Baking Basics: Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder

Baking Basics: Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder - Everything you need to know about how they work and when you should use them!

Welcome to another Baking Basics installment!

Today we’re tackling the subject of baking soda vs. baking powder. Nearly every baking recipe includes one of these (or both!) and if you’re like me, you may have wondered why some recipes call for one or the other and if it’s possible to make substitutions.

Baking soda and baking powder are both odorless white powders that work as leaveners, however they are chemically different.

Let’s get started!

Baking Soda

Baking soda is also known as sodium bicarbonate or bicarbonate of soda.

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The first thing to understand is that baking soda is a base (we touched on this a bit when talking about cocoa powders last week!). So, it needs an acid to react with to create carbon dioxide (bubbles!), which is what gives rise to baked goods such as cakes, cookies and biscuits. The most common types of acids called for in recipes with baking soda are things like lemon juice, yogurt, buttermilk, brown sugar, cream of tartar, vinegar, molasses, applesauce, honey or natural cocoa powder (NOT Dutch-process).

Baking soda will create leavening on its own when it is heated, but it also produces sodium carbonate, which can result in a metallic taste. This affect is neutralized in baked goods by adding those acids!

How Much to Use? A general rule of thumb is ¼ teaspoon of baking soda per 1 cup of flour.

Make-Ahead Note: Baking soda begins to work as soon as it touches liquid, so it is important to bake items that are only leavened with baking soda as soon as the batter or dough is mixed together. The longer you let it sit, you’ll notice a decrease in the leavening effect.

Baking Powder

Baking powder is a mixture of baking soda, cream of tartar (an acid) and, at times, cornstarch.

Most baking powder sold today is “double-acting” – this means that it first releases a small amount of carbon dioxide (leavening) when combined with wet ingredients, and then releases the majority of the leavening when the baking powder is heated (in the oven). A great one-two punch!

Since baking powder already contains an acid (cream of tartar), it is typically paired with non-acidic ingredients, such as whole milk and Dutch-process cocoa powder.

How Much to Use? A general rule of thumb is 1 teaspoon of baking powder per 1 cup of flour.

Make-Ahead NoteSince baking powder does not require an acid and most of its leavening occurs in the oven, it is safer to make batters and doughs using baking powder ahead of time without sacrificing leavening.

Recipes Using Both

Some recipes call for both baking powder and baking soda. These recipes will contain an acid, but the combination with baking soda is not enough to fully leaven recipe, so baking powder is used to add necessary lift. These recipes maximize the amount of acid neutralization and leavening power.

Substitutions

Just as I mentioned last week when talking about cocoa powder, I always, always, always recommend following a recipe as written (see my initial Baking Basics post on 5 mistakes to avoid when preparing a recipe). Doing so gives you the best chance for success, especially if it’s your first time making the recipe. So, in a word, no. If you switch the leavening agent, you’ll need to start playing around with the other ingredients, as well.

Here is the deal… If you have a recipe calling for baking soda, you’ll need as much as four times the amount of baking powder to get the same amount of leavening. Do this and you run the risk of having a baked good that turns out with a bitter flavor.

If you have a recipe calling for baking powder, you can substitute a lesser amount of baking soda only if you increase the amount of acid in the recipe, which will likely change the taste and texture of the final product.

Is It Expired?

Both baking soda and baking powder can expire in a short amount of time (in as little as three months sometimes!). If you try to use expired baking soda or powder in a recipe, the leavening will not work as intended and you’ll likely end up with a flat, dense baked good. So, how to do you know if they are fresh? It’s easy!

How To Test Baking Soda: Place 2 tablespoons of white vinegar in a small bowl and add 1 teaspoon baking soda. If it fizzes immediately, it’s still fresh! If nothing happens, throw away the baking soda and buy a fresh box.

How To Test Baking Powder: Place ⅓ cup hot water in a small bowl and add 1 teaspoon baking powder. If it bubbles, it’s still fresh! If nothing happens, throw away the baking powder and buy a fresh container.

BAKE ON!

Check out more posts in the Baking Basics series:

5 Mistakes to Avoid When Preparing a Recipe

High Altitude Baking Tips

Flour 101: The Definitive Guide to the Different Types of Baking Flours

Cocoa Powder 101: Natural Unsweetened vs Dutch-Process