It’s easy to confuse baking powder and baking soda. The powders look similar. Both often show up in the same recipe as well. Of course, baking can be a finicky process, so just think what might 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).
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. Baking soda helps the finished product to rise and have a crisper texture.
It’s also a little salty tasting. 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. That’s no good, because too much baking soda is one of the most common cake mistakes.
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 baking 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 right after adding the liquid.
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.
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 difference between these two ingredient cousins, you’re destined for baking success!