Baking Powder vs Baking Soda

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Two ingredients with a similar name and similar purpose. However get them mixed up at just the wrong time, or try and change them without thought, and there’ll be serious potential to drastically alter both the taste and appearance of your recipe, often for the worse. Both baking soda and baking powder are used to do the same thing. They act as a rising agent in your recipes. But it’s important to know the difference between baking powder vs baking soda.

baking powder vs baking soda

Whilst they are similar, and share a few key attributes, baking powder and baking soda are absolutely not the same thing. People are often confused and ask the question, what is the difference between baking soda and baking powder? Well in this article we are going to look at the exact differences and what that means for you when you use one or the other (or maybe even both) in your recipes.

What is Baking Soda?

Well first of all lets get all technical, but don’t worry, it will help to increase your understanding. Baking soda has a scientific name. It is called Sodium Bicarbonate. When mixed with other things that make it do it’s job, Sodium Bicarbonate releases carbon dioxide bubbles. It is the creation and expansion of these bubbles that give a rising effect in your recipes. The scientific name for things that cause chemical reactions is called a catalyst.

Now here comes the important part, so pay attention. The catalyst needed to make bicarbonate of soda release gas, has to be an acid. Without an acid being introduced the sodium bicarbonate won’t work. Now that we understand this concept, lets go back to simpler terms and an easier way to envisage this. Think of baking soda as an engine, which produces exhaust gas, think of the acid as the key to the ignition. Until you switch on the engine with the key, there will be no exhaust gas. Simple right?

What is Baking Powder?

Baking powder is similar to baking soda and contains a few common elements, but it is not the same. Baking powder does contain sodium bicarbonate, but it also has a little bit extra. The acid that is needed to make it work is also contained within the baking powder. As long as they are kept dry, the sodium bicarbonate and the acid sit side by side next to each other patiently waiting to interact. They do this is when liquid is added. Once the catalyst of liquid is added, they work together to produce carbon dioxide gas bubbles, and give us the rising effect.

However the story doesn’t end there, in the case of baking powder, heat acts as a second catalyst, so we get the rising effect repeating itself.  So to go back to our car engine analogy, Baking powder, made up of both sodium bicarbonate and an acid, is the engine, and the key, in this case, is liquid. Until you add liquid there will be no exhaust gas. Once the engine is running and gets hotter, it makes some more gas. All make sense? Good stuff.

When to use Baking Soda?

Remember what we said the key in our baking soda engine was? That’s right, acid. If your recipe contains an acidic element, then you can be reasonably assured that your engine will start. Acids can be obvious or not so obvious. Good examples of obvious acids in cooking are fruit juices, citrus elements and vinegars. Some not so obvious acidic elements are buttermilk, sugars, syrups or yoghurts. Proportions are everything with raising agents. Too little and you wont get the rise you need for your recipe to work. Too much and you’ll end up with a strong metallic alkaline taste running through your food. As a good general rule use ¼ of a teaspoon of baking soda per 125g of flour.

When to use Baking Powder?

We hope it’s obvious, but you don’t always want an overly acidic element in your recipe, as often it can change the flavour significantly. If your recipe doesn’t contain an acid, but you still need a rising agent then you need an all in one solution, baking powder should fit the bill nicely. Baking powder isn’t quite as powerful as baking soda, so you’ll need to use a little more to get the same level of ‘rise’. As a general rule, use 1 teaspoon per 125g of flour to get the right amount of leavening.

Can I Substitute One For The Other?

In certain circumstances, yes you can. But you need to be aware of a few things before you do.

substituting one for the other

Firstly as the effects of each go, baking soda and baking powder are not equal. As an average, baking soda is about three times as powerful in its action as a raising agent… “Well surely that means I can just triple the amount of baking powder to achieve the desired effect?” we hear you say. Well technically, yes we suppose you could. But that’s a lot of baking powder, which may change the taste of your dish. Don’t forget baking powder comes with acid included as part of the package, again this may significantly affect your recipe.

You will face similar problems going in the other direction too. If you use baking soda instead of baking powder you may think you’ll be OK as you need three times less. Hmm, yes, but how are you going to ‘start your engine’? You’ll have to add extra acid, again this will affect the flavour of your dish.

As a general rule if you are in a pinch going one way or the other will work in a fashion, but it does technically mean you aren’t following the recipe, therefore you won’t achieve a consistent result. Unless you know what you are doing, stick with what you know.

When Should I Use Baking Soda and Baking Powder Together?

There’s a couple of reasons why you might want to use both together. We have already discussed how adding extra acid may not always be a good thing from a taste point of view. So if you are dealing with a mixture that is going to take a lot of raising, but you aren’t going to be adding enough acid to give baking soda all that it needs to raise your ingredients, then you can supplement the raising required with some baking powder.

Likewise if you are looking for a slightly sour element in a dish, you might very well find that baking soda neutralises the very acidic element you are looking to retain. Therefore by adding baking powder (which includes its own acid) you can ensure you get a fair bit of ‘lift’ and some acidic elements are also left over in the flavour of your recipe.

Conclusion

Hopefully you have seen that Baking soda and baking powder are not quite the same thing. They have different ‘keys’ to get them started and have a different level of performance. Whether you use one or the other depends almost entirely on the recipe, and they are certainly not interchangeable, at least not without a detailed level of experience. As with most things in cooking a lot comes down to taste. Try and stick to what the recipe calls for. If you are ever asked to use both you can hopefully now appreciate the reasons. Cooking is actually like an experiment, and there is actually quite a lot of science going on behind the scenes. Hopefully with your new found knowledge you have learned a little bit that you can apply next time you utilise baking powder or baking soda. 

baking soda vs baking powder

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