April 29th, 2010
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 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 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?