Baking recipes often call for the use of baking powder, baking soda and sometimes use both. Why do we need these raising agents, how do they work and can you use one and not the other? Can you swap one out for the other? Here we explain the difference between raising agents: baking powder vs. baking soda.
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Baking soda acts as a base – it's made of sodium bicarbonate and reacts (ie. bubbles and froths) when it comes in contact with acids like for example lemon juice, vinegar, buttermilk and yogurt.
When sodium bicarbonate comes in contact with acids it produces a chemical reaction. This reaction produces carbon dioxide, which creates bubbles. When this reaction happens it makes a cake rise.
The only issue with baking soda and baking is that this chemical reaction starts to happen when the batter is mixed and the acid and bicarb come in contact with one another. Ideally, we want this reaction to happen in the oven. So when using baking soda only, you need to get that batter in the oven as quick as possible.
Baking soda will also react with heat if there is no acidic ingredient but your baked good may end up tasting a bit metallic.
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Baking powder also creates carbon dioxide, which helps cakes and batters rise but what makes it react is both different and the same as baking soda.
Baking powder contains bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) but is also made up of two different acids. One acid (called monocalcium phosphate) reacts when it is mixed into a wet batter. The second acid (sodium acid pyrophosphate or sodium aluminum sulfate) reacts only when it is both stirred into the batter and is hot (ie. baking in the oven).
In short, baking soda needs an acidic ingredient to activate it. Baking powder is essentially baking soda with the acid already in it. Both raising agents are different; as a result, you can’t swap one for the other in a recipe.
Both raising agents work by releasing carbon dioxide gas while a baked good is baking. The bubbles force the dough, cake or cookies to rise and the bubbles harden as they bake.
Baking soda will only work in recipes that have an acidic ingredient in it to activate it, ingredients like buttermilk, molasses, sour cream, lemon juice, yogurt and honey.
So, why do recipes call for both? Baking powder won’t give a recipe enough rise on its own since it’s only one-third baking soda. So, combining both baking powder and baking soda will give a recipe enough oomph to properly rise in the oven.
In order to check that your baking soda is still good combine a bit with vinegar in a bowl and see if it bubbles up. Combine your baking powder with some water and if it foams up it’s still good.
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