Baking soda and baking powder are both leavening agents, which are substances used to help baked goods rise.
Experienced and amateur bakers alike often confuse them due to their similar names and appearances.
This article explains the differences between baking soda and baking powder and how interchanging one for the other may affect your baked goods.
What is baking soda?
Baking soda is a leavening agent used in baked goods like cakes, muffins, and cookies.
Formally known as sodium bicarbonate, it’s a white crystalline powder that is naturally alkaline, or basic.
Baking soda becomes activated when it’s combined with both an acidic ingredient and a liquid. Upon activation, carbon dioxide is produced, which allows baked goods to rise and become light and fluffy.
This is why recipes that include baking soda will also list an acidic ingredient, such as lemon juice or buttermilk .
Baking soda, chemically known as sodium bicarbonate, is a baking ingredient that’s activated by a liquid and an acid to help with leavening, or rising.
What is baking powder?
Unlike baking soda, baking powder is a complete leavening agent, meaning it contains both the base (sodium bicarbonate) and acid needed for the product to rise.
Cornstarch is also typically found in baking powder. It’s added as a buffer to prevent the acid and base from activating during storage.
Similarly to how baking soda reacts with water and an acidic ingredient, the acid in baking powder reacts with sodium bicarbonate and releases carbon dioxide once it’s combined with a liquid (4Trusted Source).
Single- and double-acting baking powders are available, though single-acting varieties are typically only used by food manufacturers and not usually available for household use (5).
When a recipe calls for baking powder, it’s most likely referring to the double-acting kind.
This means the powder creates two separate reactions: initially, when combined with liquid at room temperature, and secondly, once the mixture is heated.
For many recipes, an extended reaction is favorable, so the leavening, or rising, doesn’t happen all at once.
Baking powder is a complete leavening agent, meaning it contains both sodium bicarbonate and an acidic ingredient. It’s available as a single- or double-acting agent, though double-acting powders are more widely used.
When to use which one
Baking soda is used in recipes that also include an acidic ingredient, such as cream of tartar, buttermilk, or citrus juice.
Conversely, baking powder is typically used when the recipe doesn’t feature an acidic ingredient, as the powder already includes the acid needed to produce carbon dioxide.
Baked good mixtures can vary greatly in their acidity level. To produce a desirable baked good, you need to find the right balance between acid and base.
Some recipes may call for both baking soda and baking powder.
Typically this is because the recipe contains an acid that needs to be offset by the baking soda but may not be enough to completely leaven the product.
Baking soda is used when the recipe includes acidic ingredients while baking powder can be used without additional acidic ingredients.
Substituting in recipes
While it’s possible to interchange baking soda and baking powder in recipes, it’s not as straightforward as simply replacing one for the other.
Substituting baking powder for baking soda
Though substituting baking powder for baking soda isn’t widely recommended, you may be able to make it work in a pinch.
Swapping baking powder for baking soda won’t require additional ingredients.
However, baking soda is much stronger than baking powder. Thus, you likely need around 3 times as much powder as you would soda to create the same rising ability.
Also, this substitution may cause your final product to have a chemical or bitter taste.
Alternatively, you could try one of several other substitutes for baking soda.
Substituting baking soda for baking powder
If your recipe calls for baking powder and all you have at hand is baking soda, you may be able to substitute, but you need to include additional ingredients.
Because baking soda is lacking the acid that baking powder would normally add to the recipe, you have to make sure to add an acidic ingredient, such as cream of tartar, to activate the baking soda.
What’s more, baking soda has much stronger leavening power than baking powder.
As a rule of thumb, about 1 teaspoon of baking powder is equivalent to 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda.
While interchanging baking powder and baking soda in recipes isn’t as simple as a 1:1 substitution, it can work with certain modifications to your recipe.
The bottom line
Many baked-good recipes include baking soda or baking powder as a leavening agent. Some may even include both.
While both products appear similar, they’re certainly not the same.
Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, which requires an acid and a liquid to become activated and help baked goods rise.
Conversely, baking powder includes sodium bicarbonate, as well as an acid. It only needs a liquid to become activated.
Substituting one for the other is possible with careful adjustments.