The Difference Between Baking Soda and Baking Powder

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Have you ever asked what’s the difference between baking powder and baking soda? You’re not alone. Both of these are common ingredients in cooking and baking.

More so than cooking, baking involves science. That doesn’t mean it has to be difficult.  Even though I didn’t do so well in high school chemistry, I can still bake up a mean batch of the best chocolate chip cookies! Today we’ll talk about the difference between these important baking ingredients.

A box of baking soda with some baking powder and a lemon.
Both of these pantry ingredients help baked goods to rise.

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Why we use them

Both of these important baking ingredients work by releasing carbon dioxide gas. This gas forms bubbles in the dough, causing it to rise. While the dough is cooking, these bubbles harden as it’s baked. Don’t try to substitute one for the other though, alterations in rising and taste will likely be the result.

How baking soda works

Baking Soda is pure sodium bicarbonate, a base that requires contact with an acid to react. Common acidic ingredients used for baking include:

  • Buttermilk
  • Yogurt
  • Lemon juice
  • Vinegar
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This reaction produces carbon dioxide (CO2) in the form of bubbles, When making baked goods, the process is called “chemical leavening,” because the trapped CO2 gas makes the dough or batter rise.

When it comes into contact with an acid, it reacts immediately. And that can be a problem. For many baking recipes, you want an extended reaction, so that the rising doesn’t take place all at once

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Substitutions for baking soda

Technically, you can use baking powder as a replacement but I don’t recommend it. You would need about 3 times the amount which will probably affect the taste of whatever you are making. Some better idea might include using egg whites, club soda, or self-rising flour.

Here is a good article that explains more about substitutions for baking soda.

Why recipes use baking powder

Baking powder addresses this problem of rising all at once because it is “double-acting.” Besides containing the same sodium bicarbonate found in baking soda, it contains two different acids that create CO2 gas at different stages of the baking process.

These acids won’t start reacting with the sodium bicarbonate until after you’ve put the dough or batter in the oven. This means that the batter rises for a longer period of time, making lots of bubbles (and a fluffier cake, muffin, or whatever).

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Some recipes don’t have an acidic ingredient to react with baking baking soda. Baking powder contains an acid in the mixture and just needs some liquid to make the carbon dioxide-making reaction to occur.

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Substitutions for baking powder.

  1. Cream of tarter is an easy substitute for baking powder. You’ll need some baking soda to do this. The ratio of cream of tartar to baking soda should be 2:1. For instance, you can replace 1 teaspoon (5 grams) of baking powder by combining 1/2 teaspoon (2 grams) of cream of tartar with 1/4 teaspoon (1 gram) of baking soda.

Recipes that use both

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Some recipes call for both of these baking ingredients. This may be the case for a number of reasons.

  1. The amount of baking soda needed to neutralize an acid in a recipe (such as citrus juice) might be so much that it will overpower the flavor. Thus, a little help from some baking powder will provide enough lift while still preserving the flavor of the acidic ingredient.
  2. Baked goods will brown better in a more alkaline environment. Adding a touch of baking soda to a recipe with baking powder may help it to brown better.
  3. Sometimes baking soda won’t produce enough carbon dioxide to cause a proper rise in the finished product. Once again, adding a little bit of baking powder will help with the additional lift.
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Common questions

How long is baking soda good for?

After opening the box, it should be replaced in six months. An unopened box should have a shelf-life of two years.

Wondering how to tell if baking soda is still good? Add a pinch of it to a few tablespoons of vinegar. If the mixture bubbles, you can still use what’s in the box.

How long is baking powder good for?

An unopened can is good for up to 18 months. After opening the can, it should be replaced in three to six months.

Wondering how to tell if baking powder is still good? Add a pinch of it to a tablespoon of hot water. If it bubbles, you know you can use it.

Can you substitute yeast for either one of these?

No. The mechanism for yeast causing baked products to rise is completely different than either of these other ingredients. It is not advised to use yeast as a substitute.

More baking tips

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Dan & Scott split their time between Wisconsin and Southwest Florida and are dads to six boys. Good food runs through their veins, and they love showing others how to cook easy recipes.

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  1. This is such a helpful article on a topic that I think a lot of people get really confused about! Thanks, in particular, for the info about how to tell if your baking powder and baking soda are still good (how many times have I wondered about this through the years lol???)!

  2. Hey guys thanks for the info! We had an idea the difference between the two, but thanks for making it totally clear!

    1. Thanks for the comments, and the same case held for me, I had an idea but wasn’t sure of the exact difference. Pretty cool stuff… 🙂