Baking Powder vs Baking Soda

Baking powder and baking soda are not the same or interchangeable. Although they are both chemical leaveners, the difference is in their acid content. Baking soda is 100% sodium bicarbonate, an alkaline salt compound that creates carbon dioxide gas when mixed with an acid. Baking powder, on the other hand, is a mixture of baking soda and an acid like cream of tartar, which requires moisture and heat to activate it. There are some recipes that calls for both powder and soda, whereas others, that only call for one or the other; it just depends on the rest of the ingredients within the recipe. Baking powder and baking soda are not limited to bake goods or sweets, they are also used in savory dishes.

Baking soda works with foods that are acidic. So, let’s say that you want to make plain biscuits, but you decide to follow a buttermilk biscuit recipe. If you were to just substitute the buttermilk for regular milk and leave all other ingredients in the original recipe, including only using baking soda, then chances are, your biscuits will brown but it will not rise. Buttermilk is acidic and releases the raising power in the baking soda. Therefore, in this case, you will also need to add baking powder to give it the extra lift needed to make perfect biscuits. The same would apply if you were making plain pancakes.

If you were making lemon cookies and you decide to follow a plain cookie recipe and just substitute the water with lemon juice, your cookie would be hard and extremely acidic. Plain cookie recipes only call for baking powder, but you will need to neutralize the acid in the lemon juice that you added, and to do so you will also need to add some baking soda.

Baking powder is also used in the rising of savory dishes, such as codfish cakes. The powder makes the cakes fluffy and airy. However, too much baking powder will render a greasy cake. To avoid this, limit the baking powder to 1 teaspoon per pound of flour. And baking soda is also effective in the browning of savory dishes, such as pot roasts, burgers, or steaks – and we all know that better browning equals more flavor. So to achieve better browning and a much more flavorful crust, add 1 teaspoon of baking soda for every 3 pounds of meat.

Like most kitchen ingredients, baking powder and baking soda eventually lose their potency. Opened containers will last about six months to a year, while unopened containers should last until their expiration dates. If you are in doubt and want to reconfirm its freshness before ruining your baked goods, try these simple tricks:

  • For baking powder: add ½ teaspoon to a small bowl and pour ¼ cup of boiling water over the top. If fresh, the mixture will bubble vigorously. If it barely bubbles or doesn’t bubble at all, toss it
  • For baking soda: add 1 teaspoon to a small bowl and add 1 tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice. If fresh, it should bubble and fizz vigorously like a little volcano. If not, toss it

And perhaps this should go without saying, but please do not use the same baking soda actively deodorizing your refrigerator. That’s already serving its purpose and doesn’t belong in your baked goods.