What’s the difference between baking soda and baking powder? They are leavening agents that make baked goods rise. Understanding what they are and how they work will make your baked goods better than ever!
Baking used to be time consuming, difficult, and highly unpredictable. As late as the 1840s, bakers had to grow their own yeast, make pearlash out of lye and wood ashes, or beat their egg whites and ingredients for hours – all just to try get their baked goods to rise.
All of that changed in 1846 and 1856, with the inventions of baking soda and baking powder, which turned everyday baking into, well, a piece of cake!
Baking soda and baking powder are both leavening agents. In other words, they make baked goods rise and they take all the guess work (plus a lot of the hard work!) out of baking. So here’s the rundown on baking soda and baking powder: what they are, what they do, how to use them, the differences and substitutes.
Table of Contents
What Is Baking Soda?
Baking is a science – baking soda is a base (or basic) mineral, meaning that it is naturally alkaline. Its formal name is sodium bicarbonate.
Because it’s a base, baking soda activates when combined with an acid, releasing carbon dioxide in the form of air bubbles. Examples of acids used in baking are lemon or orange juice, vinegar, buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt, honey, and molasses. All of these will cause baking soda to bubble (i.e. produce carbon dioxide) and you guessed it – rise!
This is why every recipe that uses baking soda will call for an acidic ingredient, too. It’s required for the leavening process to happen.
It’s the same mechanics of every elementary school model volcano out there – vinegar in the bottom of a bottle, drop in some baking soda, and instant eruption!
Understanding baking soda can lead to better baking. Using the right amount will give you the perfect texture. But be careful not to use too much, or it will result with a bitter, chemical taste.
Summary: Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, is a popular leavening agent. Because it is a base, it needs an acid (such as lemon juice or vinegar) to activate, which produces carbon dioxide and causes baked goods to rise.
How Long Does Baking Soda Last?
Baking soda is a rock (mineral) in ground up, powdered form. It can pretty much last forever when it is kept cool and dry. A general rule is to use unopened boxes within two years and opened boxes within six months. It can lose some of its effectiveness over time, but it will still be safe to consume.
How to Test if Baking Soda Is Still Good
Baking soda doesn’t really go bad, but it can lose some of it’s potency over time. It’s possible that it has been exposed to small amounts of acids. Maybe it sat out on the counter next to lemon juice, or your water is slightly acidic and the box got a little wet. Here’s a quick and easy way to see if your baking soda is still active.
Scoop a little baking soda into a bowl. Add a capful of an acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice. If the mixture starts to fizz and bubble heavily, you know that your baking soda is still going strong. If you don’t see much of a reaction, your baking soda has probably lost its effectiveness.
How to Store
Baking soda doesn’t have to be refrigerated after opening, but you should store it in a sealed, airtight container (not its original box) away from any heat, cold, or strong spices to prevent it from absorbing odors. An opened box of baking soda kept in the refrigerator works to absorb unwanted odors and flavors, but make sure to keep a separate stash to use in your baking. No one wants those flavors to turn up in their favorite cookies!
What Is Baking Powder?
Baking powder is the other common chemical leavening agent. It does not need an acidic ingredient in the recipe to produce leavening, because baking powder is composed of a base (baking soda) and an acid (cream of tartar, sodium aluminum sulfate and/or monocalcium phosphate). This means that it can react with itself to produce carbon dioxide bubbles, but only after a liquid is added, which just happens to be the wet ingredients in your recipe. Baking powder also contains cornstarch to keep the main two ingredients from activating in the container.
Most baking powder available today is double acting. This means that it will activate for the first time when the ingredients are mixed into dough, and will activate a second time when heat is added, which is when you bake it.
As mentioned above, sodium aluminum sulfate is an acid that is in a lot of brands of baking powder because it reacts well when heated. However, if you notice your baked goods tasting metallic, it is probably the culprit. In that case, you may want to look for an aluminum-free brand.
Summary: Baking powder is made of baking soda and an acid–such as cream of tartar–that react for the first time when all ingredients are mixed and a second time when they are heated, to produce a light and airy baked good.
How Long Does Baking Powder Last?
Baking powder’s leavening abilities weaken when it is exposed to moisture, even the moisture in air. Once you open a can, it is best to use it within 6 months, and definitely use it by the manufacturer’s ‘best if used by’ date.
How to Test if Baking Powder Is Still Good
If your baking powder is getting old, you can do a simple test to see if it is still potent. First, put ½ cup warm water into a bowl. Next, put 1 teaspoon of baking powder into the water. If there is bubbling, then the baking powder is still good to use. If it doesn’t produce bubbling, then it has lost its potency and your baking will not rise, but instead be dense and flat.
How to Store
Like most powdery baking ingredients, baking powder needs to be stored in a cool and dry location. A pantry or cabinet in the kitchen is a great place. Just make sure it is away from moisture, as it can reduce baking powder’s efficacy.
Some stores sell bulk baking powder, but because it has been exposed to air and potentially moisture, it might not be as effective. It is best to buy baking powder sold in the can, with a tight-fitting lid.
Why Do Some Recipes Call for Baking Soda and Baking Powder?
Since baking is a science, recipes have been crafted to use the properties of the ingredients to produce the best end result. And sometimes that means both baking soda and baking powder are used. Reasons for this might include:
- Extra leavening
- Neutralizing the acidic ingredients while maintaining their tangy flavor
- Avoiding a metallic flavor
- Avoiding a bitter flavor
Recipes have been tested and retested to make sure the ingredients are the right proportions and combinations. So it is best if you can use the ingredients they call for, even if it means going to the store or getting an ingredient from a neighbor. However, if you want to try substitutions, here are some that can work in a pinch.
Substituting Baking Powder for Baking Soda
Baking soda is stronger than baking powder, so you’ll need to use a ratio of 1 part baking soda to 3 parts baking powder. Take the amount of baking soda that the recipe calls for and then triple that number. That is how much baking powder you’ll need to use.
For example, if the recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of baking soda, you’ll want to use 3 teaspoons of baking powder.
Keep in mind that this will alter the taste of your final product.
Substituting Baking Soda for Baking Powder
You can make your own baking powder if you have baking soda and cream of tartar. The ratio is 1 part baking soda to 2 parts cream of tartar.
So, if you use 1 teaspoon of baking soda, you’ll need to use 2 teaspoons of cream of tartar. Then mix it together and use the amount that the recipe calls for.
Yes, you can. See above for the correct proportions. Be aware that the final product will be altered.
Yes, you can. You can make your own baking powder by combining baking soda with cream of tartar. The final product, however, will not turn out exactly the same.
Tips to Use Baking Powder and Baking Soda
- Be sure to completely mix baking soda and baking powder with the dry ingredients before adding into the wet ingredients. The powders need to be thoroughly distributed so there aren’t any clumps in your cookies.
- Measure the baking soda and baking powder by overfilling a measuring spoon and then leveling off the excess.
- The proportions and ingredients in recipes are calculated to produce the finest results. It is best to be exact in your measurements and procedures to achieve the best cookies.
If you’re ready to bake cookies right now, but you don’t have baking powder and you don’t want to try substitutions, here’s a recipe that doesn’t use baking powder – Peanut Butter Blossoms. If you don’t have baking soda or baking powder, No Bake Cornflake Cookies are a fun and easy recipe to make!
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