{kitchen aids} Baking Soda vs Baking Powder

April 29, 2010

Photo: Christy Carroll

I make no secret of the fact that I am more of a cook than a baker. Cooking is something I do from instinct. Baking, well, not so much. And how exacting you have to be! While I normally appreciate exacting, I’m happy to leave it behind in the kitchen.

That said, I’ve been working hard to be a better baker. I started by paying closer attention to recipes as I followed them. Word. By. Word. Now I’m starting to dig into the anatomy of baking recipes. Why do some recipes call for all purpose flour and others cake flour? Why use cold butter? room temp butter? softened butter? What do acidic ingredients like buttermilk or yogurt do for the taste and texture of a baked good? All things I hope to know—and share with you—one day. My first question, though, is a (I think) a more basic one:

What’s the difference between baking soda and baking powder, and how do I effectively use each?

Both baking soda and baking powder are leavening agents, which means that they help baked goods rise. As far as I can tell, they should be used under different circumstances (more on that below). And, according to Shirley O. Corriher, biochemist turned baker and author of BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking (a book I clearly need), both are generally overused.

Baking Soda
Baking soda is pure sodium bicarbonate. According to About.com, “When baking soda is combined with moisture and an acidic ingredient (e.g., yogurt, chocolate, buttermilk, honey), the resulting chemical reaction produces bubbles of carbon dioxide that expand under oven temperatures, causing baked goods to rise.” Baking soda will yield a bitter taste unless countered by the acidity of another ingredient.

Shirley’s rule is 1/4 teaspoon baking soda per cup of flour.

Baking Powder
Baking powder contains baking soda and the acidifying agent already (cream of tartar). It has an overall neutral effect in terms of taste. Recipes that call for baking powder often call for other neutral-tasting ingredients, such as milk.

Shirley’s rule is 1 to 1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder per cup of flour.

Okay. That’s a good start. And I put Shirley’s rules to work in my zucchini muffin recipe, which worked out well.

But what about recipes that call for baking soda AND baking powder—what’s up with them? I read somewhere that the baking powder does most of the leavening, while the baking soda is added to neutralize the acids. But baking soda is apparently 4 times as strong. What gives? Any idea?

Bakers of the world, have anything else to add?

12 Responses

  1. Avalee says:

    I totally agree with what you’ve written so far. I’d just add that it’s important to make sure your Baking Soda is less than 3 months old (some people say it’s okay a little longer, but 3 months is my rule of thumb!) If it’s not fresh, it won’t work how it’s supposed to, and your baking will not rise. At all. (I’ve learned this the hard way!)

  2. One Hungry Mama says:

    Thanks, Avalee. That’s a great tip! And… I think I may have to get some fresh baking soda!

  3. Karen says:

    This month’s Cooks Country has something on why some recipes call for both. I can’t remember what it says, though.

  4. One Hungry Mama says:

    Cook’s Country is a theme this week. Will have to look it up. Thanks!

  5. Rachel says:

    Always check the date of your baking powder. If it’s expired it’s best to get a new container. I learned the hard way once. It had a weird effect on the dough itself but didn’t change how the final product tasted.
    You can test to see if your baking soda is still active and okay to use by putting a few tablespoons in a bowl of white vinegar. If it foams up, it’s still good. If it doesn’t have a reaction, buy new.
    As for why one is called for in a recipe more than another. I have always personally felt that baking powder helped give my baked goods more of a boost but it might be all in my head.

  6. DailyChef says:

    Great guide! Unfortunately I don’t have any enlightenment to shed on your question…I’ve wondered the same thing myself.

  7. Lindsay says:

    There’s a really fascinating (and surprisingly easy to read) book I recently read called “What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained” by Robert L. Wolke. From a chemistry point of view, he answers all sorts of kitchen questions, including yours about baking soda and baking powder.

    Great blog, by the way. I recently stumbled on it and I’ve been hooked ever since. 🙂

  8. Liz says:

    Hi – I, like you, am DEFINITELY a cook, not a baker! (I can’t fathom how, when I bake, I can get radically different results under apparently identical conditions, using identical ingredients!) I like the picture on this post; I like that baking soda is a wonderful, miraculous ingredient (“bake! clean! freshen!”) while all baking powder seems to offer is that it doesn’t contain aluminum! However, not having been worried about the issue of metals in baking ingredients, I’m now starting to get concerned! Should I be looking for lead-free flour? iron-free sugar?!

    Seriously, though, thanks for a thoughtful post. I’ve just found your site, and plan to enjoy a good look around. My kids are 6 and almost 4, and I’m always on the lookout for meals we can enjoy together (not too spicy/complex but with enough going on to keep the adults – both of whom want to watch calorie-intake – interested). Keep up the good work!

  9. One Hungry Mama says:

    So happy to “meet” some new readers here. Welcome! And thanks, all for the tips on baking soda and baking powder. Also on the required reading. Just added to my Amazon wish list!

  10. Liyana s says:

    hello there!
    i got your link from http://lettersoupblog.blogspot.com/2010/05/reading-and-cooking.html
    i love cooking better than baking too!
    happy to know you

  11. One Hungry Mama says:

    Thanks for stopping by! I hope you visit often. (You’ll find mostly cooking recipes, for folks like us 🙂

  12. jan says:

    Another way to test if baking powder is fresh: place a pinch on your tongue; it will bubble and tingle if fresh (because of the enzymes in your saliva.)
    Love this blog. Hope it continues.

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