointing to the right stuff though, my guy on ebay sells 90g which is nearly twice as much product though.

                              1. re: ballisticbrian

                                Very good to know!
                                So, yes, definitely the same stuff as the powder I have is a little whiffy but not eye-wateringly so.
                                Only other ingredient apart from Ammonium BICARBONATE in the Hartshorn Salt packet is an anti-caking agent.