I get this question all the time: What’s the difference between baking powder vs. baking soda? It’s time to answer it once and for all.
As the resident baker among my friends and family, I get a lot of questions. Questions I am happy to answer, because my only other area of expertise is quoting full episodes of Friends. One question I get a lot is: What’s the difference between baking powder vs. baking soda?
It’s a fair question. Some recipes call for one, some for the other, or a combination of both. Although they look almost identical, there is a big difference. So get ready. I’m about to go full pastry nerd on you.
Remember chemistry class? I barely do. My teacher looked mildly like Matthew McConneghey, so there was little focusing going on. However I was able to hold on to this basic principle: combining a base together with an acid creates a reaction. We’ve all sprinkled baking soda into vinegar and watched the bubbles fizz up, right?
In that example, baking soda is the base and vinegar is the acid. This principle is the same in baking. Baking soda (a base) reacts with an acid within the recipe, creates bubbles, and the expansion of those bubbles causes baked goods to rise. Common acids in the baking world are brown sugar, natural cocoa powder, buttermilk, yogurt, and honey. If you’re recipe is plentiful in one of these ingredients, you’re probably only going to use baking soda.
So what happens when a recipe doesn’t call for an acidic ingredient? Baking powder comes to the rescue. Baking powder is made of a combination of baking soda, cream of tartar (an acid), and cornstarch. The acid is built into baking powder, so even if you’re making classic vanilla cupcakes, they will rise thanks to the reaction between the baking soda and cream of tartar in the baking powder. Still with me?
So why don’t we just use baking powder all the time? Why even bother having both in your pantry if baking powder comes locked and loaded?
Like I mentioned before, baking powder is a mixture of baking soda, cream of tartar, and cornstarch, making it a less powerful leavener than just using 100% baking soda. If you were to replace baking powder in a recipe that just calls for baking soda you would have to use 3 to 4 times the amount of baking powder to achieve the same amount of leavening. Now you have 3 to 4 times more acid than you actually need and you’ve added an unnecessary amount of cornstarch too. Messing with the ratios of a recipe like that is sure to change the end product and not for the better.
And those are the pastry nerd basics. If you have any more questions or want to suggest a pastry nerd topic be sure to leave a comment below!