In Defense of Baking With Soda
On Christmas Day on a visit to my parents in Jackson, Mississippi, I opened a copy of the local newspaper, The Clarion-Ledger, and found a feature on biscuits. I grew up in Alabama before relocating to New York City, so I had certain expectations about what a biscuit article in a Southern newspaper would address—why soft white winter wheat flour, like White Lily, works better than the hard winter wheat common above the Mason-Dixon line, or the importance of keeping your butter really cold as you work it into the flour to make for flakier layers. But this recipe didn't even mention those pillars of biscuit making. Instead, it called for just four ingredients: Sour cream, Bisquick, melted butter, and 7-Up.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Soda as an ingredient in baked goods is nothing new. Coca-Cola cake was a common sight at my middle-school bake sales, and Dr. Pepper was the rumored secret ingredient in the sauce at Milo’s, a beloved Alabama burger chain. But I had never seen 7-Up biscuits before, so with a good amount of morbid curiosity, I gave it a go. Even with the Winter Spiced Cranberry Sprite that we had on hand as a 7-Up substitute—an elixir that I cannot in good conscience recommend for consumption of any kind—the recipe worked. Bisquick mixed with sour cream and lemon soda, rolled out and cut into biscuits, and then baked in a pool of melted butter yielded perfectly acceptable biscuits. They might not stand up to a fight with Virginia Willis’ flaky cathead biscuits or Edna Lewis’ tender buttermilk biscuits, but compared to the slew of disappointing biscuits I’ve eaten in New York City restaurants, these had a great, airy texture and a nice buttery crumb, without more than a gentle aftertaste of citrus from the soda.
The history of cooking with soda dates back to at least the Great Depression, when cooks had to MacGyver new solutions to make up for a lack of baking staples. Max Davis, a Communications Manager at the Coca-Cola Company, explained that, as far as he could tell, the use of soda in baking was something that originated in home kitchens, rather than as a push from the marketing division of soda companies.
That squares with insights that Dr. Kimberly Voss, an Associate Professor at the University of Central Florida and the author of Re-Evaluating Women's Page Journalism in the Post-World War II Era found in her recipe research. “Baking with soda in the early days is attributed back to the Great Depression, and rationing during World War II, when anything that was sweet was helpful,” Voss said. Baking with soda is most associated with the South, which makes sense, since many soda companies are based there—Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Cheerwine in North Carolina, and other regional sodas—but also, Voss suggested, because soda was a good substitute to recipes that otherwise called for alcohol. “In the South, there was often pushback from churches about not using alcohol in recipes,” Voss said. “Looking at the oral histories, any time they would run a recipe in the newspaper with alcohol, they would get angry phone calls. So you start to see this idea of using soda if you couldn’t use rum, for example.”
Not that soda in baking was an exclusively Southern phenomenon. “By the time we get to the 1950s, baking with soda was popular around the country,” Voss said. “It’s one of those trends that goes in and out of fashion pretty reliably.” Part of the reason for its popularity, Voss pointed out, was that in decades prior, Americans saw dessert differently. “Now, we often think of cake as a special occasion dish, but in the 1950s and ‘60s, cake was a day-to-day, almost mandatory thing. In a lot of Junior League cookbooks I’ve looked through, there are separate chapters for desserts and cakes. Imagine making cake every day—using soda was exciting.”
Soda isn’t just a good as a novelty ingredient, or a substitute when sugar is scarce, though. Sherri Castle, a food writer, recipe developer, and cookbook author has developed a handful of recipes using soda, including a Pepsi and Peanuts Fudge Cake and a recipe for Instant Pot Bourbon and Cola Short Ribs in her most recent cookbook Instantly Southern. Castle pointed out that soda is more than a shortcut. “It’s not just a compromise, it’s an ingredient. Look at the role these things can play in a recipe. If you think about what’s in cola, the cola flavor, it has that natural caramelization, and flavoring agents that touch on all these deep spices like cinnamon, cloves, and coriander,” Castle said. Castle theory is that 7-Up brings things to a biscuit that you’d naturally look for—specifically the sugar, and the acid. “A lot of people put a little sugar in the biscuit even if they don’t admit it because it facilitates browning. It will look better,” Castle said. The acid in the 7-Up acts in the same way buttermilk does, and the effervescence of the soda probably doesn’t hurt, either. “I always think about using club soda in tempura batter. You get that foam, that fizz, as a quick-acting leavening.”
In The Southern Foodways Alliance Cookbook, which she coauthored, Castle included a recipe from Jackson, Mississippi restaurateur Hal White’s vegetable soup includes “1 or 2 good glugs of Coca-Cola,” a strategy that Castle has since adopted. “That lifting, that bolstering, and the acidity that the Coke brought to that recipe; it’s like combing your hair and putting on a fresh coat of lipstick,” Castle said. “I have carried it forward in my recipes since. The irony is that I don’t drink soda at all, but I am charmed by cooking with it.”
The more I dug into baking with soda, the more common it seemed to be. 7-Up has a whole website of recipe suggestions, including one for cinnamon rolls and guacamole, alongside the biscuit recipe. There are ways to simmer down soda to make a glaze for cakes, or use it as a meat tenderizer, and Weight Watchers-compliant desserts that consist of boxed cake mix blended with diet soda and fat free Cool Whip. The 7-Up and Bisquick formula is all over Pinterest, which is basically the community cookbook of the 21st century. It’s touted as a copycat recipe for KFC biscuits, or for Popeyes biscuits. And yet it is controversial, at least among my social media followers. When I posted a photo of my biscuits, strangers chimed in to call the recipe “an atrocity” and advise that a biscuit made with Bisquick and soda isn’t homemade at all, and I came to think that it wasn’t about the soda at all, but about notions of Southern-ness, and what counts as “real” Southern food. “An outsider’s notion of a biscuit is there needs to be a sweet little old lady making them from a place of love, sometime before the war,” Castle observed. “Making a biscuit with four ingredients that still turns out good is an affront to that world view. It’s not saying I make my sauce or biscuits differently, it is as if you backhanded their sainted granny right in the mouth.”
Biscuit making is one of the shibboleths of Southern cooking. Part of the image of a Southern table piled high always includes a plate of biscuits. But the truth is the South has as many time-crunched folks in need of a dinner shortcut as anywhere else in the country, and plenty of ingenious cooks who know when to deploy a sweet, fizzy concoction to maximum effect. And when using soda and Bisquick does the trick, well, why not?