Baking Soda & Baking Powder: Know Your Label Lingo
Ever have quick breads that wouldn’t rise? Cakes that fell flat? Cookies that tasted oddly … chemical? Chances are you mixed up baking soda and baking powder, a common mistake. Arm yourself for holiday baking by learning the difference between baking soda and baking powder (and what to do if you only have one or the other).
Baking soda is simply a commercial name for sodium bicarbonate. It leavens baked goods when it’s combined with liquid and something acidic. (Yogurt, buttermilk, honey, chocolate and lemon juice are all commonly used to activate baking soda). Once activated, baking soda produces bubbles of carbon dioxide. These bubbles expand in the heat of an oven. That expansion makes cakes, cookies and quick breads rise. Then, as whatever you’re baking gets hotter and the batter or dough is cooked, it holds its newly expanded shape.
Since the baking soda won’t bubble endlessly once activated, recipes that use baking soda as a leavening agent need to be baked immediately after having been mixed. If you want to make them ahead, you have two options: first, you can do everything up to the point when the liquid and dry ingredients are combined; or, you can bake the item, wrap it well, and freeze it.
This gets a bit confusing: baking powder contains baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) plus cream of tarter, which is an acid. Baking powder is thus used in recipes that want the leavening action of baking soda but don’t contain any acidic ingredients (biscuits come immediately to mind). You can make your own baking powder by mixing two parts cream of tarter with one part baking soda.
Like baking soda, liquid activates baking powder, so doughs and batters need to be cooked immediately after mixing. Unless….
“Double-Acting Baking Powder”
Ordinary baking powder is single acting; it starts creating bubbles right after being mixed with liquid. Double-acting baking powder, on the other hand, works in two waves, and most of the leavening only happens when exposed to heat. Thus, your batter or dough can stand for a bit before being cooked. Because it’s so handy, most baking powder sold in stores for home cooks is double-acting.
Substituting One for the Other
It’s pretty easy to substitute baking powder for baking soda — just use twice as much as is called for in the recipe (but know that it may impact the final taste of the dish).
Substituting baking soda for baking powder, on the other hand, is a bit trickier, since you need to add something acidic to the recipe to activate the baking soda. Experienced cooks or those in a real pinch can use yogurt or buttermilk in place of any milk or water called for in the recipe. The resulting baked good will have a bit of a tangy flavor, which can be lovely. Example: plain pancakes usually call for baking powder with the flour, sugar, eggs and milk, since there isn’t any acid to activate baking soda in that mix; buttermilk pancakes, however, will use baking soda, since buttermilk is acidic enough to activate it.
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