Molly Watson

Baking Soda & Baking Powder: Know Your Label Lingo

baking soda baking powder


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”

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.



“Baking Powder”

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.




Shop smarter! Check out all our “Know Your Label Lingo” articles!



5 Responses to “Baking Soda & Baking Powder: Know Your Label Lingo”

  • Marcel says:

    how can i change my billing info (or am i being stupid, here?)

  • myrna gabriel says:

    does baking powder lose it’s power? how long can you keep a can after it is opened?i used it in a recipe and it did not raise as it should . i think the b/powder was too old.

  • Joseph Alaya says:

    The first evidence of baking occurred when humans took wild grass grains, soaked them in water, and mixed everything together, mashing it into a kind of broth-like paste.The paste was cooked by pouring it onto a flat, hot rock, resulting in a bread-like substance. Later, this paste was roasted on hot embers, which made bread-making easier, as it could now be made any time fire was created. The Ancient Egyptians baked bread using yeast, which they had previously been using to brew beer.**;;

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  • Jeremiah Stamour says:

    Baking is a food cooking method using prolonged dry heat acting by convection, rather than by thermal radiation, normally in an oven, but also in hot ashes, or on hot stones.[1] The most common baked item is bread but many other types of foods are baked. Heat is gradually transferred “from the surface of cakes, cookies and breads to their centre. As heat travels through it transforms batters and doughs into baked goods with a firm dry crust and a softer centre”.`

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  • Thanks, I learned the difference between baking soda & baking powder. Now I have to find a way to remember b/soda comes in a box and b/powder comes in a can!

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