Baking Soda vs Baking Powder: What’s the Difference?

Baking soda vs. baking powder, what’s the difference? These are two common leavening agents in baking that will impact the taste and quality of a recipe. Learning how to use them correctly will help achieve the right rise and texture of cakes, cookies, muffins, biscuits, and more!

Baking soda vs baking powder, what's the difference? These are two common leavening agents in baking that will impact the taste and quality of a recipe.

Just like that, the holiday season is upon us. I can hardly believe it, myself. Weren’t we just talking about the year ahead? Even still, November is here, which means the calendar invites warming ovens and tins filled with delicious creations that can be shared with loved ones.

With that in mind, a topic I’ve wanted to explore here is chemical leavening. As a scientist, the reactions involved never fail to fascinate me, but understanding how it all works is essential for any skilled baker. At its core, chemical leavening refers to the process by which an acid, a base, and water combine and release carbon dioxide.

This CO2 is what causes whatever you’re baking to rise. In general, using chemical leaveners are easy and fast. Requiring less technique and time than would be needed to use other leaveners, like steam or yeast.

Difference between baking soda and baking powder

Two common leavening agents are baking powder and baking soda. Two similarly named ingredients that have undoubtedly caused a few head-scratching moments for first-time bakers. The question comes down to, is baking soda and baking powder the same?

Baking soda

Baking soda is a base (NaHC03 for my science geeks out there), an alkaline compound called sodium bicarbonate. This means that whatever its recipe counterpart is will have to be acid to cause the reaction. Some typical examples include yogurt, lemon juice, vinegar, buttermilk or molasses. Once combined, the CO2 bubbles will begin to form and the dough will start to rise.

You only need to use enough baking soda to neutralize the acid. The unique thing about baking soda is it does not require heat to create bubbles, so once it’s mixed with the wet ingredients, the mixture needs to be baked immediately. This maximizes gas retention in the baked good for a nice rise. The amount of baking soda used correlates to the quantity of acid in the recipe. The goal is to have enough base to neutralize the acids.

Baking powder

Baking powder is made from a combination of baking soda and an acid–typically cream of tartar–and an inert stabilizer, like cornstarch, which prevents the mixture from reacting. Baking powder can come in two forms:

  • Single-acting: which needs moisture to react, requiring baking immediately after mixing
  • Double-acting: which causes some gas to be released when the mixture is combined, and more to be released once heat is added to the equation, allowing the mixture to be able to stand for a bit before being cooked.

Which one do I use?

I typically use double-acting in cakes and muffins to give me some insurance in between mixing, adding to the pan, and baking. If you get sidetracked and do not bake the batter or dough right away, you can lose the gases to the atmosphere which means less rise and height in your baked product. I love muffin tops, don’t you?

One thing to look out for is to follow the recipe’s instructions. It is possible to add too much of either, which can alter the taste or cause the final product to be very misformed. If you add too much, you can increase the other ingredients in lockstep. Or, if you haven’t mixed everything, try to scoop out however much you think might be extra. If you’re not able to gauge these parameters, then it might be best to toss everything and start all over again. With baking, these kinds of mishaps can ruin a recipe!

How do leavening agents work?

One trick to keep in mind is that both baking powder and baking soda gives rise, but baking soda also spreads due to its leavening strength in small amounts. Think of what the recipe is trying to ultimately achieve, both taste and texture-wise, and that should give you a clue if you forget which to use. Baking soda can make or break a cookie. But too much and it may become too brittle and bitter, seeing as it’s a base and needs to be balanced out with other acids already present in a recipe.

Conversely, if you use too little baking soda, you’ll have too spongy and porous of a cookie that absorbs all the sugar. This is why baking powder is better for cake. It comes with its own acid already mixed, so its already neutralized and doesn’t require any other agent or tastes, all it needs is to be added and cooked and it will rise. Make sure not to add too much either, as it could also cause a cake to flatten and be dense from overreacting.

Keep it fresh

Store baking powder and baking soda covered and sealed in a cool, dry place. Once opened they are sensitive to heat and humidity, losing their power. Once opened they are good for 6 to 12 months.

Test it!

An easy way to see if they still have bubble capability is as follows: Add 1/4 teaspoon baking powder to 1/2 cup hot water; add 1/4 teaspoon vinegar as well to water if testing baking soda. If you immediately see a fizzing reaction, they are good to go!

Bubbles forming in a cup after mixing baking powder with water

Why do recipes have both?

Often times both baking powder is added in addition to baking soda to provide the extra leavening capability. The baking soda neutralizes the acids in the recipe, while the baking powder offers extra bubbles for lift. You can also purposely add a little extra baking soda for a tart flavor and golden brown color development on the surface like for cookies.

