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  • Writer's pictureMcKenna

Baking Powder vs Baking Soda

These two ingredients had me confused for years. I knew they were important for baking, helping your dessert rise and in a way, come to life. But I never understood when to use one over the other or why some recipes had both. And how the heck do recipe developers know how much to use?? It felt like a hidden secret that I wasn’t allowed in on.

So, I did some research to clarify a few things. And now looking back, I understand why desserts have tasted like soap, had hardly any flavor, or remained a flat, sad, blob of mush. Knowing the difference between these two ingredients can truly save you a world of frustration.

The commonality:

Aside from looking very similar, both baking powder and baking soda are leaveners, aka, they give your dessert a little lift! Technically, they’re both made from sodium bicarbonate which produces a gas (carbon dioxide, CO2) when it’s combined with an acid. The gas that’s produced helps to expand your dessert while it bakes.

The difference:

Come to find out, baking powder is just baking soda with dry acid. In other words, baking soda is solely sodium bicarbonate, while baking powder is sodium bicarbonate + an acid.

Baking Powder: Because it contains an acid, it’s commonly used in recipes with little acid content. When it’s added to a liquid, it releases CO2 which helps the dessert rise. Sometimes, double-acting baking powder is used. This means that it’s first activated when it comes into contact with liquid (mixing your ingredients) and a second time when it meets heat in the oven.

Key characteristics:

  • Functions as an acid

  • Lasts about 12 months

  • Used in recipes with little acidity

  • Weaker than baking soda

Baking Soda: As I mentioned, it doesn’t have an acid, which means that in order for it to expand your dessert, it needs an acid to be activated - lemon juice, vinegar, and buttermilk are common acids used in baking. Baking soda also helps to brown a recipe, giving you that beautiful, golden result. It’s important to note that baking soda is much stronger than baking powder, so if you’re experimenting with a recipe, I’d err on the side of caution with it. Too much can result in a soapy, or metallic-tasting dessert that really, no one wants to eat.

Key characteristics:

  • Functions as a base

  • Lasts about 6 months

  • Needs an acid to be activated

  • Very strong

Why do some recipes use both?

If you stumble across a recipe that uses both, it’s likely because there is an acidic ingredient but the recipe needs a lot of lift! Baking soda is needed to neutralize the acid but remember, if you use too much, you might bake a very unappetizing dish. So to help give your dessert the proper facelift, use baking powder in addition to baking soda.

Also, if you’re wanting to create something with a little tang, you’ll want to use a combo. If you were to just use baking soda, it would neutralize the acid in a recipe. But since baking powder has an acid in it too, you’ll still get that tangy flavor. Plus, the flavor will be enhanced (acid adds flavor)!

Can you use the two interchangeably?

Kinda. Try 1 tsp of baking powder for every 1/4 tsp of baking soda. Since baking powder has baking soda in it already, it’s usually fine to use, just in larger quantities given that it’s weaker. If you do this, you may consider removing the acidic liquid (or reducing the total amount) to avoid a wonky flavor.

Keep in mind that the substitute can alter a few things:

  • A dense product? Not enough baking powder.

  • Too salty? There is more sodium in baking powder, consider reducing the salt.

  • Acidic? Probably too much baking powder.

Replacing baking powder is a bit more tricky, but not impossible. You can use baking soda but you’ll need to add an acid to activate it. Bakers often use cream of tartar to do this. You’ll also want to use LESS baking soda. If the recipe calls for 1 tbsp of baking powder, please do not use 1 tbsp of baking soda.

Substitute alternative:

  • Replace 1tbsp of baking powder with 2 tsp cream of tartar + 1tsp baking soda

Final things:

Whether you’re an avid baker wanting to create your own recipes, or just curious about random things like baking powder vs baking soda, I hope this helped answer a few questions.

As for remembering these, well, I don’t have a trick. But, if you come up with one, let me know! Because in all honesty, I’ll probably be coming back to my own article to remember, ha!


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