The difference between baking soda and baking powder

the difference between baking soda and baking powder

One of the best things about having a job in the food industry is the questions. Loads of questions about food and ingredients, cooking and hot topics. As consumers, we care about what we eat!

When I was in school getting my food science degree, I remember getting asked two questions most frequently:

  1. Food Science…what are you going to do with that? 🙂
  2. What is the difference between baking soda and baking powder?

The difference between baking soda and baking powder, foodie friends. 

What is baking soda?

Also known as sodium bicarbonate (shout-out to my fellow food geeks), baking soda is an effective leavening agent. In recipes where a liquid and an acid are included (as in many baked goods), the soda will react and release carbon dioxide (CO2).

This is where the example of the “vinegar volcano” always gets mentioned…because it’s a great demonstration of the concept. You remember the infamous vinegar volcano experiment. Right? (If not, it’s a sure winner for curious kids…Kitchen Experiment for Kids: Potions in the Kitchen). The gist of the experiment: Vinegar (an acid) is added to baking soda, and boom! Tons of erupting bubbles (and gasps from gleeful children) results. Basically, this is happening in your baking recipes. When baking soda and an acid combine, CO2 gas is released, bubbles enlarge, and the product rises. Acids in a recipe may come from: yogurt, honey, sour cream, molasses, buttermilk, chocolate/cocoa, juices, etc.

Recipes should use only enough baking soda to balance the acid – any more than that is unnecessary. Adding extra baking soda to a recipe is not a good thing…believe me, I’ve tried! (As has my main taste-tester – the hubs – who makes the “yuck” face.) If additional leavening is desired, baking powder is generally added.

What is baking powder?

Baking powder is a chemical leavener that behaves much like sodium bicarbonate…okay, BAKING SODA. But, baking powder contains the acid and starch to prevent lumping. There are different types of baking powders, all designed to optimize rise in baked goods. Most of what we find on grocery shelves is “double-acting” baking powder. Simply put, baking powder is kind of a marvelous little beauty.

Baking powder is useful in a variety of recipes, because (unlike soda) baking powder doesn’t require an acid in the formula to undergo the leavening reaction. Instead, the acid in the powder initiates the leavening reaction. Sounds great, right? But all things in balance.

Have you ever seen a cake rise, then fall before setting? This may be an indicator that too much baking powder was used. Using too much baking powder in a recipe can also yield off flavors in the finished product. 

I’ve heard baking powder is just baking soda with an acid…?

Yep. Pretty much.

So, can I substitute baking soda for baking powder in my recipes, or vice versa?

Okay, the short answer…no. Baking soda and baking powder are not the same, and will not yield the expected results if substituted 1:1. In truth, expected results are often not obtained even at the “recommended” substitution levels. I’ve played around with a few substitution ratios myself, and some are reasonably good – in a pinch. Remember, baking soda is stronger than baking powder.

It can be confusing, for sure!

A quick tip: Store both baking soda and baking powder in an air-tight container. If moisture is introduced to either product, the leavening property may be compromised.

Okay…a confession to my most loyal readers who have been following Food Science Secrets since…2010 (?!)…or whenever it was that this little blog began… You did see this post before! I figured it was time for an update on some pre-2013 content. LOL. Yea. Probably time.

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