Have you ever started a recipe only to realize halfway through that you needed baking soda and not baking powder? If so, you are in good company. (And this very cool club of ours knows what mise en place is and continues to ignore it.) If you’ve ever been tempted to say “Eh, good enough” and toss in the powder, you’re also not alone. However, while baking soda and baking powder are both leavening agents—meaning both produce carbon dioxide bubbles to allow for rising to occur—these two chalky powerhouses are not made equal. Here, I’m describing what baking soda and baking powder are, their histories, and whether or not you can actually substitute one for the other.
We’re starting off with baking soda, as it typically contains only one ingredient—Sodium Bicarbonate. This sassy little compound contains sodium, hydrogen, and carbonate (carbon and oxygen) and can be found naturally, in minerals like Nahcolite, or created chemically by turning mined ore into soda ash.
Ingredients: Sodium Bicarbonate – NaHCO3
History: There are plenty of one-off examples of baking soda being used throughout history, and documented access to baking soda in America started as early as 1846 thanks to the baking soda juggernauts Arm & Hammer. But, in the modern world, the craze didn’t really get going until the advent of the Solvay process. This process, credited to Ernest Solvay in the 1860s, created commercial levels of soda ash inexpensively, allowing for baking soda to be manufactured on an industrial scale.
How it leavens: When baking soda is combined with an acid—such as lemon juice, yogurt, buttermilk, molasses, honey, or cocoa powder—and moistened, a powerful chemical reaction occurs, resulting in carbon dioxide bubbles. While baking soda can be activated through heat, resulting in a rise, if it is not neutralized by an acid, your baked goods might have a metallic taste.
This product is a one-two punch, containing both baking soda AND acidic ingredients to activate it. While there are many different brands of baking powder out there, they will all contain Sodium Bicarbonate, with a slight variation on the other ingredients, so make sure to check the label if you have any sensitivities.
Ingredients: Corn Starch, Sodium Bicarbonate, Sodium Aluminum Sulfate, Monocalcium Phosphate
History: The first documented instance of baking powder was created by English chemist Alfred Bird in 1843. Food historian Linda Civitello views this innovation as a tipping point. “ It’s really the first chemical that opens the floodgates for chemicals in food”. So if you, like me, are a sucker for food science, you have good ‘ol baking powder to thank for the literal thousands of chemical food innovations that have followed in its chalky wake.
How it leavens: Because baking powder contains both baking soda and an acid, all you need to leaven your baked goods is liquid. Almost all of the readily available baking powders are considered “double-acting” which means not only does this product rise when combined with liquid but has a second rise when heated.
No, and yes. Baking soda is a much stronger substance than baking powder, which means if you are out of soda, you will need as much as 4 times the amount of powder to potentially get the required result, and even then, it can severely impact the taste of your baked goods.
However, if you need baking powder, you might be able to get away with using baking soda. But remember, when not using baking powder, you will need some kind of acid to make your baked goods rise! A good rule of thumb is if a recipe calls for 1 tsp of baking powder, you can instead use ¼ tsp of baking soda + ½ tsp of cream of tartar.