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Baking Soda and Baking Powder: What's the Difference?

Baking powder vs. baking soda! When it comes to baking powder and baking soda, you can't have one (powder) without the other (soda.) But that doesn't mean the ingredients are interchangeable. Here's how they're different, how they're used in recipes, and how to make substitutions if you run out of baking powder or baking soda.

What is baking soda? And what does baking soda do?

Baking soda. Photo by Meredith_resized

Photo by Meredith

Baking soda is another name for sodium bicarbonate. It's a leavening agent, a base that reacts when it comes into contact with an acid such as lemon juice, vinegar, or buttermilk, sometimes in such spectacular fashion that it's the basis for science fair projects. Reacting in baking means forming gas bubbles, which is what helps cakes and cookies rise. When baking soda doesn't react with acid, it has a distinctive metallic taste. In other words, measure ingredients carefully to ensure you have enough baking soda and acid.

The other problem with baking soda is how quickly it reacts. That's good if you're assembling a model volcano, but less advantageous if you're trying to pull off a birthday cake. In that case, you want the rising to occur gradually over a longer period. That's where baking powder comes in.

What is baking powder? And what does baking powder do?

 

Baking powder. Photo by Meredith_resized

Photo by Meredith

Is baking soda the same as baking powder?

Well, no, although baking powder includes baking soda, along with monocalcium phosphate and either sodium acid pyrophosphate or sodium aluminum sulfate. Those acids react with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), but not until they're hot and wet. So the process of creating air bubbles doesn't begin until the batter's mixed and heated in the oven.

Sometimes a recipe will call for both baking soda and baking powder. That's because after baking soda neutralizes the available acid, the pastry still needs a little more lift.

Is there a substitute for baking powder?

It's important to remember that if you're out of baking powder, you can't substitute baking soda instead. But you can make your own baking powder: combine 2 tablespoons of baking soda with 1/4 cup of cream of tartar and pass it several times through a sifter. Some cooks believe the DIY baking powder mix tastes better than what's commercially available.

Is there a substitute for baking soda?

Well, sort of. As we said, baking powder includes some baking soda. So if you run out of baking soda but do have baking powder, you can increase the baking powder to approximate the effect of baking soda. So, if the recipe calls for 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda, substitute 1 teaspoon of baking powder. We're talking last resort here, but it should work.

How to test if your baking powder or baking soda is still good

Has your baking powder or baking soda been hanging around the cupboard for quite some time? If so, it might not give your recipes the lift you're looking for. Luckily there’s a simple test to determine if they're still active.

  • To test if baking powder is still good, drop half a teaspoon into hot water. If it fizzes and forms bubbles, it’s still good.
  • To test baking soda, drop half a teaspoon into a small amount of vinegar. Once again, if it fizzes it’s still active.

If you don’t get any sort of reaction, it’s time to toss that box and buy some new baking powder or baking soda.


Cookies without Baking Soda

Run out of baking soda? These top-rated cookie recipes don’t call for baking soda.

Cookies without Baking Powder

No baking powder? These cookie recipes don’t call for baking powder.

Cookies without Baking Powder or Baking Soda

These top-rated cookie recipes get it done with no baking soda or baking powder.


More Baking Know-How

Bookmark this list of common ingredient substitutions for when you run out of something in the middle of a recipe.

Get weight and volume conversions for everyday baking ingredients, and learn how using a scale makes you a better baker.

Are you a beginning baker? Here's how to stock your baking pantry.

 

About Hanna Raskin

Not just a grits eater, but a one-time grits roller (a sport involving an inflatable tub and 27 cases of instant grits). Devoted to queso, chopped liver, Cuban toast, soft-shell crabs, and the roads that lead to them.