It’s easy to confuse baking powder and baking soda, what with their similarities in name and appearance. And both often show up in the same recipe as well. Baking can be a finicky process, if using wrong amounts can lead to a recipe fail, just think what can happen if you use the completely wrong ingredient! Knowing the difference between baking powder and baking soda is crucial for successful recipes (like these beautiful vintage-inspired cakes). So here’s the scoop.
What is baking soda?
Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, is a mineral compound that, when combined with something acidic, creates carbon dioxide (think of those elementary school volcano experiments when you pour in the vinegar). The carbon dioxide gas creates bubbles, which help doughs and batters rise.
Baking soda is commonly used in recipes containing acidic ingredients like buttermilk, brown sugar, yogurt, lemon juice, vinegar, cream of tartar, applesauce, natural cocoa powder, honey or molasses (these molasses recipes are to die for, by the way!). Baking soda helps the finished product to rise and have a crisper texture.
It’s also a little salty tasting. But unlike a little extra salt or sugar, which can often be barely detectable to your taste buds, overdoing it with baking soda can result in an extra salty or even metallic-tasting bake. You only want to use enough to react with the amount of acid in the recipe, and any excess amount means there will be leftover baking soda in the recipe. Flat, weird tasting cake, anyone? Too much baking soda is one of the common causes of cake fails.
Instead, try putting that extra baking soda to good use cleaning around the house!
What is baking powder?
Unlike baking soda, which consists of one simple ingredient, baking powder is a mixture of baking soda and cream of tartar, a dry acid. An inactive ingredient, often cornstarch, keeps the two from reacting until liquid is added. The addition of cream of tartar adds acidity to recipes that don’t call for acidic ingredients. Also worth noting: Since baking powder is a mixture of ingredients, it’s slightly less potent, teaspoon by teaspoon, than baking soda.
When liquid is added, the soda and acid in the cream of tartar combine to produce carbon dioxide. Because this reaction starts right away, it’s important to bake these batters and doughs quickly after adding the liquid. That means no prepping chocolate chip cookies with baking powder a week in advance (but you can make these spritz recipes ahead of time: they don’t have either baking powder or baking soda).
Most baking powders sold today are double-acting, meaning that they work once as they are added to wet ingredients and then leaven (make dough rise) again when popped in the oven and exposed to heat. Single-acting baking powders are also available but aren’t used as frequently. They activate when exposed to moisture and that’s it. You can substitute double-acting for single-acting baking powder.
Bear in mind that baking powder and baking soda can both become less effective over time, meaning if they are too old your cakes won’t get the right rise. Be sure to check the expiration dates before you start baking.
If they’re so different, why do some recipes use both?
Some recipes call for both baking powder and baking soda. These recipes have a little bit of active acid, but the resulting carbon dioxide from the acid and the baking soda isn’t enough to leaven the volume of the batter. Baking powder is incorporated for that additional lift.
Both can be used for preserving flavor as well. For instance, if you were making fluffy pancakes, only using baking soda would neutralize the buttermilk’s acid and therefore cancel out the desired tangy flavor. Incorporating baking powder allows that slightly acidic flavor to remain, while ensuring the pancakes achieve desirable fluffiness.
Now that you know the basic differences between these two ingredient cousins, you’re destined for baking success.
If you’re craving a French baguette, bake these.
My kids love to help me make this delicious bread recipe. It’s quite easy, and they enjoy the fact that they can be eating fresh bread in less than two hours! —Denise Boutin, Grand Isle, Vermont
If you’re craving Austrian linzer kekse (linzer cookies), bake these.
These wonderful cookies require a bit of extra effort to make and assemble, but the delight on the faces of family and friends when I serve them makes it all worthwhile. —Schelby Thompson, Camden Wyoming, Delaware
If you’re craving a kiwi tart from New Zealand, bake this.
It takes a little time to make, but this tart is absolutely marvelous, especially in summer when fresh fruit is in abundance. —Claire Darby, New Castle, Delaware
If you’re craving a Dutch appeltaart (apple tart), bake this.
You can’t beat my mom’s yummy apple pie. Pretty as a picture, the golden crust is flaky and the filling has just the right amount of spices. —Anne Halfhill, Sunbury, Ohio
If you’re craving Irish soda bread, bake this.
My best friend Rita shared this irresistible Irish soda bread recipe. It bakes up high, with a golden brown top and a combination of sweet and savory flavors. —Jan Alfano, Prescott, Arizona
If you’re craving a South African melktert (milk tart), bake this.
I absolutely love sugar cream pie; especially the one that my grandma made for me. Here in Indiana, we serve it warm or chilled. —Laura Kipper, Westfield, Indiana
If you’re craving mbatata (sweet potato cookies) from Malawi, bake these.
Sweet potatoes, nuts, coconut and spices are creatively combined in a one-of-a-kind cookie that always brings rave reviews. —Ruth Shaffer, Elizabethville, Pennsylvania
If you’re craving a dulce de leche dessert from Paraguay, bake this.
I’m originally from Paraguay, and dulce de leche reminds me of where I came from. If you can’t find it at your grocery store, try caramel ice cream topping instead. It tastes different, but this decadent dessert will still be amazing. —Sonia Lipham, Ranburne, Alabama
If you’re craving Italian biscotti, bake these.
