Baking soda or baking powder? Which one will bring your cake to life? Our easy guide will be sure to solve this baking dilemma – and make the science of baking just a little bit cooler!
Ever flipped through a cookbook, only to find that some recipes call for baking soda, while others call for baking powder (and some even call for BOTH)? What’s up with that? And what do you even USE them for?
For starters, baking soda and baking powder are what we like to call leavening agents. Leavening agents are ingredients that, by releasing gas bubbles, cause your baked goods to rise, making them soft and fluffy – because the last thing you want is a cake that resembles a dense brick – yuck! Leavening agents are used in most baked goods, like cakes, cookies, and breads. Examples include biological leaveners (ex. yeast), physical leaveners (ex. air or steam), and chemical leaveners (ex. baking soda and baking powder). For now we’ll just stick with the last two.
Since baking soda and baking powder are both used for the same purpose, you might be wondering which one is better for your recipes. The answer? It depends.
Baking soda, also called sodium bicarbonate, is an alkaline (basic) chemical leavener (meaning it has a pH above 7 on a scale of 1-14). Anytime you bake you want there to be a good balance between your acids and bases, and so you’ll usually see baking soda being paired with acidic ingredients, like buttermilk, honey, coffee, and vinegar. Baking soda and baking powder are both soft white powders, but baking soda is slightly rougher, while baking powder has a soft and almost slippery texture.
Baking powder is a little different. Even though it features baking soda as a main ingredient, it also contains a weak acid (so it has both a basic and an acidic component). You’ll see baking powder when a recipe contains more alkaline ingredients, like grains and nondairy milk. You should also keep in mind that baking powder is sold in either single or double acting formulas- single acting releases gas bubbles once (when adding liquid) and double acting does it twice (once when adding liquid and again during baking). Most bakers prefer to use double acting since it gives more consistent results.
And just as a sidenote… if the recipe calls for BOTH baking soda and baking powder, you should follow what the recipe says. This just means that the recipe is neither strongly acidic nor strongly alkaline. Here at Red Velvet, we like to use both baking soda and baking powder to make our Celebration Cupcakes, which we combine with rich buttermilk. Mixing the three together creates a uniquely fluffy texture that just can’t be beat!
So now that you know the difference between baking soda and baking powder, you’ll feel much more at ease when you bake – which gives you more time to worry about more important things, like catching up on the new season of Orange is the New Black – yipee!