Baking Basics: Baking Powder vs Baking Soda.

Become a better baker by learning the real differences between baking powder and baking soda– in easy-to-understand language!

Learn everything you need to know about the differences between baking powder and baking soda. Complete, easy-to-understand details!

Welcome back to my Baking Basics series! In the past few weeks, I had a little logo made. You like? (Thanks Kath!)

Today I’m discussing one of the most confusing subjects in the entire realm of baking. Something that boggles (I accidentally just typed “boogles” ??) the mind of nearly everyone on earth. Or at least those who care. (Me! Me!) What is the difference between baking powder and baking soda? Are they the same? Can I sub one for the other without changing anything else?

If there is one thing that you take away from today’s lesson, let it be this: baking powder and baking soda are absolutely not the same.

Baking powder and baking soda are both leaveners, however they are chemically different.

Learn everything you need to know about the differences between baking powder and baking soda. Complete, easy-to-understand details!

What is Baking Soda?

Aka bicarbonate of soda or sodium bicarbonate.

Let’s start with baking soda because it’s the most confusing. I’m going to geek out for a sec. First, baking soda is a BASE. Do you remember the science experiment we all did in school? Mixing baking soda with vinegar and watching an eruption of bubbles? Usually we did this in some sort of model volcano contraption. I know you know. When you mix baking soda (BASE) with vinegar (ACID) you get a chemical reaction (an eruption of bubbles!). A product of this reaction is carbon dioxide.

The same exact reaction happens in our cookies, cakes, breads, etc. When a recipe calls for baking soda (BASE), it usually calls for some type of ACID. Like buttermilk, brown sugar, yogurt, lemon juice, vinegar, cream of tartar, molasses, applesauce, natural cocoa powder (not dutch process), or honey. You need this ACID in the recipe to react with the baking soda, which in turn creates carbon dioxide and allows your baked good to rise.

Baking soda is strong. In fact, it is about 3-4x stronger than baking powder. More baking soda in a recipe doesn’t necessarily mean more lift. You want to use *just enough* to react with the amount of acid in the recipe. Too much baking soda and not enough acid means there will be leftover baking soda in the recipe. You do not want that; it creates a metallic, soapy taste in your baked goods. Ick.

Good rule of thumb: I usually use around 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda per 1 cup of flour in a recipe.

Baking soda CAN leaven a baked good when exposed to heat. However, unless it is neutralized with an acid, your finished baked good will likely have a metallic aftertaste– like I mention above. Get it? Got it? Good.

Learn everything you need to know about the differences between baking powder and baking soda. Complete, easy-to-understand details!

What is Baking Powder?

Baking powder contains baking soda. It is a mixture of baking soda, cream of tartar (a dry acid), and sometimes cornstarch. These days, most baking powder sold is double acting. This means that the first leavening occurs when baking powder gets wet– like when you combine the dry and wet ingredients in the recipe. (This is why you cannot prepare some batters ahead of time to bake later– because the baking powder has already been activated.) The second leavening occurs when the baking powder is heated.

Double (first, second) acting.

Since baking powder already contains an acid to neutralize its baking soda, it is most often used when a recipe does not call for an additional acidic ingredient. Like my sugar cookies. However, this isn’t always the case. You can still use baking powder as the leavening agent in recipes calling for an acidic ingredient. Like my lemon cake. In my recipe development, I based my lemon cake recipe off of my vanilla cake recipe. I used buttermilk (acid) instead of regular milk for added moisture and a little tang and subbed a little brown sugar (acid) for granulated sugar– again, for added moisture. I was pleased with the rise and taste of the cake, so I did not experiment with using baking soda.

I know. It’s definitely confusing.

Good rule of thumb: I usually use around 1 teaspoon of baking powder per 1 cup of flour in a recipe.

Learn everything you need to know about the differences between baking powder and baking soda. Complete, easy-to-understand details!

Why do some recipes call for both?

Some recipes call for both baking powder and baking soda. These recipes contain some sort of acid (yogurt, brown sugar, etc), however the carbon dioxide created from the acid and baking soda is not enough to leaven the volume of batter in the recipe. That’s why baking powder is used as well– to add necessary lift.

Basically, the reason for both is because sometimes you need more leavening than you have acid available in the recipe. It’s all about balance.