Chocolate, pistachios and cranberries are great together. Adding the cranberries to this recipe made it not only sweeter, but more nutritious, too. —Gilda Lester, Millsboro, Delaware
If you’re craving Greek pastry, try this pie.
I love Greek pastry, so I thought, ‘Why not use phyllo, honey and nuts to make a pie? Then you can have a bigger piece!’ —Rosalind Jackson, Stuart, Florida
If you’re craving Filipino bibingka (coconut cake), bake these.
My coconut bars are an American version of Filipino coconut cake. These are a crispier, sweeter take on the Christmas tradition I grew up liking. —Denise Nyland, Panama City, Florida
If you’re craving Polish bagels, bake these.
Who has time to make from-scratch bagels? You do with this easy recipe from our Test Kitchen staff. The chewy golden bagels offer a hint of honey and are sure to impress the pickiest of palates. —Taste of Home Test Kitchen
If you’re craving Portuguese pasteis de nata, make this.
Mother made this comforting custard when I was growing up on the farm. It was wonderful after a chilly evening of doing chores. Now I fix it for my husband and four sons. —Mary Kay Morris, Cokato, Minnesota
Want to feel hygge (roughly, ‘cozy’)? Try this warming recipe for danish.
Though this recipe takes a bit of time to make, it’s completely worth it. The braids are a special breakfast treat on occasions like Easter or a family birthday. People will take seconds and thirds! —Debbie Ewald, Oak Grove, Missouri
If you’re craving Turkish baklava, bake this.
It may take some time to make this rich, buttery treat, but it’s well worth the effort! The blend of coconut, pecans and macadamia nuts is irresistible. —Kari Kelley, Plains, Montana
If you’re craving a Japanese pear tart, bake this.
My sister-in-law brought this pretty pastry to dinner one night, and we all went back for seconds. It is truly scrumptious. —Kathryn Rogers, Suisun City, California
If you’re craving Jamaican rum cake, bake this.
My recipe makes two loaf-size treats, perfect for sharing. The spiced rum flavor in both the cake and the glaze really comes through. —Christine Russell, Littleton, New Hampshire
If you’re craving German zwetschgenkuchen (plum cake), bake this.
In late summer when plums are in season, this tender fruit-topped cake is delectable! The plum slices look so appealing arranged in circles on top. For variety, I sometimes substitute fresh pear or apple slices instead. —Anna Daley, Montague, Prince Edward Island
If you’re craving Czech rye bread, bake this.
My parents were emigrants from Czechoslovakia and my mother would bake this bread when guests came over for dinner. Today, every time I bake it, I get nostalgic for those days. —Millie Feather, Baroda, Michigan
If you’re craving an English fruit crumble, bake this.
When I met my English husband and served him just the crumble, he said it was fantastic but really needed a custard sauce over it. We found a terrific sauce recipe from England, and now the pair is perfect together. I wouldn’t eat it any other way. —Amy Freeman, Cave Creek, Arizona
If you’re craving Canadian butter tarts, bake these.
I searched for the perfect butter tart for ages. After many attempts, I discovered this favorite that begs for a scoop of ice cream on top. —Susan Kieboam, Streetsboro, Ohio
If you’re craving Mexican pastel de tres leches (tres leches cake), bake this.
Tres leches means ‘three milks.’ This cake gets its name because it uses three kinds of milk—evaporated, condensed and cream. This cake’s light and airy texture has made it a classic in Mexican kitchens for generations. —Taste of Home Test Kitchen
If you’re craving a pavlova from Australia, bake these.
It’s hard to decide whether it’s the presentation or taste that makes this pretty dessert tops. Fresh berries rest on a pillow of homemade meringue for a finale that sums up why we love summer in one delicious bite. —Charlene Chambers, Ormond Beach, Florida
If you’re craving Cuban natilla (cinnamon custard), bake this.
After tasting natilla for the first time at a Cuban restaurant in Key West, I knew I had to turn that traditional custard into a pie. For a festive garnish, add curls of orange peel. —Amy Freeze, Avon Park, Florida
If you’re craving sticky toffee pudding from Scotland, bake this.
The classic Sticky Toffee Pudding is a traditional dessert in the United Kingdom. I love that I can just stay home and bake this cake version, featuring saucy butterscotch. —Agnes Ward, Stratford, Ontario
If you’re craving Swedish vetebrod (cardamom bread), bake this.
This golden bread has a soft, tender texture and the perfect amount of cardamom flavor in every bite. Slices are especially good with a cream cheese spread or fresh honey butter. —Carla Miller, Pasco, Washington
If you’re craving Chinese almond cookies, bake these.
Think outside the box this season and enjoy these traditional Chinese cookies, each one topped with an almond slice. —Shirley Warren, Thiensville, Wisconsin
If you’re craving Samoan paifala (pineapple hand pies), bake this.
You’ll find pineapples and coconut everywhere in the South Pacific, so we play them up in this creamy cool pineapple pie, dolloped with coconut cream. Divine! —Karen Naihe, Kamuela, Hawaii
If you’re craving Russian tea cakes, bake these.
My great aunt Commie’s Russian tea cakes, along with pine nuts and amaretto, inspired this recipe. —Christianna Gozzi, Astoria, New York
If you’re craving Spanish flan, bake this.
If you’re unfamiliar with flan, think of it as a tasty variation on custard. One warning, though—it’s very filling. A small slice of flan goes a long way! —Pat Forete, Miami, Florida