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 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!

351 Comments

  1. It is hard to make recommendations without seeing pre-existing ratios, but the biggest change I would make is to use less oil (or no oil – that will make them crispy and flat). Also, try adding a bit more flour and keeping cookies shaped in balls. Also, try a lower baking temperature if they are spreading too fast. If you want crispy and chewy in the same cookie, you will have to play around with your pre-existing recipe quite a bit. 

  2. Thank you so much. I have a sugar cookie recipe that I haven’t made for years. I crossed out baking powder and wrote in baking soda for some reason. There is no acid anywhere else in this recipe. So, I just wrote back in baking powder. Lol. I must have substituted it at one time and it worked out okay, but I think I’ll stick with the original recipe. Thank you for your explanation which made perfect sense!

  3. Everything Rachel is true. You could also try substituting the oil w/ the same amount of shortening or butter. Shortening will help them stay a little chewier and butter a little more crispy. Don’t forget that shortening comes in plain and butter flavor varities. But that affects taste not texture. You might also try baking them at a slightly higher temp (+25 degrees) but for a slightly shorter time. Make sure your cookie sheets are completely cool when you put the next batch on. I hope some of these ideas help. Without an exact recipe it’s hard to give advice on changes. Just keep trying and good luck!

  4. Hi Sally – like someone else here I came looking for the solution to a recipe which contained both soda and powder. This is for a gingerbread (1.5 cups flour, nominally 0.5 cups of brown sugar, treacle, syrup and ordinary milk, a beaten egg plus the ginger and a tad salt) – it calls for 0.5 tsp baking soda and 1 tsp baking powder. 350F oven temperature. My mother made this for years, then my wife made it for years and neither of them queried the fact that it always sank slightly – as did my first effort. Not acceptable! So I left out the soda on the grounds of it being to fast acting – and now it rises too far and loses it’s moist texture. What am I best to fiddle with to get the balance right.
    Great article and the chemistry explanationis just right -many thanks

  5. Hello, lol! No you did not bore me. This info was exactly what I needed. I had decided to bake sugar cookies but didn’t know that my baking powder had expired. I even conducted the experiment to verify that it ead stale. No fizz whatsoever. I looked all over to find a recipe that called for soda and not powder. I had decided to make brown sugar cookies instead, even though that’s not what I wanted. Fortunately my husband decided to run out to Walmart so when he gets back I’ll be all set!

  6. Not at all boring for an OCD nerd like me! Just because I’m terrible at math doesn’t mean that I suck at science! Your explanations really help clarify the mysteries. So, thank you! As a former pro chef, I am constantly developing new recipes and experimenting with new ingredients, both in cooking and baking, to achieve perfection (to my taste, anyway). I salivate over your recipes, but when sugar is not chemically necessary to provide structure, I often sub with Pyure (stevia and erythritol) and/or Swerve confectioners style because I try to limit my sugar consumption—I am a total addict when it comes to desserts.

  7. Hi, thank you for a great article. It helped me to master my gluten-free scone recipes. Now I have two perfect scone recipes – first using baking powder and milk and another one with baking soda and yoghurt and both are just perfect!

  8. Great explanation! A quick comment–you don’t need to toss your old baking powder and baking soda. Both are still good as cleaning products. I use my old baking soda to get tea and other stains off of my dishes and to scour baking sheets with baked on grease. Even old baking powder can be used to clean pots and pans with the addition of a bit of vinegar. Waste not!

    1. Sandra,
      Would that work even if the baking soda is three years old?
      I dont want to go through the process if it wont work.
      Nadia

  9. I have a question I’ve always wondered about. Can you please tell me why some lemon bar recipes use baking powder in the curd and others do not? I know the question doesn’t exactly fit this topic but I haven’t been able to find the answer anywhere.

