Food & Recipes

What’s the Difference Between Baking Soda and Baking Powder, Really?

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Have you ever realized you are out of baking soda in the middle of making chocolate chop cookies and wondered if you could just use some baking powder instead? The answer is no — but what gives? Baking soda and baking powder are actually very different. Here we break down what they do and when you should use each one. Plus, which kitchen items actually work as substitutes. 

While both baking soda and baking powder are leaveners (substances used to make baked goods), they’re different chemically. For starters, baking soda is a base that is made of only one ingredient: bicarbonate of soda (or sodium bicarbonate). Remember those middle school science projects where you had to make a volcano? Well, the lava explosion was created by a chemical reaction that takes place when baking soda and vinegar are combined. 

This bubbly reaction also happens in our cakes, cookies, and breads. If a recipe calls for baking soda, it’ll usually also have some type of acidic element, such as brown sugar, buttermilk, lemon juice, yogurt, vinegar, applesauce, or honey. The baking soda will react with this element, which will cause your baked goods to rise.

what does baking soda do in cookies

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Baking powder, on the other hand, is a combination of baking soda, cream of tartar, and cornstarch. Most store-bought baking powders are double-acting. This means the first leavening occurs when the baking powder gets wet (when you’re mixing dry and wet ingredients); the second leavening occurs when it’s heated.

Because baking powder already contains an acidic element to neutralize the baking soda, you most likely won’t need another acidic ingredient to finish off the recipe. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to come across a recipe that calls for both.

Baking soda is generally used for quick-bake recipes, like scones, muffins, and pancakes, whereas baking powder is used for baked goods that need a bit longer to cook. Also, baking powder should be used for baking purposes only, whereas baking soda has a variety of uses, from cooking to cleaning.

If you’re having a hard time choosing which ingredient to use, just think about your end result. Are you looking for something on the fluffier or the flatter side?

does baking soda or baking powder make things rise

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

When it comes to cookies, there are just two things to remember. Baking powder rises (or puffs), and baking soda spreads. This is a big difference between the two. For cute cut-out cookies, for example, you’ll want to use baking powder. It will allow the dough to rise without affecting or ruining the shape of your cookie. But for chocolate chip cookies, you should use baking soda. It will allow the dough to spread, which helps allow for the perfect chocolate-chip cookie texture — crumbly edges with a gooey center.

Making pancakes and baking cakes is a bit trickier than whipping up a batch of chocolate chip cookies. It’s all about balance; too much flour will make the batter too thick, dry, and dense, while too little will make the batter runny. Because baking soda needs an acidic element to work as a leavening agent, baking powder is best used in both pancakes and most cakes (unless you’re making a Devil’s Food Cake, which calls for an acidic element). Omitting baking powder, however, will cause your fluffy breakfast cake to look a little flat, sort of like a crepe.

If you’re out of either, some substitutes for baking soda and baking powder include:

  • Baker’s yeast — a substitute for baking soda
  • Potassium bicarbonate — a substitute for baking soda
  • Club soda — substitute for baking soda and baking powder
  • Molasses — a substitute for baking powder
  • Yogurt — a substitute for baking powder
  • Lemon juice paired with baking soda — a substitute for baking powder
  • Vinegar — a substitute for baking powder

Please note: Substitutes will alter the taste and color of your baked good. Keep this in mind when choosing the right substitute.

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