Can I substitute one for the other?

You can substitute baking soda for baking powder, but not the other way around. Baking soda is four times stronger than baking powder. Therefore you need 1/4 teaspoon soda to 1 teaspoon of baking powder. You also need to add an acid to balance and create a reaction.

For example, 1 teaspoon lemon juice for every 1/2 teaspoon baking soda. It’s difficult to know what ratios of baking soda and acid is used in commercial baking powder products, so substituting with baking soda is not recommended.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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20 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Paula says

    That was the MOST comprehensive explanation I’ve ever read on the subject… so easy to understand too. I learned so much! Wonderful! Will be helpful to have such an in-depth understanding of the two in the future. Thank you.

    Could you do an analysis about freezing dough? I’m making more of our breads, dinner rolls and make pizza dough. Usually yeast dough. Always like to make more in my Bosch and freeze for thawing, additional rise and baking later so they are fresh. (With the Bosch Universal Mixer it can easily do 6-8 loaves of bread or pizza dough at a time and really doesn’t really do small batches very well.) Still confused at what point I can freeze dough… especially if a dough calls for a single or double rise. I’d like to get the maximum rise and texture. Thanks. Paula Murphy

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Thank you SO much Paula, you made my day! Great idea to break them up for an even more deep dive later. I will definitely keep a look out on more info for freezing dough, so interesting!

  2. Judy says

    Such good information to have. Thank you so much for always being so thorough in the blogs you share with us. I have not seen this any where else.

    Judy

  3. Nevila says

    oh dear, this article was amazing. I have used baking soda more often than baking powder, I even omitted entirely the baking powder in some recipes because I like using baking soda in my baking. Now that I’ve understood when to use baking soda and when to use baking powder, I will be more careful.
    PS: now I understand why some of my baking recipes failed in rising 🙂

  4. Jerrie says

    If I want to use, for example, buttermilk or sourcream in a cake batter for the tang it gives does this get lost by neutralizing the acid by adding baking soda? Some recipes that include these acids only use baking powder, is there an ‘amount’ of acid in a recipe that requires baking soda to be used as well as baking powder?

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Jerrie- Great questions! Neutralizing the acid with baking soda with cause some of the sourness will be reduced. So adding in buttermilk or sour cream can add back some tang. Just don’t overdo it with lemon juice, or strong acidic ingredients because it can cause the product to be paler in color. Baking powder has a built-in acidic, so adding more acid is not needed. Some references recommend about 1/2 teaspoon baking soda per 1 tablespoon acid like lemon juice or vinegar. Experimentation is always welcomed 🙂

  5. Nancy Codd says

    Thank you very much for the info on baking soda vs baking powder. I did the test for my baking soda and it works. I also did it for the OLD baking powder I had and no fizz!
    Also, I had to go thru the gamut of trying to get the above information and thankfully found yours.

  6. Betty Delaney says

    I want a dense cupcake; can I eliminate baking soda all the way, and instead just increase the baking powder by the amount of soda should be using? I love the Sprinkles vanilla cupcakes and have tried to duplicate that taste to no avail. I got Sprinkles cookbook which has that recipe in it; however it is not the same; too spongy for me. I’m going to lessen the sugar, eliminate the soda and add more powder. Can this work?

    Thank you,

    Betty D

    • Jessica Gavin says

      How much baking powder and baking soda is the recipe calling for? Baking soda is more potent than baking powder, and will provide the initial rise. So if you want it denser, perhaps leave it out completely. Reducing the sugar will make the cake less sweet and perhaps more springy because the sugars weaken gluten formation, which gives structure to the cake. Let me know how it goes!

  7. Lorrie says

    Dear Jessica:

    Interested on your article re baking soda. How much baking soda do I use, say for 2 lbs., of sliced flank steak which I plan to stir fry with veggies.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      I recommend combining 1 tablespoon baking soda with 1 1/4 cups cold water in a large bowl. Add the sliced beef and combine well, then let it stand at room temperature for 15 minutes. Rinse with cold water, drain, then pat dry with paper towels. Let me know how it goes!

  8. Pam H says

    Great article. I appreciate understanding the science behind the ingredients. My oatmeal cookie recipe has no acids that I know of. It is flour, brown sugar, rolled oats, vanilla, egg and cinnamon. Sometimes I add craisins- are they an acid? Do I need to add another acidthnk you.

    Pam

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Thanks, Pam! The craisins have some natural acidity, but what really helps activate the sodium bicarbonate in the leavening agents is the acid in the brown sugar. Doesn’t seem like that since it’s sweet, but it works nicely to help with rising and some spread!

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