  10. This information is just what I was looking for and adds so much insight to my baking knowledge! I am new to baking and have been having some struggles on how to tweak a recipe to acquire a better end result. I am realizing that learning the theory of ingredients and what they do is exactly what I need to become more experienced in my baking endeavors. Thanks a million for taking the time to share your experience…it’s invaluable:)

  11. I baked my very first batch of cookies and didnot have any baking powder. Sure enough they had a little strange after taste and you nailed it! You gave me the right answer. Great education! i’ll stick to the recipe.
    Thank you

  12. Brilliant explanation!
    Is there a specific brand of Baking Powder that you use?
    I loved your post on Best Banana Cake with Cream Cheese FrostingI made it and you are absolutely right. It is the best ever! No one ate it… they inhaled it down to the last crumb!!!

    1. I love this!!! I have been looking for a book that talks about the science of cooking because I always want to know “why” recipes are put together the way they are. Unfortunately all science-cooking books I found are no longer in production.

  13. When I was young my babysitter made chocolate chip cookies using the recipe on the package of Toll House chips. The only difference was they would rise up and look like little mountains. Soft and melted on the inside. Could this occur on a change in soda to baking powder or increase in soda? I have been unable to get them to rise like this.

  14. Sally, I adore your recipes and have all three of your outstanding books! I thought your explanation explaining the differences and the chemistry behind baking soda and baking powder fascinating! My question is this, which baking powder do you recommend for baking cookies, cakes etc?

    1. Hi Donna, I’m so happy that you found this helpful! I don’t have a favorite brand – whichever your local store carries is fine as long as it hasn’t expired 🙂

      1. Wow!, I totally feel inspired to use your recipes now they are very helpful to me and my family love it too.

  15. I baked an orange loaf cake using a yellow cake mix and lemon pudding, adding orange juice and vegetable oil and lemon extract. The cake baked nicely but collapsed in the center. It tested fully baked. Why?

    1. For next time leave it 5 to 10 minutes longer in the oven. I had the same issue once. And I had w batches in the oven. The ones I left in the oven longer, came out great and the ones I took out earlier, fell in the middle

  16. I’m diabetic and tried using food-grade vegetable glycerine as a sweetener in a no-flour, no carb recipe. I have two questions:
    1) Is the glycerine acid enough to work with baking powder?
    2) The liquid and the dry ingredients didn’t stay mixed, tho’ I think that’s because there’s no binder. What could I use as a binder that won’t contain any carbs?
    Thanks!

  17. Thank so much it was so much help, you you last I baked a cake I used 4 cup of flour instead of 3 and i for got to add the proportion of baking soda so the cake became dens but the test was great any ways thank you for taking time to blog I like it keep it up
    Vicky

  18. Thank you great explanation I have always wondered. I have a neighbor that asked me to bake some oatmeal cookies for her. I compared her recipe to the one I use and hers had baking soda and baking powder I will try it out and see what difference they are will be interesting.

  19. Thanks so much I often bake without a recipe and was never sure which of the baking soda and or baking powder should be used great to know

  20. Hi Sally, I just stumbled upon your website – happily so – because I asked the question of what is the difference between baking soda and baking powder which you answered succinctly Thank you.
    My question revolves around the making of sourdough bread which I recently started July 24/18. I had done 6 batch’s with little or very little success. However I will not give up this time. I heard that baking soda could help the rise of the dough but I did not want my bread to be salty so I chose baking powder instead. Batch number 8 rose better than batch number 7 because I used more baking powder. My long winded question is which is better to use in the sourdough batter.
    Yours Paul L.

  21. Trying to develop a new recipe for my blog, Sally, and this was the most helpful raising agent resource on the web. Thank you!

  22. Sally…Thank you for the lesson. I am the worst when it comes to baking. The joke in our kitchen is that they declare it a disaster area as soon as I open a bag of flour. LOL. I hope to get better but I still imagine there are plenty of burnt muffins in my near future. ( more laughter )

  23. thank you for the explanation! it really helps knowing the facts..
    My question is that I baked some choco chip cookies using brown sugar but they did not spread out as expected. i used baking powder. will it spread if i used baking soda?

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