Baking Soda and Baking Powder: What’s the Difference?

Shockingly enough, if you’re a baker, you use chemistry pretty much every single time you bake.  Why?  Well, when you’re mixing together your wet ingredients + your dry ingredients, you’re creating a chemical reaction!  Now, the only reason why you’re creating a chemical reaction is because you’ve probably got somewhere, mixed into your flour, a leavening ingredient, like baking soda and baking powder.  Really what is the difference?  You have two powders that are both odorless and white, and cause numerous baked goods to rise.


But change them in a recipe?  That’s a disaster that is waiting to happen my friend.

The difference in them is science.  I know you’re probably groaning right now, or you’re jumping in your chair in delight.

Let’s take a walk down memory lane, to 8th grade physical science.

Recall that an acid is something within the pH scale of  0-6.99 .  A base, is something in the pH scale of 7.01-14.

Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate.  When sodium bicarbonate meets heat, carbon dioxide is given off.  Now, carbon dioxide may be the gas that we give off as human beings as a result of cellular respiration, but it’s also the wonderful gas that gives rise to many beloved baked goods.  Examples?  Try cookies,




You get the point.

Baking soda is a wonderful leavening agent.  Absolutely fabulous.  The only drawback?  When heated, sodium bicarbonate gives off sodium carbonate, which doesn’t taste very delicious.  If you’ve ever eaten any metallic-y tasting biscuit or cookie, you know what I’m talking about.  However, this devastating problem can be solved by the addition of an acid, such as lemon juice, buttermilk, yogurt, or even unsweetened cocoa powder.  Because sodium carbonate is a base, it can simply be neutralized by an acid.

Baking powder is a mixture of baking soda and acid.  It’s convenient so that you don’t need an acid in your delicate cake to neutralize its taste.  To substitute baking soda for baking powder, simply use equal parts baking soda, an acid (lemon juice for example), and cornstarch!

Baking powder is usually paired with non-acid ingredients, such as whole milk, or Dutch-processed cocoa.

You might notice that some baking powders are labeled as ‘double acting.’  No, they’re not two faced leavening freaks.  They just release their carbon dioxide 2 times.

As explained in my previous post about brown butter pumpkin cupcakes, when dry and wet ingredients are mixed together, the reactions and purpose of baking soda/baking powder begin to take place.  Thus, it is important to put your pan full of cake batter into the oven immediately.

But say you forgot to preheat your oven and you’re sitting there, hopelessly waiting for your oven to warm up.

No worries, double acting baking powder is your rescue-er.  Double acting baking powder releases carbon dioxide first, in a small amount, when the dry ingredients are first incorporated into the wet ingredients.  The majority of carbon dioxide is later released in the oven, when heat is applied.


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