If you love cooking and baking as much as I do, then at some point in time I’m sure you’ve had questions about the ingredients you cook with. Why do we add salt in baked goods? Why do we have different types of flour and where is each one best used? How many different kinds of peppers are out there and what are the differences between them? How does yeast work? You know, the questions that delve not into just WHAT ingredients we use to put our recipes together, but more importantly, WHY we use them.

Because, after all, if we are able to better understand why we combine the ingredients we do, we can take one more step forward towards becoming better cooks and bakers for our families and for others. So are you with me?

I’m going to take that as a yes and jump feet first into our first Beyond the Basics Tuesday. I don’t know about you, but one of those mysteries of baking that I’ve always wanted to learn a bit more about is the difference between baking powder and baking soda. I want to know what exactly it does and why exactly we need it in our recipes.

Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder

What they are:

Baking Soda…. Is another name for sodium bicarbonate. As you probably already know, it has many different uses, cooking being one of them.

Baking Powder… Is a combination of baking soda, cream of tartar, and cornstarch. So why the difference and when should you use one vs. the other? Let me see if I can map out a few differences for you:

  • Baking Soda requires an acidic ingredient (chocolate, honey, buttermilk, sour cream and brown sugar are all examples) and a liquid in order for the reaction to take place. The reaction occurs immediately.
  • Baking Powder, in comparison, contains 1 part baking soda to 2 parts cream of tarter to 2 parts cornstarch. In baking powder, the cream of tarter acts as the needed acidic ingredient to assure that the baking soda reaction is properly balanced every time. The reaction using baking powder is usually two fold. You will have an immediate reaction when added to your batter and a second reaction once your dish heats up in the oven and hits 140 degrees.

And what exactly is the reaction I’m referring to? When you mix up your ingredients in your bowl, you introduce air bubbles throughout. When baking soda or powder is introduced, it releases carbon dioxide that helps to enlarge those bubbles and hence rise your baked good. Similar to the way yeast reacts only much more immediate.

Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder

So how do we know how much baking powder or soda to use?  In doing my research I came upon an awesome guideline to help determine the amount of leavening to use in your recipe:

For each cup of all purpose flour called for in your recipe use no more than 1 to 11/4 teaspoons of baking powder or 1/4 tsp of baking soda.

And which is the better choice to use?

Based on what I read and learned, I’ve come to the conclusion that in most cases, baking powder is the better leavening agent for the job.  It already has the acidic reaction built in, so you don’t need to worry about having the correct amount of an acidic ingredient present in order to neutralize the base (the baking soda).

There are some cases where baking soda works well and an example would be when you’re cooking with an acidic ingredient like the ones I mentioned above.  It’s why, for example, you’ll typically see baking soda in addition to baking powder added into a chocolate cake recipe.  It helps to neutralize the extra acidity of the chocolate.

So hopefully this all helps a bit to clear up the whole baking powder vs. soda mystery.  I really just skimmed the surface and could literally write pages and pages more on the topic.  But I won’t put you through that.  Instead I’ll share a few practical tips with you before signing off:

  • It is always best to add your soda/powder to your recipe as close to last as possible (mixing it in with your other dry ingredients and then adding them together with the wet ones works well) so you can delay the reaction until the end of the mixing process.
  • Once the baking powder or soda is added to your batter, less is more when it comes to mixing.  If you over mix your batter, you could release the air bubbles that have formed and hinder your baked good’s attempt at rising.
  • If a recipe calls for only baking soda, it’s because there is some type of acidic ingredient being used to neutralize the soda’s base.
  • Baking powder can start to lose it’s strength after being open for about 6 months.  To test the health of your powder, grab a 1/2 cup of hot water and throw 1 tsp of powder into it.  If you don’t see a whole lotta bubble action, it’s time to get yourself a new container.
  • To make your own baking powder simply mix 1 Tbsp of baking soda with 2 Tbsp of cream of tartar and 11/2 Tbsp of Cornstarch.
Baking and Pastry: Mastering the Art and Craft
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