If you’ve ever tried making baked goods at home, then you likely know the value of baking soda and baking powder. Because they look alike, chances are you’ve made the common mistake of substituting one for the other — resulting in baked goods that are less appetizing than you expected. So how do you know which one to use for a particular recipe? This article will discuss baking soda versus baking powder — what they’re made of, what they’re used for and how to make sure you’ve got the right one for your baking needs.
What Is Baking Soda?
The scientific name for baking soda is sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3 or CHNaO3),1 although it’s also known as sodium acid carbonate or sodium hydrogen carbonate.2 It’s an amphoteric substance, meaning it has the ability to neutralize both acids and bases, and has a pH of 8.3 Baking soda is nontoxic, odorless and has a slightly bitter, alkaline taste. It can be either a white crystalline powder or appear in lumps.4
Baking soda has a number of uses for health. It’s believed to be an inexpensive treatment for autoimmune disorders like arthritis.5 It can be used around the house, too — mix it with apple cider vinegar or white vinegar to make an all-around homemade cleaner, or just sprinkle all over kitchen counters and tabletops as a surface disinfectant. However, its most popular use is in baked products.
Baking soda is a chemical leavening agent. When mixed with an ingredient that is both a liquid and an acid, such as vinegar, buttermilk, molasses, yogurt, citrus juices or coffee, baking soda causes a reaction that leads to the production of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the form of bubbles, similar to a liquid foam.
By generating this gas, it “raises” or aerates the food — giving it the fluffy, light and “crumbly” texture that is a characteristic of baked goods. Products like muffins, cakes, breads and biscuits that do not include yeast need chemical leaveners to achieve this texture.6,7
But here’s the problem: When baking soda mixes with these acids, the reaction is immediate, so you need to put the mixture in the oven as soon as possible. However, not all pastry and bread recipes call for the dough to be placed immediately in the oven, as there are some that need to sit for a few minutes before being baked. This is where baking powder comes in.
What Is Baking Powder?
Baking powder is a mixture composed of sodium bicarbonate and another type of acid like sodium aluminum sulfate, calcium acid phosphate or cream of tartar,8 then mixed with a small amount of cornstarch, which acts as an “inert stabilizer” — an ingredient that prevents the mixture from reacting immediately.9
As with baking soda, baking powder is also a chemical leavening agent, so the same reaction and CO2 production occurs. The only difference is that the reaction does not occur all at once. The first reaction happens when the powder is dissolved in the batter. Due to the inert stabilizer, a second reaction occurs slowly when the product is heated. By using baking powder in place of baking soda, the dough or batter can be left to sit for a bit before popping it in the oven, and it will still get the rise you’re aiming for.10
Can I Substitute Baking Powder for Baking Soda (and Vice Versa)?
Now that you know the difference between the two, the question now is, is it still possible to use one for the other? Considering they’re both made from sodium bicarbonate, it’s possible — however, you need to take note that there are slight changes to the measurement and the ingredients. You cannot simply replace a teaspoon of baking soda with a teaspoon of baking powder, or vice versa.
If you’re going to use baking powder in place of baking soda, you need to triple the amount that the recipe calls for. So if the recipe requires a teaspoon of baking soda, add 3 teaspoons of baking powder. This will help produce the right kind of chemical reaction in the dough or batter and counteract the addition of the dry acid. Using baking soda in place of baking powder is a different matter — you will need to add an acid. According to MyRecipes.com:11
“If a recipe calls for baking soda, you can swap in baking powder without adding any additional ingredients, but if a recipe calls for baking powder, it's more difficult to swap in baking soda, because you'd also need to add cream of tartar or another acid … If you're replacing baking soda with baking powder, you're playing with proportions rather than adding more ingredients.”
If using baking powder for baking soda, take note that it may cause your mixture to be more salty than expected. To avoid this, you can simply omit the salt that the recipe calls for. Forgetting to omit the salt wouldn’t hurt the recipe, but the end product may be a bit salty. 12
3 Baking Powder Substitutes You Can Try
If you’re in a pinch and out of baking powder, but have baking soda on hand, try these alternative options. Take note to use the correct ratios:
- Mix one-third teaspoon baking soda with one-half teaspoon cream of tartar. Add one-eighth teaspoon salt. This will make a teaspoon of single-acting baking powder.13
- Combine one-fourth teaspoon baking soda with one-half cup buttermilk or plain Greek yogurt. This can be a substitute for one teaspoon of baking powder.14
- Combine one teaspoon of lemon juice and one-fourth teaspoon baking soda to substitute for a teaspoon of baking powder.15
No Baking Soda? Substitute With These 2 Ingredients
As mentioned, baking soda can be easily replaced with baking powder. But if you’re looking for more options, here are a couple of alternatives. Take note that they may not be as easily accessible as baking powder:
- Yeast — This is the oldest leavening agent and can be used in the same amount as baking soda the recipe calls for. However, the way yeast produces gases is different from how baking soda or baking powder works, so the results may not be the same. The flavor and texture may be different. Test a few batches and note the outcome.16
- Baker’s ammonia — Also called ammonium bicarbonate or ammonium carbonate, this was the main leavening agent used by 19th century bakers, before the advent of baking soda and baking powder. It has a noxious scent, however, making it suitable only for crisp cookies and crackers, or other low-moisture baked goods that are thoroughly dried out after cooking. According to Cook’s Illustrated, using baker’s ammonia gives crisp sugar cookies a lighter and crunchier crumb.17
When It Comes to Baking, Having the Right Measurements Is Crucial
Unlike cooking, where you can experiment with the ratios of the ingredients and easily make adjustments to the flavors, baking requires precision — especially with the measurements. Baking is a science that involves chemistry — a certain balance is needed between the liquids, flour, fats and leaveners.
Whether you’re using baking soda or baking powder for your baked goods, make sure you take note of what the recipe calls for. Measure out the quantities as carefully as you can. Over time, you may be able to experiment with the ingredients, and still come out with delicious, freshly baked bread and pastries.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Baking Soda and Baking Powder
Q: What does baking powder do?
A: Just like baking soda, baking powder is a chemical leavening agent. When it reacts with acid in other foods, it generates CO2 that forms bubbles. This aerates the food, producing the light and crumbly texture that pastries are known for.
Q: Is baking powder gluten-free?
A: This depends on the type of starch used by the manufacturer. Baking powder that uses cornstarch is gluten-free, while those that use wheat starch are gluten full.18
Q: Is baking soda also called baking powder?
A: No. These are two different ingredients. Baking soda is plain sodium bicarbonate, while baking powder is sodium bicarbonate mixed with an acid and an inert stabilizer.
Q: What will happen if you use baking soda instead of baking powder?
A: If you use baking soda in place of baking powder without adding in cream of tartar or any acid, the process will not have the right chemical reaction. Your baked goods will not taste right or have the right texture.
Q: Is baking powder harmful?
A: If used in the right amounts in cooking and baking, baking powder is nontoxic. However, if ingested in large amounts, allergic reactions and other serious complications may arise.19
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