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Your Guide to Baking Soda and Baking Powder

Last Update: April 11, 2024

For home bakers, two ingredients frequently spark confusion: baking soda and baking powder. Despite their similar names and appearance, the two fine, white powders fulfill unique roles in baking, cleaning, and other home remedies.

You’ve likely run into a situation where you aren’t sure if you can substitute baking soda for baking powder in a recipe. Or maybe you’ve wondered, as you sprinkle a teaspoon of baking soda into your cake batter, exactly what it’s doing in there. This handy guide aims to help you better understand these common yet versatile kitchen staples, from their differences and applications, to frequently asked questions about their benefits and uses. 

Did you know that aside from its obvious culinary uses, baking soda and baking powder can be an important part of eco-conscious home care? It’s true; baking soda isn’t just great for making your cakes fluffy, but also works wonders in absorbing odors naturally in your fridge, or as a gentle-yet-effective cleaning agent for your kitchen surfaces. And let’s not forget about baking powder’s hidden talents, such as its ability to help lift stains from your favorite coffee mugs!

You can use baking soda and baking powder in your own personal care, too. Some people tap into the benefits of a baking soda bath for soothing irritated skin. 

So, whether you’re a seasoned baker or just curious about maximizing the potential of everyday items in your pantry, this guide will help you to elevate your culinary and home care routines with the simple magic of baking soda and baking powder.

Understanding Baking Soda and Baking Powder

What is Baking Soda? 

Baking soda, scientifically known as sodium bicarbonate, is a white crystalline powder that serves as a leavening agent in baking. It is made of a single compound, NaHCO₃, and has a pH of 9, making it mildly alkaline. It reacts with acidic components, releasing carbon dioxide gas that causes dough or batter to rise

What is Baking Powder? 

Baking powder is a mixture that contains baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and an acid (typically cream of tartar), along with a drying agent like cornstarch. It’s a self-contained leavening agent that begins to work once it encounters moisture and heat, perfect for recipes that lack natural acids. It is used to increase the volume and lighten the texture of baked goods.

Baking powder is a complete leavening agent used in baking to cause dough and batters to rise. Unlike baking soda, which requires an acidic component to activate, baking powder contains both the alkaline baking soda and an acid, typically cream of tartar. 

When mixed with liquid in a recipe, baking powder undergoes an initial reaction to release carbon dioxide and form bubbles in the batter, causing it to expand and rise. A second reaction occurs when heated during baking, ensuring the baked goods are light, fluffy, and well-risen.

Baking Soda and Baking Powder Uses

Uses for Baking Soda 

  • Baking. Baking soda helps neutralize acidic ingredients in baked goods for a more balanced flavor, and to help create a more tender texture in softer 
  • Oral care: Baking soda has long been recognized for its benefits in oral hygiene. Its mild abrasive properties make it effective at polishing away surface stains on teeth, contributing to a whiter and brighter smile. Many natural toothpastes incorporate baking soda for its ability to gently clean without the harshness of chemical whiteners, making it a safe and effective choice for daily use.

    In addition to its whitening capabilities, baking soda helps to neutralize harmful acids in the mouth. This action can reduce the risk of tooth decay and improve overall oral health. By balancing the pH level in the mouth, baking soda helps to prevent bacterial growth and maintain healthy gums, making it a valuable component of oral care routines.
  • Household cleaning. Baking soda has deodorizing and grease-cutting capabilities, which make it useful in both DIY and store-bought cleaning products. 

    Baking soda is a powerhouse for cleaning due to its abrasive texture and alkaline nature. It effectively scrubs away tough stains, breaks down grease, and neutralizes odors without damaging surfaces. For those tough-to-remove stains, baking soda proves to be an invaluable asset; its ability to tackle everything from coffee marks to grease spills makes it a must-have in the cleaning arsenal. Learn more about its stain-removing prowess in this detailed guide on using baking soda as a stain remover.

    Ideal for tasks such as scrubbing sinks, deodorizing carpets and refrigerators, and removing soap scum in bathrooms, baking soda’s versatility extends beyond the kitchen. Its natural deodorizing ability also makes it perfect for freshening up upholstery and neutralizing pet odors, providing a comprehensive cleaning solution for a variety of household challenges.

    Here are some ways to clean with baking soda: 
  • In the Toilet Tank: Adding a cup of baking soda to the toilet tank can help clean and deodorize it. Let it sit for a few minutes before flushing, allowing the baking soda to scrub away stains and neutralize odors, keeping the toilet fresher between deep cleanings.
  • On Carpet: Sprinkling baking soda on carpets can eliminate odors and lift dirt. Let it sit for 15 minutes or overnight for tough odors, then vacuum it up. Baking soda is effective in absorbing pet smells and refreshing the carpet fibers.
  • In Laundry: Adding baking soda to laundry can boost detergent performance, soften fabrics, and eliminate odors. It helps to maintain the optimal pH level in the washing machine for cleaner, fresher clothes.
  • For the Fridge: An open box of baking soda placed in the refrigerator can absorb unpleasant odors, keeping the fridge smelling clean without affecting the taste of food.
  • Cleaning the Oven with Baking Soda: A paste made from baking soda and water can be used to clean the oven. Coating the interior surfaces and letting it sit overnight helps to loosen burnt-on food, making it easier to scrub away.
  • Pest control. Baking soda has proven to be an effective, non-toxic solution for managing pests like ants and fleas. Its properties can disrupt the natural chemistry of these pests, leading to their elimination without the use of harsh chemicals. For ants, sprinkling baking soda on ant trails and around entry points can help deter and eventually kill them. The fine powder can interfere with their internal systems when ingested.

