The word Leaven means to cause to rise. A leavener is something that modifies or lightens a baked good.

We take light cakes and tender biscuits, springy breads and airy meringues as a given without a thought about the reason for their lightness. And when we do, it’s baking powder or baking soda that come to mind.

Chemical leavening agents
Chemical leavening agents

But baking has been around long before chemical leavening agents were included in recipes. In fact baking powder was only invented in 1843; and took a few decades to come into popular use. 

So how were cakes and breads baked in the past? Let’s take a quick look at the different kinds of leavening.


This refers to leavening with the help of microorganisms to help raise baked goods. The most common one is Yeast. 

Yeast granules
Dry yeast

The primary function of yeast is to convert fermentable sugars present in the dough into carbon dioxide and ethanol.  Yeast is activated by adding it to a warm sugar water solution. The water must be warm & not too hot (which could kill the yeast) or too cold (which would not help in activating the deactivated yeast) Yeast growth can be slowed down or stopped using salt or some fats.

Seedy bread


Steam can be used as a leavening agent for cooking that’s done at very high temperatures. The batter must be capable of holding in the steam until it is set. 

Eclairs, profiteroles, steamed puddings, are all examples.

Crisp Choux pastry piped into eclairs. Filled with cream and dipped in a chocolate glaze


Whipping or whisking is also a process of leavening where cream or egg whites are whisked vigorously to create a foaming action. This process is usually done in the making of sponge cakes, chiffon cakes or angel food cakes.

Tall chiffon cake with rosemary and orange zest.
Chiffon cake


Chemical leavening agents are mixtures which react in the presence of liquids, acids or heat to produce gases that lift a batter and create a light cake or muffin.

Baking soda and baking powder are the most commonly used chemical leaveners.

Creaming is another leavening process which combines the best of Manual and Chemical leavening.

Granulated sugar is beaten together with butter. The sugar crystals cut through the butter, creating myriad air pockets which fill with the carbon dioxide released by the baking powder thereby lifting the batter. 


So tell me would you bake a cake without baking powder or baking soda?