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Your guide to baking soda and baking powder

November 16, 2021

For most, baking is like therapy, so, watching a cake rise in the oven is beyond satisfying. And if your cake has nicely risen with a browned crust — there's no feeling like it! 

That perfectly puffed top that all bakers strive for is all thanks to baking soda, baking powder, or the combination of the two. These ingredients help expand the dough, release gases into the batter, and deliver that fluffy baked goodness. 

If you’re trying your hand at baking for the first time, you may be slightly confused between baking soda and baking powder, especially if your recipe mentions both together. Are they the same? Can one do without the other? Can they be substituted by other ingredients? Do they have other uses? 

Answering any such questions you may have, here’s a detailed guide to baking soda and baking powder that will help you bake to perfection. 

What is baking soda?

If you’ve had episodes where your precisely mixed batter never rose to the occasion and your cake looked more like flatbread instead of a soft and puffy sponge, your mixture probably lacked baking soda, or your baking soda is out of date.

Also known as sodium bicarbonate, baking soda is a leavening agent used in baking cakes, cookies, and bread. 

Doesn’t the term “soda” bring fizz and popping bubbles to mind? Well, in many ways, baking soda works on a similar principle when used in baking. Essentially, baking soda is an alkaline base. If you want it to create bubbles, you need to create a chemical reaction by pairing this leavening agent with an acidic component. Failing this, the baking soda will help your cake rise but will also leave a displeasing metallic taste in your mouth. 

For your cake or cookie to rise, you need carbon dioxide to find its way into the batter to create bubbles. Since baking soda can’t do this alone, it must be paired with an acidic element like lemon juice, vinegar, buttermilk, or molasses to create the rising effect. That’s why most recipes that suggest the use of baking soda will also mention one such acidic ingredient. 

What is baking powder?

Baking powder is a blend of baking soda, cream of tartar, and cornstarch. The cream of tartar is a dry acid, and the cornstarch in the mixture keeps baking soda from chemically reacting with the acidic component. As baking powder contains both the base and the acid, you don’t need any other additions, making this a convenient ingredient for baking. 

What about double-acting soda powder?

Ever wondered why most baking soda brands in the market today are double-acting in nature? Here’s what you need to know. 

Since baking powder contains baking soda, which is the alkaline base and the acidic component in one potent mixture, it gets activated the moment you mix it with wet ingredients like water, eggs, or milk. This also triggers the baking powder’s leavening action. 

Here, the double-acting feature occurs when the mixture is heated in the oven. This explains why you can’t pre-ready baking mixtures containing baking powder. So when using baking powder, make sure you prep and bake right away since this leavening agent works quickly. 

Baking soda vs. baking powder

Given their names and their functions of being leavening agents, it’s easy to mix up baking soda with baking powder. So here’s a detailed look at baking soda vs baking powder

Baking soda is a leavening agent but it needs an acidic element to activate it. If you’re baking bread or a cake and want that impeccable fluff, you need to add lemon juice, yogurt, or vinegar to the mix. Since baking soda is only an alkaline base, for it to produce bubbles and cause eruptions in the dough mixture, it must be blended with a baking acid. 

Baking powder, on the other hand, is an all-encompassing leavening agent that includes baking soda, a dry acid like cream of tartar or tartaric acid, and a measure of cornstarch. Cornstarch acts as a barrier in the mixture to make sure the base and the acid don’t come in contact with one another. Since baking powder has all the necessary elements, you don’t need add-ons like lemon juice or buttermilk to make your baked goods rise beautifully. 

Why do some recipes use baking soda AND baking powder?

If baking soda and baking powder each have their own purpose, you’re probably wondering why some recipes ask you to use both in equal measure. 

Well, baking is all about balancing textures and flavors. If your recipe demands both baking soda and baking powder, it’s to maintain the acidic and base elements. 

If a recipe has a lesser amount of acidic components and the dish you’re baking needs more carbon dioxide to be released into the batter or dough, you might need to add both baking soda and baking powder into the mixture. 

If an acidic ingredient like yogurt doesn’t get you the desired taste and texture, adding baking powder, which contains an extra helping of acid, with the baking soda can give you the rise and elevation you want. 

Adding both baking powder and baking soda in certain bakes can also enhance specific flavors. For instance, the perfect pancake recipe uses baking soda, buttermilk, and baking powder to keep the tanginess and fluff intact. If you used only baking soda with buttermilk, the alkaline properties of baking soda could completely mask the tangy buttermilk flavor. In this case, including baking powder will ensure the pancakes are fluffy and tangy, just the way you like them! 

Can you use baking powder instead of baking soda?

If your recipe calls for baking soda but all you've got on hand is baking powder, you can use baking powder instead (although it is not the ideal solution).

Because baking powder is made up of baking soda and other ingredients, it's not an easy 1:1 replacement ratio.

To swap out baking soda for baking powder, you'll need to roughly triple the amount. So, if your recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of baking soda, swap it out with 3 teaspoons of baking powder to get the same rise.

However, because you are also tripling the other ingredients in the baking powder, you may notice that this will alter the taste of your recipe.

Leavening agents other than baking soda and baking powder

If you are sensitive to baking soda or don't have any on hand, there are a variety of other leavening agents that can help you with your baking.

Baking soda substitutes

Say you want to bake on impulse, but you’re out of baking soda. Well. don’t let that stop you. Here are some substitutes for baking soda that will do the trick nicely:

  • Baking powder
  • Potassium bicarbonate and salt 
  • Baker’s ammonia 
  • Self-rising flour (already contains baking powder)

Baking powder substitutes

Looking to bake on a whim but you don’t have baking powder at home? Don’t worry! Use one of these ingredients to substitute for baking powder instead:

  • Plain yogurt + Baking soda
  • Sour milk + Baking soda
  • Whipped egg whites 
  • Vinegar + Baking soda
  • Molasses + Baking soda
  • Lemon juice + Baking soda
  • Buttermilk + Baking soda

Other Uses For Baking Soda

Baking soda uses are not just restricted to the kitchen. There are plenty of baking soda benefits you’d be happy to learn about. Here are a few of them: 

1. Use baking soda to get rid of yellowing teeth or plaque. You can use it by itself or add a little to your toothpaste. Avoid overusing it though. 

2. Looking for baking soda uses for cleaning? You can use it as a kitchen scrub or as a cleansing agent for a slew of household items like pans and pots, carpets, and silverware. 

3. Did you know you could unclog your drains using baking soda and vinegar? Give it a go!

4. Stubborn stain? Soak the garment in a mix of baking soda and water overnight and then wash as usual for spotless, fragrant, and germ-free clothes. Alternatively, one of the baking powder uses is to get rid of grease stains from clothes. 

5. Known for its anti-inflammatory properties, baking soda can also be used to treat bee stings, skin rashes, and painful inflammations.

To Sum It Up 

Baking is all about accuracy. From getting your measurements and ingredients on point to setting your oven to the ideal temperature, precision is key. 

And if you want your cookies or bread to rise, leavening agents like baking soda and baking powder are crucial. From lifting flavors to lending that amazingly appetizing brown glaze to your cakes, these baking agents are essential! 

Now that you have this concise guide to assist you with all your baking endeavors, get that apron on and get cooking! 

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