baking powder in a jar

Differences of Baking Soda, Bicarb of Soda & Baking Powder Explained.

Baking soda is a white chemical compound, also known as bicarbonate of soda. It is used in baking as a pure leavening agent.

Interestingly it has several other uses beyond that of just a leavening agent. These uses range from personal use to natural cleaning. Incredibly, bicarbonate of soda can even be found in some fire extinguishers!

A leavening agent and a raising agent are the same things. Baking soda is just another popular name for bicarbonate of soda.

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Baking powder is different in that it is a mix of several elements and is therefore not pure. 

These elements are bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar, an acidic ingredient and cornflour. Cornflour is being used simply as a filler to absorb any moisture and keep the elements separated.

You cannot find baking powder in fire extinguishers and it has few uses beyond that of cooking. Whereas bicarbonate of soda is frequently used in natural cleaning recipes and many other applications.

Other names for bicarbonate of soda

In the United Kingdom and Australia, it is called bicarbonate of soda. 

In the United States, however, it is more commonly known as baking 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 Quick 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.

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tall ship in full sail cargo of baking soda

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.

Since that saleratus was imported, however, 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, as is cream of tartar.

Why not go nuts!

Put the two together in dry powder form; and sell the whole shebang as a do-it-yourself one-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 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. 

It was, however; a godsend for those with dietary restrictions, as well as for 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.

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 the addition of moisture.

baking-powder-mixed-with-water

To this day the acidic ingredient used in baking powder is usually cream of tartar.

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 to stand for a time before putting into the oven.

Firstly the product reacts at room temperature when the powder is added to the mixture. It is at this point that some gasses are then released and the chemical process begins.

Secondly, the majority of the gases are then released when the temperature of the mixture in the oven increases.

Most baking powders are a little less than a third baking soda, which means that 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 Do I Use Baking Soda And When Do I 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 end result could be a flat and stodgy bake.

Why Bake With Baking Soda?

Baking soda can have a slightly tangy taste, adds a lovely golden color; and also has its own unique texture which is just not available with baking powder. 

That being said it is very important 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.

baked cookies on a plate baking soda
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However, the really interesting 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 the reason 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 be the determining factors in deciding the type of leavening agent that you will ultimately 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 go off all at once; causing rapid expansion and then 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.

Storage

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 in 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.

Thank you to joe pastry for his contribution to this post.

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sustainability dad

Mark Aspland is a proud father of two boys, would be amateur actor and green living enthusiast. He has been sharing hints, tips and sustainable living content on his website Sustainability Dad since august 2019. 

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He now has an army of followers who are like hearted individuals passionate about the environment and how to affect positive change through peaceful action.