Imagine that you are baking in your kitchen, adding the dry ingredients to a bowl, when suddenly you realize you have made a grave mistake. You added baking soda instead of baking powder! Immediately you wonder if your cake is ruined. Or is it? Can you substitute baking powder with baking soda and vice versa? Those questions are going to be answered right now.
What is Baking Soda?
Also known as sodium bicarbonate, baking soda is a leavening agent used in baking and cooking. It is considered basic on the pH scale, so you need to pair it with something acidic in order for it to do its job. This is why baking soda begins to bubble, releasing carbon dioxide, whenever it meets vinegar or lemon juice, for example.
When baking soda and an acid are mixed into dough or cake batter, the carbon dioxide gets trapped, causing the batter to puff up and expand. However, baking soda can also release CO2 in heat.
Baking Soda in Recipes
Baking soda is used in recipes that have soft batters, like muffins, cakes, and pancakes. Any batter that will be runny or quickly lose its shape will require baking soda. Because baking soda will react quickly to acidic or heat (or both), it will help keep the batter together as it rises then sets into place. Thicker dough does not need support from a leavening agent.
If you use baking soda without acid, the end result is horribly metallic.
What is Baking Powder?
Unlike baking soda which is pure sodium bicarbonate, baking powder is a mixture of alkaline and acid compounds, such as cream of tartar, sodium aluminum sulfate, calcium acid phosphate, and sodium bicarbonate. Since there is already an acid and base mixed together, all you need is water or another kind of liquid to create a chemical reaction. Immediately, carbon dioxide is released to make batters and dough rise.
There are single acting and double acting baking powders. Single reaction powders use either tartrate or phosphate and react slowly. A double acting baking powder has two reactions. The first happens when exposed to moisture. The second is when the ingredients are heated up.
How to Use Baking Powder
Baking powder is used in recipes that do not contain any acidic ingredients. Some examples include thicker batters, like brownies, cookie dough, and denser breads.
Can Baking Soda Replace Baking Powder?
Here is a question many home cooks and bakers ask themselves: Are baking soda and baking powder interchangeable? Set them side by side in a chemistry lab and you will find that their base forms are different. Baking soda is much more powerful than baking powder—about 4 times stronger.
In other words, 1 teaspoon of baking powder is required to raise a cup of flour while you only need ¼ teaspoon of baking soda for the same result. This is why you need to be careful when measuring out your dry ingredients. You also do not want to mistakenly use baking soda instead of baking powder, because it could cause a doughy explosion. Meanwhile, too little baking powder in a recipe needing baking soda could cause your cake to go flat.
Also, keep in mind that baking powder is not just sodium bicarbonate and acid. It has other ingredients that may react with other components of the cake batter, making the final product bitter or stale.
What Should I Do if I Only Have Baking Soda?
Now, what happens if you need baking powder but you only have baking soda? It’s not the end of the world, thankfully. All you need is a little more acid for the baking soda. Consider this: if you have a recipe for bread or cake that calls for a teaspoon of baking powder, you can substitute that with ½ or ¼ teaspoon of baking soda and a teaspoon of something acidic, like vinegar or lemon juice. 1 cup of brown sugar or buttermilk also work well.
Or, if you have cream of tartar in your pantry, you’re in luck. Simply mix 2 teaspoons of baking soda with a single teaspoon of cream of tartar to mix a tablespoon of baking powder. You can then bake to your heart’s content.
So, what happens when you use baking soda instead of baking powder or vice versa? A less than ideal result. Too much baking soda could create a mess in the oven; and even if everything bakes up well, the flavor will be heinous. If you accidentally use baking powder instead of baking soda, the taste could be bitter, and your cake or baked goods won’t be as fluffy. Be sure to pay attention to the recipe you are using!