Baking soda is pure sodium bicarbonate and is commonly known as bicarbonate of soda in the UK. In contrast, baking powder is a ready-made and convenient pre-mixed blend of baking soda, plus a drying agent and an acidifying agent.
These products bring their unique characteristics to baking, and this post will help you discover them.
Baking Soda Explained
Baking soda is a white chemical compound primarily used in baking as a pure leavening agent. This means that it is added to baked goods before baking to enable them to rise.
It does this by reacting with the heat, moisture, and any acidic agents within the mix, such as buttermilk or yogurt. This reaction produces bubbles of carbon dioxide to form, which causes the mix to rise and bake evenly.
Interestingly Baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) has several other uses beyond that of just a leavening agent. These uses include personal use, natural cleaning, and even deodorizing.
Incredibly, baking soda can even be found in some fire extinguishers!
A leavening agent and a raising agent are the same things.
Just as Bicarbonate of soda is just the UK’s name for Baking soda.
Baking Powder Explained
Baking powder is different in that it is a mix of several elements and is therefore not pure.
These elements are baking soda (bicarbonate of soda), an acidic ingredient (usually cream of tartar), and cornflour or starch.
Cornflour is being used simply as a filler (drying agent) to absorb moisture and keep the elements separated.
You cannot find baking powder in fire extinguishers, and it has few uses beyond that of cooking.
Double Acting Baking Powder
So baking powder is a mix of several elements, pre-mixed with the acidic ingredient added for you; all that is required to activate the product is heat and moisture.
Baking powder can be available as a single- or double-acting powder. Single-acting powders are activated by moisture. This means that you must bake your recipe that includes this product almost immediately when mixed.
Double-acting powders react in two phases and are left for a short time before placing into the oven.
During the first phase, the mix is allowed to react at room temperature following the powder being added. At this point, some of the gasses are formed and released as the chemical process begins.
In the second phase, the bigger majority of the gases are formed and released as the mixture’s temperature in the oven increases.
Most baking powders are a little less than a third baking soda, which means they have between; 1/4 and 1/3 the potency of pure baking soda.
I think of baking powder as having 1/4 the strength of baking powder, and, so far, that assumption hasn’t resulted in any baking mishaps.
You can make your own less sophisticated baking powder by combining cream of tartar and baking soda 2-1.
When To Use Baking Soda And When to Use Baking Powder
Most people tend to bake with self-raising flour when the recipe calls for a leavening agent; however, this is not always the case.
Some recipes call for Baking soda as opposed to baking powder. Baking soda has its own unique taste and characteristics, which can add greatly to a recipe.
Which product to choose largely depends upon what other ingredients are in the recipe.
As baking soda is pure sodium bicarbonate, it reacts immediately when combined with moisture and an acidic ingredient.
This reaction produces bubbles of carbon dioxide which, though small, will expand greatly when placed into the heat of an oven.
It is this expansion of bubbles that causes baked goods to rise; therefore, they must be placed into the oven immediately. If they are not, then the result could be a flat and stodgy bake.
Why Bake With Baking Soda?
Baking soda can have a slightly tangy taste, adds lovely golden color, and has its own unique texture, which is just not available with baking powder.
That being said, it is essential to sift baking soda very well as it can turn lumpy. Moreover, if used to excess, it can impart a soapy type of taste to the pallet.
To counteract the unique flavor of baking soda, another acidic ingredient can be used, such as buttermilk or lemon.
You will also find that baking soda is a popular ingredient in cookie recipes.
However, the fascinating thing about baking soda; is that you can get reactions of different speeds depending on what sorts of acids you pair it with.
Common kitchen acids (acetic acid from vinegar; lactic acid from sour cream) generally yield fast reactions.
This is why it is important to quickly move anything leavened with baking soda into the oven as soon as it’s mixed.
This is especially true if the mixture is a fairly liquid batter since water facilitates a baking soda reaction, and; CO2 bubbles will rapidly rise out of a liquid.
Why Bake With Baking Powder?
Baking powder is a pre-mixed solution to a baking problem and imparts no distinct flavor to a recipe.
It can be single or double-acting, giving it a versatility you cannot achieve using baking soda alone.
This means that the baking ingredients, external conditions, and type of bake; will determine the type of leavening agent you will use.
