Most home cooks have these two basic ingredients sitting around their kitchen, but do you know the true difference between baking soda and baking powder?
Sure, you might have a box of baking soda in the fridge to absorb stinky smells and you might grab the baking powder for an occasional recipe, but understanding the different purposes of each of these home staples can help make you a better cook.
The truth is, many people, even those who bake a lot, would be hard-pressed to give a precise explanation of these cooking cousins. They might know that these two ingredients are both used as leavening agents, which means they help your cakes, biscuits, pancakes and breads to rise, but the specifics of which to use in what situation is tricky!
Fortunately, we’ve sorted through the info to come up with this handy primer.
Just the Basics: How Do Baking Soda and Powder Work?
Good ol’ Arm & Hammer baking soda has been around for as long as most of us can remember. Scientifically known as a compound called sodium bicarbonate, baking soda is actually a type of salt. In order for baking soda to help baked goods rise, that salt needs to interact with an acidic ingredient. This could be something like sour cream, yogurt, buttermilk, lemon juice or even chocolate, to cause a chemical reaction, releasing gas (you’ll see bubbles!), and inflating the baked good in the process.
Baking powder, on the other hand, already has an acidic agent in the product, and contains roughly 30 percent baking soda as well. Its formulation means you can use baking powder as a leavening agent for recipes that do not contain an acidic ingredient. What’s more, baking powder is often double-acting, meaning it releases gas when the dough is moistened and again when it is heated. The more acid it contains, the higher the baked good rises, which is why some cooking experts recommend looking for brands that contain two forms of acid in the ingredients versus just one to achieve fluffier results. (Two to try: Argo or Clabber Girl.)
When to Use What
Despite their similarities, the two ingredients cannot be used interchangeably and you want to make sure you choose the right item for your recipe. There is enough of a difference between baking soda and baking powder that you’ll need to use them correctly or risk messing up the consistency of whatever you’re making.
For example, if you add soda when a bread recipe calls for powder, you likely will not have enough acid to allow the dough to rise. Similarly, if you do not accurately measure the baking soda or baking powder, you risk either over- or under-inflating your bread or cake as well. For the most precise way to measure, we recommend using a food scale. Our best-selling measuring cups and measuring spoons can also help make sure you get the right amount of soda or powder every time.
In some cases, recipes call for both ingredients. The reason? Baking soda actually has a little bit of flavor, and it adds a touch of tartness that would be missing if it was left out. Dan Souza, editor-in-chief of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, notes that pancakes just don’t taste quite right without some baking soda even though the baking powder is what provides the rise.
Baking soda can also help with browning and caramelization, and it generally works better in cookies where you want them to spread more than rise. Common recipes that use baking soda include muffins, banana bread, pretzels and cookies, while recipes that likely call for baking powder include biscuits, brownies, cupcakes, cakes and breads.
You can even use baking soda as a natural DIY cleaner around the house. Use it to scrub bathtubs and sinks, mop tile floors, remove scuff marks and freshen carpets and drains.
Despite their powerful abilities, baking soda and powder are delicate and typically have a shelf-life in your pantry of only about 6 months. To preserve their potency, be sure to store them in airtight containers in a cool, dry spot as exposure to heat or moisture can activate the compounds.
Once you’ve picked the right ingredients, learn how to make your baked goods even more amazing with the OXO Cookie Press.