Another reason to use both baking powder and baking soda is because they affect both browning and flavor. Fine Cooking breaks it down easily: let’s take my buttermilk pancake recipe. In my recipe, buttermilk is used partly for its tangy flavor. If we used only baking soda, it could neutralize all of the buttermilk’s acid. And we’d lose that tanginess! However, by including baking powder as well (which has its own acid), some of the buttermilk’s flavor is left behind, and there is still enough leavening for fluffy pancakes.

Yeah. Take a bite outta that.

Simple and FUN Funfetti Buttermilk Pancakes on sallysbakingaddiction.com

How to Substitute

It’s tricky, which is why I never recommend it without background knowledge (and the expectancy that your baked good will not taste as intended).

If you have a recipe calling for baking soda, you might be able to substitute baking powder. However, you will need up to 4x as much baking powder to get the same amount of leavening. And, depending on the recipe, you might end up with a baked good that’s a little bitter with that much baking powder. You can sub baking soda for baking powder only if you increase the amount of acid in the recipe– which likely changes the taste and texture of your baked good. You’d also need less baking soda since it is about 3-4x stronger.

So, uh, just stick to the recipe!

Don’t Forget– They Expire!

I replace my baking powder and soda every 3 months, just to be sure they are always fresh for my recipes. I always date them on the bottom of the container. If you aren’t a baking addict freak like I am, chances are you’ll have to test your baking powder and soda for effectiveness before using.

How To Test Baking Powder

To test baking powder, pour 3 Tablespoons of warm water into a small bowl. Add 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder. Give it a light stir. The mixture should moderately fizz if the powder is fresh. If there is no reaction, toss the baking powder and buy a fresh package.

How To Test Baking Soda

To test baking soda, pour 3 Tablespoons of white distilled vinegar into a small bowl. Add 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda. Give it a light stir. The mixture should rapidly bubble if the soda is fresh. If there is no reaction, toss the baking soda and buy a fresh package.

Learn everything you need to know about the differences between baking powder and baking soda. Complete, easy-to-understand details!

That’s it for today! Did I completely bore you? Hello?

For anyone still here, don’t forget that baking is CHEMISTRY and it takes practice, trial and error, and the willingness to learn in order to succeed.

Stay tuned for a massively tasty chemistry project tomorrow. Cooooooookies!

211 comments

  1. The typical way to take it is to put one or
    two tablespoons in a glass of water, and
    just drink it. While the texture is not exactly like that of
    meringue made with sugar, it is so close that many people will not be able to detect the difference.
    By making your body more basic, you have lower prospects of getting diseases, and sodium bicarbonate can help you with that.

  2. Hi Sally,
    If adding more soda and baking powder does not mean more fluff, then what does?
    With normal all purpose flour, apart from following the suggested ratios of the powders, and beating optimally to allow air to get trapped, what is the trick?
    I want to get a really fluffy cake and have been trying hard, but not successful so far.
    Please help!

    Thanks
    Lakshmi

  3. Thank you so much for the wonderful tips. I used to hate chemistry in school. But this looks like fun. Again, KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!!!!

  4. QUESTION: Would you ever use baking soda in a dish that is not baked? I have a recipe for some breakfast bars that are not baked but kept in the fridge. The recipe calls for baking soda and I have no idea why. Not that it’s a big deal, but I prefer not to use it if I don’t need it…

    • Baking soda only needs an acidic ingredient to be mixed with it for a leavening reaction. It does not need heat, the baking powder needs the heat (at least for the 2nd stage of the “double action”)
      .

  5. Thanks a lot for this baking 101 for dummies! It doesn’t get any clearer than this.
    I was getting ready to make a banana bread that called for “baking soda” thought that I could substitute with a baking powder (actually I thought they are the same) So glad that I googled this before baking.

  6. BIG help, like you said most of us don’t know, now i do know thank you, good clear communication

  7. Thanks for the knowledge I thought they were the same you were a big help

  8. Thank you so very much for your clear understanding of the difference between the two. You did a great job explaining. I am extremely excited to have the knowledge.

  9. SUPER HELPFUL…CLEAR AND CONCISE I REALLY THANK YOU MA’AM

  10. That was great and not boring at all. Thank you.

  11. Great article. This is what my daughter and I were wondering. I was just going to use baking power.. Now I know the real different with this great explanation.

  12. I have just bought some recipes from a local cafe the chocolate beetroot cake asks for 1 tsp of baking soda and 1tsp of bicarbonate of soda, Why if they are the same

  13. I found a recipe for “pumpkin brownies” online, tried it, they tasted fine but were flat, the recipe only called for 3/4 cup of ap flour. If I were to bump it up to 1 cup, which would I use, soda or powder, and how much? The recipe didn’t call for either one, and I expected brownies that looked like, well brownies!

