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Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on October 03, 2022

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What Are Leavening Agents? 

Leavening agents are food-safe ingredients that cause baked goods to rise. Baking soda and baking powder are two of the most common leavening agents used in baked goods. Yeast is another popular option. 

In general, leavening agents cause doughs and batters to expand by releasing gasses like carbon dioxide. Each one does this in a different way through distinct chemical processes. The end result is a baked good with a light and fluffy texture. 

What Are Baking Soda and Baking Powder? 

Baking soda is a specific chemical compound called sodium bicarbonate. It’s also sometimes referred to as bicarbonate of soda. 

This product is a pure white powder with a very fine texture. It’s a very fast-acting leavening agent.   

Compared to baking soda, baking powder is a relatively recent addition to the culinary scene. It was first created in 1843 by a British man named Alfred Bird. He was a chemist who wanted to create a fast, complete leavening agent for his wife to use in her baking. 

Baking powder always contains some baking soda, but it also has other ingredients. These additional ingredients can vary depending on the type of baking powder. They can include: 

  • Acidic salts
  • Dry acids — like tartaric acid, which is also known as cream of tartar
  • Starches — like cornstarch

There are two main kinds of baking powder: single-action and double-action. The main difference is that single-action baking powder only has one quick leavening period — like baking soda. Double-action has two distinct leavening periods, one of which can only occur at higher temperatures. 

What Are the Active Ingredients in Baking Soda and Baking Powder? 

The baking soda active ingredient is the same as the baking powder active ingredient. Both rely on sodium bicarbonate to produce air bubbles in baked goods. Sodium bicarbonate is capable of producing carbon dioxide bubbles in the presence of either heat or an acid. 

When sodium bicarbonate is heated to temperatures between 80℉ and 180℉, it gains enough energy to react with itself. This type of reaction is called a thermal decomposition reaction. In this case, two molecules of sodium bicarbonate produce one molecule of sodium carbonate, carbon dioxide, and water

Sodium bicarbonate is a base, so you need to add an extra ingredient (specifically, an acid) to your batter or dough in order to get the acid-base reaction to occur. Baking powder always contains some sort of acid. 

Examples of acidic ingredients that can participate in chemical reactions with baking soda include: 

These acid-base reactions also require the presence of a liquid, such as water or milk. In these reactions, molecules of sodium bicarbonate react with free hydrogen to produce carbon dioxide and water. 

Baking Soda vs Baking Powder: Can You Use Baking Soda and Baking Powder Interchangeably? 

You can use baking soda when a recipe calls for baking powder, and vice versa. Still, you have to be careful when you’re substituting one for the other. Never swap them directly in a one-to-one ratio. 

The leavening power of baking soda is about three to four times stronger than baking powder. This means that you need a lot less baking soda in your recipes. 

If a recipe calls for baking soda and you only have baking powder, you need to use the right baking soda to baking powder conversion. A good rule of thumb is to use three teaspoons of baking powder for one teaspoon of baking soda in a recipe. In this case, you shouldn’t have to worry about adding acid. The recipe should already include acid, and if not, there’s acid in the baking powder. 

The conversion is a bit more difficult if the recipe calls for baking powder and you only have baking soda. First, you need to make sure that the recipe contains acid for the baking soda to react with. 

If the recipe already contains an acid — like those included in the list above — then you should simply substitute one-quarter of a teaspoon of baking soda for every teaspoon of baking powder in the recipe. So — for example — if a recipe calls for two teaspoons of baking powder, you should only use one-half teaspoon of baking soda. 

If the recipe doesn’t contain an acid, then you need to add one yourself. You can use a variety of common kitchen ingredients. For every one teaspoon of baking powder, you can substitute one-quarter of a teaspoon of baking soda and then one of the following: 

Other acids work too. Just keep in mind that some — like lemon juice and vinegar — can slightly alter the taste of your finished product. Lemon juice, for example, will make your baked goods tangier and even a bit citrusy. 

Too much baking soda can also alter the taste of your baked goods, making your treats taste metallic or soapy. 

How Are Baking Soda and Baking Powder Used in Cooking?

Baking soda cooking and baking powder cooking are used to create many different baked goods, including: 

  • Cookies
  • Cakes
  • Quick breads
  • Pancakes 

Unlike yeast — which takes hours to work — both baking soda and baking powder begin to react almost instantly. This means that you need to move fast once you mix in your leavening agent. The air bubbles both form and dissipate quickly, so you shouldn’t over-mix your batter or let it sit for too long, or the bubbles will escape. This will leave your baked goods flatter and denser than you expect.

You don’t have to move as quickly if you’re using double-action baking powder. This type produces a second round of bubbles when your batter has reached the right temperature in your oven. This second round of bubbles is the product of the thermal decomposition of sodium bicarbonate.  

Do Baking Soda and Baking Powder Have Any Health Benefits?  

Although there are many different baking soda uses and baking powder uses, neither one is frequently recommended as a treatment for health problems. However, sodium bicarbonate is occasionally used as an antacid

The safest way to consume it as an antacid is in the form of sodium bicarbonate tablets, not pure baking soda. The tablets have much lower, safer doses of sodium bicarbonate. 

Consuming too much pure baking soda can have toxic effects on your body. Long-term, excessive use can seriously damage your: 

  • Heart
  • Lungs
  • Nerves 

In extreme cases, it can even lead to death. You may be more susceptible to baking soda toxicity if you regularly consume too much alcohol. Make sure to use a safer antacid than baking soda if you drink a lot of alcohol.  

Show Sources

SOURCES: 
Arm & Hammer: “Baking Powder versus Baking Soda.” 
Integrative Cancer Therapies: “Does Baking Soda Function as a Magic Bullet for Patients With Cancer? A Mini Review.” 
Journal of Medical Toxicology: “Baking Soda Can Settle the Stomach but Upset the Heart: Case Files of the Medical Toxicology Fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco.” 
McGill: “What’s the Difference Between Baking Soda and Baking Powder?” 
U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Leavening agents, baking soda."

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