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. Oh Sally, love reading your posts and tecipes. It’s always very clear, simple and easy to understand.

    Thank you! Definitely help a beginner homebaker like me a lot!

    1. Thank you for being a great easy to understand teacher!

  2. Thank you. Such a clear explanation! I found a recipe for banana bread that had no leavening and people complained about how dense the loaf was. I wanted to add a bit of something…
    The recipe has brown sugar and 2 C flour, so I will try 1/2 tsp baking soda.

    1. Patty Harris says:

      Baking a 7up pound cake, recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of baking powder. I put one teaspoon of baking soda and when I realized what I had done I added the baking powder too. My cake came out a brownish color. Is that too much soda and powder tighter for one recipe?

    2. Kathy G. Cancela says:

      Bless your heart!! I baked a banana nut bread on yesterday that called for both powder and soda. I wanted to know, why?? It was an old recipe that I got from one of my patients.

  3. Sally, you’re hilarious and your instructions and baking tips are very helpful. I can see your personality come through your instructions! You’re FANTASTIC!!! Thanks for all your great insight! Just made the cranberry walnut bread and ate the entire thing as soon as it was done! You Rock!

  4. Sally, you explained it very well, l like your style. Thank you.

  5. Carol Hoffman says:

    I am 66 and just started baking. Thank you so much for this article on baking basics and the one on measuring. It has already answered a lot of my initial questions.

  6. Thank you so much for doing this article! VERY clear and simple language, which made it very appealing to follow the explanations to the very end, well done! Appreciated!

  7. Sanya Uppal says:

    The explanation was so clear and was very helpful! Thanks for sharing 😀

    1. Thank you for this helpful information! If you produced a “cooking knowledge and test recipes” cookbook, I’d totally buy it. your website is AMAZING, but I would love to be able to take notes and skip the ads. I’d pay a little for that 😉 Either way, *thank you thank you*!!!

  8. Got a question for you. I made some key lime cupcakes that only called for baking powder and they came out very dense. Can I use half the amount of baking soda to make them more fluffy?

  9. Love your style of explaining. Hilarious and easy to understand. And ofcourse, love your recipes too !

  10. Mary-Carmen Jazzini says:

    I like to make scones and butter biscuits using my excess production of tangy kefir instead of buttermilk should I add one tablespoon of each baking powder and baking soda per cup of flour? In your expert opinion do you thing this radio of ingredients will work for me… I just want your advise before I tryout my adventure. Thank you

  11. Thank you for this very helpful information. ❤

  12. Thank you for this explanation. Finally, I get it. And I will be adding baking powder to a recipe I am experimenting with, because so many people complained in the comments that they didn’t get the rise they wanted. I will also look at a couple of cookie recipes that have that metallic taste to see if I can increase acid a little bit or decrease baking soda. Or decrease baking soda and add baking powder.

  13. I found your explanation so easy to understand and incredibly helpful. I have a child with food allergies and find myself subbing a lot of ingredients in recipes. This info will go a long way in helping my recipes turn out. Thank you!!

  14. Mary Jo Carson says:

    Thanks for this lesson! I think I got it. Your easy explanation was great, just like your recipes!

  15. Johan De Beer says:

    Thank you for your baking tips but please do not toss the expired baking soda. It makes for an excellent fire extinguisher and you don’t need taste attributes in a fire extinguisher. As a matter of fact, baking soda is the content of your red “dry” fire extinguisher which one should have have hanging on the wall of one’s kitchen. My spouse and i do not BBQ without a box of “baking soda” within hand reach. Hope this comment was helpful.

  16. DoctorGreat Olowole says:

    I so much appreciate this

  17. Barbara MacRobie says:

    This is the best explanation of the difference I’ve ever read! Simple, straightforward language with the science background so we really know what we’re doing, and the freshness tests too.

  18. This is the best explanation I think. It is really helpful for every beginners like na. Thank you Sally. I will try the recipes you mention.

  19. I’m becoming baking obsessed, and I love your posts like this one that give me the kind of basic understanding of technique and ingredients that I couldn’t learn otherwise. And I love the way you say things! Thank you!

  20. Thank you for providing us the science of baking. I’m a person who needs to know how things work, not just that they do. Keep up the great work!!

  21. Gillian Evans says:

    Hi Sally, I have read your articles on baking soda v baking powder, however, I just want to clarify, can I omit the soda from the moist chocolate cake recipe if I have used dutched cocoa. I have made them a couple of times now and they erupt – just like you said – like a volcano! I found reading your articles very useful and want to perfect these yummy cakes!
    Looking forward to your response.

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Gillian, Dutched cocoa will change how the cake bakes and tastes, and that switch would require additional testing. If you test anything out, please let us know. Or if you find a chocolate cake recipe you love that calls for dutched cocoa, let us know too! Natural cocoa really is best for this particular chocolate cake.

  22. That was very helpful. Thank you!

  23. I’ve asked professional chefs about the difference here, you’re the first person who was able to explain it. Thanks!

  24. Vanessa Harmsworth says:

    Hi sally

    I accidentally put baking powder instead of baking soda in my gingerbread cookie recipe? Should use the dough for houses instead and make a new batch or should it be fine?

    Thanks dear

  25. Super helpful post! I’ve started doing more and more experimenting in my baking and I’ve never really understood why a recipe uses one chemical leavened versus the other until now— Thank you!

  26. I was cleaning out a pantry shelf and wondered how to tell if my baking soda was usable. I fortunately discovered this explanation of baking soda vs baking powder. Makes so much sense- thank you!

  27. Very well explained. Thank you. I will do the tests to see if my baking powder and soda are fresh. They are so inexpensive to replace. When I did not bake much I often used a tin of bp for years!

  28. Hi, great info, thanks. I was wondering if you can help me. I use both baking soda and pwder in my banana bread(has yogurt) and my apple bread. However, I’ve noticed that my bread rises fine, great texture and all but it folds in some on itself. Am I using too much

  29. I have been baking ever since I was a little kid, but it’s always been other people’s recipes. Now, at 25 years old, I want to begin creating my own recipes, so thank you so much for all this advice! It is definitely helping me be successful with my new hobby!

  30. I love your site for such good, clear, and entertaining information. I’m trying to adapt my mother-in-law’s sugar cookie recipe to spread less but still taste the same and hold the same soft texture. It’s a shortening based recipe with no butter and a decent amount of honey in the mix, but I’ve noticed most shortening recipes call for baking powder, where hers calls for baking soda. Those recipes seem to give that crisper edge and level top where hers puffs in the center like bread or cake no matter what tricks we try. I’ve considered just adding a bit of cornstarch into the mix but after finding this explaination I might try a half batch with baking powder first. I tried cornstarch before but clearly added too much as they cooled into cup coasters, not cookies. But, they had sharp edges and were level on top, lol.

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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