Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder

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Even a seasoned baker has mixed up these two before. The result is ugly and not at all tasty, but it happens! To hopefully help you avoid making this mistake, I’m going to cover all the FAQ’s – how are baking soda and baking powder different? Can I substitute one for the other? How do they even work? Help?

I’m going to break it down for you. but there’s only one thing you take away from today’s post, let it be this – they are absolutely, definitely, 100% not the same.

Baking Soda

What is this stuff? Technically, it’s sodium bicarbonate.

This is the most confusing out of the two, so buckle in. Baking soda is considered a BASE, and a it needs an ACID in order to produce bubbles. Think about that good ole’ volcano science experiment almost everyone did in science class. It’s assembled with baking soda (base) at the bottom, then white vinegar (acid) is poured in, and a fountain of bubbles and carbon dioxide are produced. Yay science!

This same reaction happens (on a much smaller scale) in our cookies, cakes, breads, and other baked goods that use a leavener. Baking soda is the base, and it needs to react with an acid, like buttermilk, brown sugar, yogurt, lemon juice, cream of tartar, natural cocoa powder (NOT dutch processed), or honey. Without an acid like one of these to create carbon dioxide, you’ll be missing that rise in your baked goods

Cream of tartar is potassium bitartrate, also known as potassium hydrogen tartrate, which is a product of winemaking (another reason to love wine). It’s a powdery form of “tartaric acid”–so it’s an acidic substance similar to vinegar or lemon juice.

Baking soda is pretty strong stuff. In fact, it’s about 3-4x stronger than baking powder! But that doesn’t mean more baking soda=more lift. If there is too much baking soda and not enough acid, will result in food that has a metallic and soapy taste. Ick.

Rule of thumb: Normally I use about ¼ teaspoon for ever 1 cup of flour.

Baking Powder

So, what makes this confusing is that baking powder has baking soda IN it, but they are not the same thing. Along with that, it has cream of tartar and sometimes cornstarch mixed in there as well.

Most baking powder is double acting, like the Clabber Girl kind in my picture (I’ve pretty much always stuck with this brand. She’s my ride or die). What does double acting mean? The first leavening occurs when it gets wet, and the second occurs when it’s heated. First act, second act, end scene. Since there is already acid in baking powder, it’s normally called for in recipes that don’t have an acidic ingredient.

So why do some recipes call for both? This happens when an acid and base don’t leaven enough on their own, but adding more of them would compromise the taste and texture of the food. In this case, baking powder is added in to pick up the leaving slack.

Rule of thumb: Normally I use 1 teaspoon for ever 1 cup of flour.

Do They Expire?

Absolutely! A good rule of thumb is to write the date you opened it on the box/canister, and replace every 3 months. Wondering how to tell if they’re expired? Test them out!

Testing Baking Soda

  1. Pour 3 tablespoons of white distilled vinegar into a small bowl
  2. Add ½ teaspoon of baking soda, lightly stir
  3. The mixture should rapidly bubble. If not, toss it out and get a new canister.

Testing Baking Powder

  1. Pour 3 tablespoons of warm water into a small bowl
  2. Add ½ teaspoon baking powder, lightly stir
  3. If it’s fresh, the mixture will fizz a little. If not, toss it out and get a new box.

Are you still with me? Have I bored you with all this science? Okay, I think I’ve covered everything.

Now that you’re a leavening genius and know how to use these the right way, get out there and start baking!

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1 Comment

  1. Very interesting and helpful! I use them all the time but now I know why! And you certainly have a way with words..end scene!

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