  14. Emily,

    Rule of thumb is that Baking Soda adjusts the flavor of what it is added to (by either reducing acidity – or if not enough acid, raising alkalinity [aka the metalic taste]). SO, if you’re going to experiment, best bet is to start with Baking Powder which is more self contained.

    Try starting with just a half teaspoon per cup of flour in your recipe – Brownies are supposed to be dense! 🙂

  15. Well, this changes everything! Thank you for one of the most enlightening—if not the most enlightening—revelations about the mysterious workings of leavening I’ve ever read, and written in general reader terms no less. I (and my future muffins, quick breads, cookies, and you-name-its) are very sincerely forever in your debt!

  16. I am a recently retired grandmother who has loved to cook and bake all my life. I have really left off the baking for a number of years due to busy work time constraints but now I want to get back into my first love – baking. So this morning I want to tackle some banana buttermilk bran muffins but have become confused with the plethora of recipes out there. It is confusing as to why one uses baking powder and another only baking soda. Your explanation was informative and fun and makes me excited to get back into the joy of experimenting with different recipes. Thanks for your detailed explanation.
    P.S. You are a wonderful teacher. – like me! :-))

  17. I have a cinnamon roll cake recipe that calls for, among other things, 3 cups flour and 1&1/2 cups milk, and 4 teaspoons of baking powder. I am from Texas, where we love to use buttermilk in our baked goods whenever possible. I found 2 baking soda formulas for adding buttermilk – one says add  1/4 tsp per 1/2 cup buttermilk and reduce baking powder by 2 teaspoons, and the other simply says add 1/4 tsp soda to the recipe. What should I do? Thx!

  18. Oops – correction – 2nd formula should read add 1/4 tsp soda per 1 cup flour to recipe where you are substituting buttermilk

  19. Thank you for a simple 101 lesson on the baking soda/powder. I’ve been baking and experimeeting with Spelt flour. I was wondering if you had any information about baking spelt flour. Or different types of flours?

  20. Thanks so much,this was very educating and it has helped me a lot.

  21. Thanks for the tutorial! Quick question: if I were to double up a carrot cupcake recipe that calls for both baking soda and baking powder, should I also simply double the amounts of both? Or is there a crazy formula for that? Thanks!

  22. This is a great help..,now I know why my cakes end in disaster at times.. Thanks a loads

  23. excellent article answered so may questions

  24. I really think I finally understand! Thank you so much. This question bugs me constantly. Same recipe , one ingredient different! I then spend hours on the internet trying to find as many recipes that are most alike – yes it’s extremely time consuming and I still don’t know for sure what to use! This article explained it so well that I believe I finally have it down.Of course Im also saving this page and site just in case I forget. Thank you so very much for the information and in understandable text. You’ve just helped my love of baking immensely and I thank you! Ill be checking back time and again for more tips or if I have a question. Especially with the baking season upon us!! Thank you Sally and I hope you keep giving us answers!!

  25. A long time ago, I leaned the hard way that there is a big difference between baking soda and baking powder. By not paying close attention to my recipe, I used one when I should have used the other, and the result was an inedible pan of cornbread–served to company, no less! After making another cornbread recipe this week that tasted unpleasant, I decided to get to the bottom of this b.s. versus b.p. issue, so I googled it, found your site along with answers to my questions. Thanks for taking the time to shed some light on these two essential baking products that most of us know nothing about!

  26. Great explanation–thank you! I can now play around with a recipe and feel like I know what I am doing and why.

  27. I just finished baking a pound cake that I FORGOT to put in the salt and baking soda. ( brain fart #1). I remembered after I had put it in the pan. SO, I sprinkled a little salt and a little baking POWDER, ( brain farther #2) into the batter and tried to stir it in. Grrrrr, what is going to happen to my pound cake? 

  28. I tried your death by chocolate cupcakes recepie, which has both bs and bp. It has buttemilk as well. I prepared the buttermilk by adding 2 TSP of vinegar to 1/2 cup milk. The first time I made the cupcakes I added bs and bp, but the cupcakes remained uncooked after 20 mins of baking and had a drop in the centre. The second time I made them I didn’t add the bs. They turned out perfect and the taste was very good. I’m not sure if that was the right thing to do. Can you please advise sally.

  29. Thank you this was very helpful and imformative.

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