Baking Soda and Baking Powder Differences

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The secret to making light, fluffy, and flavorful baked goods is in understanding the differences of the leavening agents baking soda and baking powder. A leavening agent is a component in dough or batter that causes a foaming reaction that will soften and add air to the baked goodies. Cookies, muffins, cakes, and breads are all delicious treats that will fall flat in taste and texture if the correct leavening agent is not used.

Baking soda and baking powder are both leavening agents that when added to batters before baking, produce carbon dioxide and then cause the cake or other baked item to rise. In a recipe that contains both baking soda and baking powder, the baking powder causes most of the leavening while the baking soda neutralizes the acids and adds tenderness to the baked item while providing minimal leavening.

Baking soda is simply sodium bicarbonate, a chemical compound that has an alkaline taste and appears as a fine, white powder. It is a component of the mineral natron and can be found dissolved in many mineral springs. Baking soda or sodium bicarbonate is also known by several other names including sodium bicarb., bread soda, cooking soda, and bicarbonate of soda. Its primary use is for cooking, specifically baking, where it reacts with moisture and an acidic ingredient like vinegar, yogurt, honey, or buttermilk. As soon as the baking soda is moistened and added to the batter it reacts and begins to release carbon dioxide gas bubbles that will continue to form and expand under oven temperatures causing the baked item to rise. Because baking soda reacts immediately with the moistened ingredients, it's essential to bake the batter without letting it stand for too long of a period.

Baking powder contains sodium bicarbonate or baking soda but also consists of one or more acidic salts like cream of tartar (tartaric acid) and sodium aluminum sulfate. Baking powder also contains cornstarch which absorbs moisture so a reaction is delayed until liquid is added to the batter. Baking powder can be single-acting or double-acting. Single-action baking powder is activated by moisture so baking must happen immediately after mixing. Double-action baking powder is the most common found on grocery shelves today and as its name implies, reacts in two stages, therefore allowing it to stand about 15 to 20 minutes before baking without losing its leavening power. Double-action baking powders release some carbon dioxide gas bubbles when added to the batter but the majority of the gas is released in the oven when the temperature of the batter increases.

A recipe's ingredient list is the ultimate determination on whether to use baking soda or baking powder. Most cookie recipes call for baking soda. The soda is balanced by an acidic ingredient like chocolate or brown sugar and will produce a tasty treat with a pleasing texture. The baker must take care not to use too much baking soda as the cookies will end up with a coarse, crumbly texture and a slightly soapy taste. Cake and biscuit recipes will call for baking powder because it contains both and acid and a base and is neutral in taste. Recipes with baking powder will also contain other neutral tasting ingredients like milk. If too much baking powder is used, the batter will become bitter and it may rise too quickly and then collapse. If not enough baking powder is used, the cake or biscuit will be tough and not springy to the touch. The general rule is that one to two teaspoons (5-10 grams) of baking powder will leaven one cup (140 grams) of flour. The actual amount will vary slightly and depend on the other recipe's other ingredients and method of mixing.

Baking soda cannot be substituted for baking powder. The baking soda does not have enough acidity to make a cake rise. If you find yourself in a pinch with a cake that has to be made and you are out of baking powder, you can make your own baking powder by mixing two parts of cream of tartar with one part baking soda.

Baking powder can be substituted for baking soda. The substitution will work for many cookie recipes including the traditional chocolate chip cookie recipe but measurements will need to be adjusted and the cookie's taste will be slightly altered.

Whether using baking soda or baking powder in you recipes, it is always important to make sure to whisk or sift the soda or powder with the other dry ingredients before adding it to the wet ingredients. This will help to insure the consistency of the batter so that there are fewer holes in the final baked product.

Baking soda, if stored in a sealed container in a cool, dry place, will keep indefinitely. Baking powder should also be stored in a cool, dry place, but only has a shelf life of six to twelve months.

Baking soda and baking powder are both essential ingredients in many of the baked products we love. Understanding when and how to use these leavening agents will ensure our goodies are always baked to perfection.

More about this author: Barb Hopkins

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