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!

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.

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. 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 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.

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.

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!

352 Comments

  1. Hi,
    I totally loved this scientific explanation!! I have always asked myself why one is used instead of the other! This is the first time I have read a convincing explanation! So, that being said, I will definitely follow your blog for delicious recipes since they are “scientifically” proven recipes….lol Thanks

  2. Hi I just found your blog and love the well thought out explanations on the science behind the baking. However I’m disappointed when you use the worlds nerd and geek. I know you’re trying to be funny but please don’t apologize / warn your readers about giving them intelligent information. I have a pre teen daughter who loves baking and I would love for her to use your blog as a resource. Please just give the information. You can still be funny and have personality in your blog. I want to encourage my children’s curiosity and point them to resources that explain why things happen. Your readers are already at your site because they want to find out the science. Don’t make them feel bad about the amount of knowledge you have or bad about the knowledge that they are receiving.

  3. I am 70 year old and always wondered the diff between this baking soda and baking powder.thanks now I understood by it clear explanation.hats off to u

  4. Hi Sally, thanks for this clear explanation. I always thought baking powder and baking soda were similar and could be substituted.
    I have a recipe for Pork & Ginger stir-fry. the ingredients for the marinade are:
    1 tsp – finely grated ginger
    1 tbspn light soy sauce
    1/2 tsp ground pepper
    2 tsp corn flour
    1/2 tsp baking soda
    — how do these combine to react with the pork tenderloin? I’m guessing some are BASE and some are ACID.

    thanks

  5. Hi Sally,
    Love your recipes and super helpful tips.
    So, I’m seeking help. I’m currently re-creating a Minnesota Fair cookie that uses all shortening, which is the only difference in my recipe. Since I don’t and won’t use shortening (I prefer real butter), I need help in making the recipe spread out a little more verses rise. I’m working with half recipes at the moment to save ingredients. I have reduced the flour by an additional 2 TBS and that wasn’t enough, still to much rise. My next batch will be to replace the BS with BP, but at what ratio? I used 1/4 tsp bs in my last batch, should I stick with a 1/4 tsp or increase it to 1/2 tsp if I’m substituting with BP?

    I hope this makes sense.

    Cheers and Happy baking!

    Kristie

    1. Hi Kristie! I’m unfamiliar with the recipe you’re trying out, but I can tell you that baking soda is about 4x stronger than baking powder. So you’ll multiply the BP amount by 4 for BS.

  6. Hi. I can’t believe I actually understood this, but I did. I am sort of curious how much acid ingredient you add to the baking soda if your recipe does not call for flour? I make an egg omelet with baking powder, now I understand how it works. I would love to have this info in a no picture, text only, format for printing as I know I will have trouble remembering it.
    I did not get thru chemistry but do remember the volcano experiment so many years ago.
    Thank you, Tony

  7. My cookies are flat once they cook and the recipe calls for baking soda. They taste great but I would like a little lift. Should I add baking powder too?

  8. Thanks alot for this class on baking powder vs baking soda. I made a vanilla cake on sunday and it didn’t require any baking soda. I decided to add 1/4 tspn of baking soda. So I was looking to understand what happened there.

  9. I have one more question, please. If I add a little tomato (maybe 2 T tablespoons) sauce to a batter and the original recipe without tomato sauce calls for only baking powder, should I add a little baking soda and how much? (I am making masa dough for tamales and like to add a little red chile sauce (with a small amount of tomato sauce)Thank you so much for your time.

  10. I work in chemistry so I was vaguely aware of how these leavening agents worked, but not which was which or how to really use them since I’m new to baking. Thank you so much for this helpful post! 🙂 Looking forward to learning more!

  11. Always remember to store your BP & BS in airtight containers (not the ones they come in) for longer freshness. Also, even if an anti-caking agent is added, it’ll still absorb moisture from the atmosphere, which causes caking/clumping. An airtight container helps to reduce this. And label the containers you put them in so you don’t confuse them, or use a vastly different kind of container for each one to tell them apart.

  12. In my lemon pound cake, I use 1 cup of sour cream and fresh squeezed lemon juice. Would you recommend I use 3/4 tsp baking soda or 1 tsp baking power Or use 1/2 tsp of each soda and powder? Thank you for your advice

  13. Just wanted to say THANK YOU for this post! I have been wondering about the science behind baking powder and baking soda so long!!

  14. Thank you very much. You explained the difference in a very simple way. I was always very much confused while using these two products especially proportion . Now I got the chemistry of these. All confusion cleared.

  15. Sally, you are my hero. Thank you so much for this information; it will make my baking even more interesting. Since this post is my first acquaintance with your website I look forward to exploring the rest!

  16. Thank you! I needed this for some biscuits and I grabbed the correct ingredient! Going to check out that pancake recipe ….!

  17. I have a problem with the recipe I have. It’s 4 cups of flour and 2-1/2 tsp. Baking powder and 1/2 of baking soda. They spread all over the place. I like them a little thinner. How much of powder and soda should I be using?

  18. Thanks for enlightening this 73 year old “should already know this” grandmother. You are truly never too old to learn!!

  19. Thank you for clarifying this as my husband did not believe me when I said that baking soda was bicarbonate and not baking powder.
    Now he can bake the gingerbread with the right one and the fizzy mess he made concocting an ant deterant and blamed on using bicarbonate instead of baking powder he now knows to just make in a larger container next time!

  20. Hi Sally,
    I am a regular visitor of your website and tried many recipes. All came out awesome. The way you explained the recipes helped me a lot to understand the science behind baking. Thank you so much for ur wonderful work. Keep rocking.

  21. Thank you sally. This information are explained so simply. That is why so easy to understand. Really helpful blog dear.

  22. I have to use a substitute for baking powder and baking soda because my husband is on a low sodium diet. I use a product by EnerG. It tells you to use twice as much as what the recipe calls for both the baking powder and soda. Yet, for the baking powder it says does not work in all recipes. Baking cakes or a banana loaf, is utter frustration because I can’t get enough lift. Any suggestions?

  23. Thank you SO much for this valuable explanation. I have been scouring the internet to understand the difference and yours is by FAR the most comprehensive. I am not a baker but during this lockdown I attempted to make something that required baking powder. All I had was baking soda … and seriously, that’s ALL I tasted when it was done. Lol I know to lessen the amount of baking soda now or wait until I can find baking powder (which is next to impossible). Thank you!

  24. Thanks for the clear and concise explanation. I have been comparing recipes for a particular bread-type dough and found that some call for powder and some for soda, now I have a clearer idea of how to choose my recipe ingredients (I like to tinker with and sometimes mix-match-combine recipes into one perfect [for me] recipe).

  25. Sally, as a retired chemist, I can confirm that this is a great explanation of the differences between baking soda and baking powder. I agree that good baking is good science, which may explain why I’ve enjoyed learning about baking from you. And, in these experiments, it’s OK to taste the results!

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