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!

teaspoons of baking powder and baking soda with text overlay that says baking basics a series

Welcome back to my Baking Basics series!

Today I’m discussing one of the most confusing subjects in the entire realm of baking. 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.

container of baking soda with a teaspoon full

What is Baking Soda?

Aka bicarbonate of soda or sodium bicarbonate.

Let’s start with baking soda because it’s the most confusing. 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.

container of baking powder with a teaspoon full

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 blueberry 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.

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

teaspoons of baking powder and baking soda on a baking sheet

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.

stack of funfetti buttermilk pancakes topped with vanilla icing and sprinkles on a white plate with a fork

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.

teaspoons of baking powder and baking soda

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!


Comments are closed.

  1. No fear of boring me, I love your nerd rants, I learn something new every time! Can’t wait for the cookies, yum.

    1. OMG anise pancakes, that sounds really good! Maybe with chocolate chips? Mmmm

    2. Anise pancakes DO sound good!

  2. Amy @ Thoroughly Nourished Life says:

    Sally! I love food science (I guess that’s why I did dietetics at uni) and I love reading about it. You explained everything so thoroughly and perfectly clearly in this post. Even for people who bake multiple times per week (like me) it’s good to refresh the ole brain tank with the basics. Thanks so much for a clear article. I’ll be sending people here next time I’m asked the difference! 

  3. So interesting! And timely…my boyfriend was just this past weekend asking me if there’s a difference between the two. I knew there was but couldn’t explain the differences. Problem solved now! Thank you Sally!

  4. Good to know Sally!
    I always wondered about these two ingredients. Answers on Google were never this clear and concise. 
    Love the baking basics series. Brings out the nerd in me

  5. In France, we really use baking soda, always baking powder. Therefore, I’ve always subbed baking soda in your recipes by 3 time the amount of baking powder. The cookies and cakes rise nicely and I’ve never noticed any bitterness. 🙂

  6. Thanks for the valuable information…. U explained it so well .

  7. Fantastic post. So helpful! Even though I know the difference in a practical sense, its great to know some more in depth science behind it! I’ll be referring to this in future 🙂 Thank you!


  8. Hi Sally, thanks so much for the super-helpful post 🙂
    Just checking: bicarbonate of soda is the same as baking soda, right? Or is it not….? 
    Thank you~ ♡

    1. Same thing!

  9. I’ve always known that there was a significant difference between the two but I’ve never known the details. Thank you so much, Sally, for shedding some light on the subject! Super helpful post!

  10. Erin @ Miss Scrambled Egg says:

    I love learning, so I wasn’t bored at all, Sally! Thank you for sharing your knowledge with the rest of us. 😀

  11. Marina @ A Dancer's Live-It says:

    This is definitely NOT boring! This is extremely informative and helpful!! I love your baking basics series, keep ’em comin’! 🙂

  12. Sally,

    I love your recipes.  I have NEVER had a fail and I’ve made so many of your recipes!  Family and friends have sworn I ordered my daughters cupcakes from a bakery they were so good!  I love learning the reasons behind leaveners, how to’s, etc.  Thanks for taking the time to spread the knowledge!  

  13. I love learning more about the science of baking! I’ve learned about this difference before but have never really understood it until you explained it, thanks! I’ll be looking out for more baking basics posts!

  14. Not boring at all! Thank you for this clear explanation! I tell my friends all the time that baking is essentially a science experiment made into sweet or savory perfection. No wonder I liked science class in school lol.

  15.  I tutor chemistry, so I LOVE reading about the science of baking!! Keep the posts coming 🙂

  16. Kathy @ Beyond the Chicken Coop says:

    Great tutorial!  Thanks. 

  17. Not boring at all. It’s funny cause just last night me and my 2 teenagers were watching a cooking show. The chef would do a pinch of this and palm full of that, i was telling my kids how I can only feel comfortable cooking with actual measurements. I said I think it comes from preferring baking. Because baking is all about chemistry. You need accurate measurements. Now with your post I can back up my reasons with substantial fact. So thank you for that.

  18. Archana kamath says:

    Awesome article sally. Never found any thing simpler  or even close on Google.  Thanks a ton 🙂 

  19. Cheryl Burns says:

    I learned something new today – thank you! I love enlightening things like this!

  20. It’s only a Google search away, but you explained it so much better! Thanks!

  21. Oh, this is absolutly so useful! I just have to say: Sally, I loviu!! thanks 🙂

  22. Thanks for such helpful info. The examples with the type of recipes and ingredients is a big help in understanding it also.

  23. Great post! I’m trained as a chemist, so I appreciate the science talk! Although I understand acid-base chemistry when it comes to chemicals/drugs, that somehow doesn’t translate to cooking & baking for me. However, I’ve found that I enjoy being in the kitchen, so I’m trying to learn–this post is very helpful!

  24. I didn’t know baking powder contained baking soda! Learned something new today-thanks. You didn’t mention anything about Aluminum vs. Aluminum free baking powder. Do you think there’s a taste difference?

    1. I have personally never detected a difference in my baked goods. Use whichever fits your tastes.

  25. I LOVE the Baking Basics series! It’s so helpful to have some understanding of why certain ingredients are used and when, and I seriously just learned something from this post. If only my old science classes used baking as a way to explain chemistry, I would’ve been a LOT more interested! 🙂

  26. Stephanie @ smothered in flour says:

    If there was anything I took away from my baking two class is baking soda needs an acid to activate. For some reason that has stuck with me. Another thing that has stuff with me is that baking powder starts working when mixing and will leave you with a flat cake if you do not get it in the oven as quickly as possible. For these reasons I also have my pans prepared first so I`m not taking twenty minutes to get my parchment circle the correct diameter. 

    1. AGREED! Always always prep pans first.

  27. Thanks for this Sally! I found it quite helpful, despite the fact that I’m someone who bakes a lot and pretty much always knows what’s going on. The one thing I never change about a recipe until after baking it a first time is the leavener — disasters can happen that way :/ 

  28. Thank you for this!!! I’ve always wondered what the difference was and you explained it perfectly! I finally bought your first cookbook (been following you blog for a year now) and my son and I can’t pick what to make first! So excited!!

    1. Thank you!! Let me know what you and your son try first.

      1. We went with the Fudge Ripple Monster Bars!  Yummy!!! You went kidding though that in order to cut them they need to be just about completely cooled. My kids couldn’t wait and ate the first round with a spoon. Thanks for this one! It will be a repeat in the future 🙂 Thinking of trying out the Fudge Ripple concept with other cookies and flavor profiles…. Wheels are turning!

      2. That fudge ripple is KEY. The best part!!

  29. Dear [email protected]
    Thank you some much for all that interesting information! I think i was “clever” once just putting baking soda insted of baking powder ,just thought it will make no diffrence ,but it did .I must say again and again , I really love your blog and your post , your book is fantastic! 
    Thank u for posting very often , I always get excited when I see a new post from you ! 
    Katie .

  30. Sally I LOVE your blog!! I have a cake recipe that falls in the middle when I make it. I’m not sure if its a baking soda issue or what. I don’t open the oven early or anything. Is there an email address that I could send you the recipe and you could look it over and give me some pointers?

    1. Without trying it myself, it’s hard to say. There could be too much baking soda in the recipe. What kind of cake? I might have a similar recipe you can try.

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I’m Sally, a cookbook author, photographer, and blogger. My goal is to give you the confidence and knowledge to cook and bake from scratch while providing quality recipes and plenty of pictures. Grab a cookie, take a seat, and have fun exploring! more about Sally