This post may contain affiliate links. Read my full disclosure policy.
Baking soda vs. baking powder – what’s the difference? Both are leavening agents used in recipes to make baked goods rise without the need for yeast. Some recipes call for one and some for both. To understand why, it’s important to know how they are each activated and what they do differently.
Baking soda (also known as sodium bicarbonate) needs acidic ingredients to activate, so it is used in baking recipes that contain buttermilk, brown sugar, molasses, lemon juice, sour cream, cocoa powder, etc. When it is combined with one of these acidic ingredients and liquid, it generates carbon dioxide bubbles (remember the baking soda and vinegar volcano experiment from science class?). These bubbles lift the batter, making baked goods rise. Baking soda also helps with browning and flavor. Because it is alkaline, it encourages the Maillard reaction, or chemical process responsible for creating that golden color and caramelized flavor that make everything taste better.
It’s important not to use too much baking soda in recipes, as it can result in a metallic, soapy flavor. It is much more powerful than baking powder – you only need about 1/4 teaspoon baking soda per cup of flour to leaven baked goods.
Examples of recipes that contain acidic ingredients and call for only baking soda:
- Vanilla Cupcakes (acidic ingredient: buttermilk)
- Lemon Pound Cake (acidic ingredients: lemon juice and buttermilk)
- Banana Bread (acidic ingredients: bananas and lemon juice)
- Old-Fashioned Ginger Spice Cookies (acidic ingredients: molasses and brown sugar)
Baking powder, on the other hand, is a complete leavening agent, meaning it contains baking soda and acidic properties, so it is used in recipes that don’t contain acidic ingredients and needs only liquid to activate. When combined with liquid in a recipe, such as milk or water, baking powder releases gas bubbles, making baked goods rise. Today, most baking powder is double-acting, meaning it is activated twice: first when it is mixed with a liquid, and again when it is heated in the oven. Double-acting baking powder is best for home cooks because it is much more forgiving. Recipes using single-acting baking powder must be baked immediately after mixing, or the baking powder will lose its oomph. Double-acting baking powder gives the cook a bit more time and flexibility getting recipes into the oven.
Baking powder is not nearly as strong as baking soda, so you need a lot more of it when baking. For every 1 cup of flour in a recipe, 1 to 1½ teaspoons baking powder is needed for leavening.
Examples of recipes that don’t contain acidic ingredients and call for only baking powder:
Baking Soda and Baking Powder Used Together
Some recipes, call for both baking powder and baking soda. These recipes typically contain some type of acidic ingredient, but baking soda alone is not enough to lift the volume of batter in the recipe so baking powder is added to pick up the slack. Another reason to use both leavening agents is that they affect flavor and browning differently. In my buttermilk biscuit recipe, for example, buttermilk is used partly for its flavor. Baking soda alone would neutralize all of the buttermilk’s acid, and you’d lose that subtle, pleasant tang. By cutting some of the baking powder with baking soda, some of the tangy flavor is preserved.
Examples of recipes that call for both baking soda and baking powder:
Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder: More Useful Tips
- Some stores carry both single and double-acting baking powder. If the container is not clearly labeled, you can assume it is double-acting. Recipes won’t specify single or double-acting baking powder; you can assume you’ll need double-acting unless a recipe specifies otherwise.
- Baking soda and baking powder are not interchangeable.
- When baking, be careful about substituting liquids. Milk and buttermilk, for example, are not interchangeable in recipes because they each react differently with the leavening agents called for.
- Store baking soda and baking powder in a cool dark place like a cabinet. Because baking soda comes in packaging that isn’t resealable, after you open it, transfer it to a small airtight container to extend its shelf life.
How To Be Sure Your Baking Soda and Baking Powder Are Fresh
Baking soda and baking powder lose their effectiveness over time, so it’s a good idea to make sure they aren’t expired before baking. Check the date on the packaging to see if they’re still usable. You can also test them to see if they’re still effective. Here’s how:
Baking soda: Spoon some into a bowl (1/2 teaspoon is plenty), and add a splash of lemon juice or vinegar. If the mixture starts to fizz quickly and vigorously, it’s still good.
Baking powder: Spoon it into a bowl (again, 1/2 teaspoon is plenty) of hot water. If it begins to bubble it’s still effective.
You May Also Like
- Baking Tips: How To Get Good Results Every Time
- How to Make Whipped Cream
- How To Cook Bacon in the Oven
- How To Make Buttermilk
- How To Make Perfect Hard-Boiled Eggs