The big advantage of baking powder over baking soda isn’t its convenience; it’s its functionality. For, unlike plain soda that reacts quickly with whatever common kitchen acids are at hand, baking powder reacts over time.
It creates bubbles early in the mixing step when it gets wet and then later in the baking step when it gets hot.
These are the two actions in “double acting” baking powder. The result is a steady rise that doesn’t peter out too soon or goes off all at once, causing rapid expansion and collapse.
Baking powder is a common ingredient in cakes, biscuits, and pancakes and should be used within six months of purchase for the best results.
Keep your baking powder in a sealed airtight container in a cool, dark, and dry place.
Attention should be given to the expiry date as the shelf life is approximately 9 to 12 months.
Beyond this time, its effects will lessen, and your baked goods may not rise to the expected height.
Maybe it’s not your fault that the cake did not rise after all!
Here is a quick test to see if your baking powder is still good to use.
Pour 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder into a cup and add 1/3 cup of hot water. If the mixture is intensely bubbling, the baking powder is good.
If there is only a feeble reaction in terms of the bubbles, then the baking powder has expired.
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Other names for Baking Soda
In the United Kingdom and Australia, baking soda is known as bicarbonate of soda.
Other names include:
- Sodium bicarbonate
- Bicarb of soda
- Sodium hydrogen carbonate
- Bread soda
- Saleratus ( a precursor to baking soda )
The chemical formula for bicarbonate of soda is NaHCO3.
Saleratus To Baking Soda, (A Little History)
Around the year 1775, industrial age chemists discovered that if you expose pearlash (potassium carbonate); to carbon dioxide gas, the result was potassium bicarbonate, a compound that’s about twice as potent as regular old pearlash.
The creation was dubbed, “saleratus”; a Latin word meaning “aerated salt.”
This discovery then prompted an American entrepreneur by the name of Nathan Read to try making the stuff.
He did this by suspending pearlash over vats of fermenting rum which produce — you guessed it — CO2.
Very clever indeed.
Read’s saleratus came on the market in 1788. However, the stuff never really caught on as a leavener, mostly because it wasn’t terribly pure and hence not very reliable.
A purer, higher quality saleratus was available from Europe at the time.
It was chemically different but made via a similar process, namely by exposing another carbonate compound; — this time sodium carbonate or “soda ash” — to carbon dioxide gas.
However, since that saleratus was imported, it was a more expensive product than most American home bakers could afford. This is why, in 1846, American entrepreneurs Austin Church and John Dwight decided it was time to make the stuff domestically.
Their product, called “Dwight’s Saleratus,”; was made in the European style, meaning that it was actually sodium bicarbonate, what we now call “baking soda.”
The term “baking soda” didn’t come into common use until the 1920s. Many cookbooks dating to the era still use the term “saleratus.”
From Baking Soda to Baking Powder
So it’s the mid-1800?s.
CO2-producing carbonates are in common use among home bakers, and so is cream of tartar.
So why not go nuts and put the two together in dry powder form. This mix could then be effectively marketed as a one-stop, do-it-yourself, single-scoop leavening reaction in a box!!!
That was the inspiration of one Alfred Bird, a pharmacist from Birmingham, England.
Saddled with a spouse allergic to both yeast and eggs — but blessed with a talent for invention; — Bird created the precursor to modern baking powder in 1843.
It was, quite simply, a mixture of baking soda, cream of tartar, and cornstarch. (Cornstarch served to keep the chemicals separated as well as absorb moisture from the air). The problem with Bird’s miracle-in-a-jar was that it was expensive.
Cream of tartar didn’t come cheaply in those days, and that prevented Bird’s powder from being widely marketed.
However, it was a godsend for those with dietary restrictions and the English military, for whom it provided “quick bread” in the field.
Mr. Bird also created something else – custard powder! Again for the love of his wife, who was allergic to eggs.
I hope you enjoyed the post and now know all the important differences between baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, and baking powder.
Now go and practice your baking ; )
Thank you to joe pastry for his contribution to this post.
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Mark Aspland is a proud father of two boys and an amateur actor and green living enthusiast. He has been sharing hints, tips, and sustainable living content on his website Sustainability Dad since august 2019.
He now has an army of like-hearted individuals passionate about the environment and how to affect positive change through peaceful action.