  • Hair care. In the realm of personal care, baking soda is a versatile ingredient that can enhance hair health and cleanliness. When used as a hair rinse or a dry shampoo alternative, baking soda helps to remove buildup from styling products, excess oil, and impurities, leaving the hair clean and manageable. Its alkaline nature can also help to balance the pH of the scalp, reducing issues like dandruff and itchiness. Incorporating baking soda into your hair care routine can be as simple as mixing a small amount with your regular shampoo to boost its cleaning power, or using a baking soda and water solution as a clarifying rinse once a month. However, it’s important to use it sparingly, as overuse can lead to dryness of the scalp and hair. To ensure the best results, it’s recommended to follow a baking soda treatment with a mild, acidic rinse, such as diluted apple cider vinegar, to restore the natural pH balance of the scalp and hair.

Uses for Baking Powder 

  • Baking and cooking: Baking powder is the go-to leavening agent for recipes that don’t contain acidic ingredients, ensuring a light and airy texture in cakes, biscuits, pizza dough, and even breading on fried chicken. 
  • Baking Powder for Cleaning: Baking powder, though less commonly used for cleaning compared to baking soda, can still be effective for certain tasks. It contains a mixture of baking soda, an acid, and a drying agent, which means it can provide gentle cleaning action suitable for light stains and soils. Due to its slightly acidic nature when mixed with water, baking powder can be useful for removing mineral deposits and other non-greasy stains. However, it is generally not as effective as baking soda for heavy-duty cleaning tasks.
  • Cosmetics. Baking powder’s fine, powdery texture makes it suitable for use in makeup formulations, where it can serve as a bulking agent or color corrector. Baking powder can be found in certain cosmetic products, such as face powders, where it helps to absorb excess oil and reduce shine, providing a matte finish to the skin. Its mild properties make it compatible with other ingredients in makeup, ensuring it doesn’t cause skin irritation.

Frequently Asked Questions About Baking Soda and Baking Powder 

Learning the differences between baking soda and baking powder can raise questions for many home bakers. Here are answers to some commonly asked questions:

Can I use baking powder instead of baking soda?

While both ingredients are leavening agents, they cannot be used interchangeably in a 1:1 swap. Baking soda needs an acidic ingredient like lemon juice to activate it, while baking powder already contains acid. Using baking powder when a recipe calls for baking soda will likely result in too much leavening power.

How can I substitute baking soda for baking powder (or vice versa)? 

In a pinch, you can substitute the two ingredients for one another — though you’ll need to keep a few things in mind. 

  • If you’re out of baking soda: For every 1 teaspoon of baking soda, use 3 teaspoons of baking powder 
  • If you’re out of baking powder: For every 1 teaspoon of baking powder, use
    • 1 teaspoon baking soda + ½ teaspoon of cream of tartar OR 
    • 1 teaspoon of lemon juice or white vinegar (Note: you’ll need to add something acidic in order to mimic the leavening effect of baking powder)

Should I use baking soda or baking powder in cookies?

Most cookie recipes rely on baking soda rather than baking powder to help the cookies rise. The small amount of acidity in ingredients like brown sugar, molasses, or chocolate activates the baking soda. Using baking powder may cause cookies to spread too much or take on a bitter taste.

What is the purpose of baking powder?

Baking powder serves as a complete leavening agent on its own, without needing a separate acidic ingredient. It’s useful for recipes where acidic ingredients are minimal or absent, like cakes, biscuits, and muffins. The baking powder provides airiness and lift.

Which one makes baked goods fluffy, baking powder or baking soda? 

Both ingredients can contribute to a fluffy texture when used properly. As leavening agents, they produce air bubbles that make batters and doughs rise. Baking soda needs acid to activate it while baking powder contains both soda and acid.

What happens if you don’t add baking soda or powder to cookies?

Leaving out baking soda will result in dense, flat cookies with a compact texture. The cookies won’t spread out or rise without the leavening agent. They will likely still be edible, but much heavier and quite dense.

Does baking powder make cookies hard or soft?

When used appropriately in cookie recipes, baking powder contributes to soft, chewy cookies. Too much baking powder could make them spread too thin and become crispier. An ideal amount creates air pockets that keep cookies soft and cake-like.

What does baking soda do?

Baking soda acts as a leavening agent in baked goods, causing them to rise by producing carbon dioxide gas when it reacts with an acid. Beyond its culinary uses, it neutralizes odors, cleans surfaces, and is a gentle abrasive for polishing. It’s also used in personal care products, such as toothpaste, for its ability to remove stains and neutralize acids.

Is baking powder the same as baking soda?

No, they are not the same. Baking soda is pure sodium bicarbonate, requiring an acidic ingredient in recipes to activate its leavening properties. Baking powder, on the other hand, contains baking soda, an acid, and a moisture-absorbing agent, making it a complete leavening agent that activates with moisture and heat, independent of additional acidic ingredients.

When to use baking soda vs baking powder:

Baking soda is used in recipes that include acidic components like lemon juice, buttermilk, or vinegar, which activate the soda and produce the gas necessary for leavening. Baking powder is used in recipes that lack these natural acids, as it contains its own acid and activates upon addition of liquid and exposure to heat.

How to identify baking soda vs baking powder:

Baking soda is pure sodium bicarbonate, a single-ingredient compound, and is typically used in combination with acidic ingredients in cooking and baking. Baking powder, however, is a blend that includes sodium bicarbonate, an acid, and a drying agent, and it works as a complete leavening agent on its own.

Does baking soda expire?

Baking soda can lose its potency over time but does not technically “expire.” Its shelf life is indefinite under proper storage conditions, but it’s most effective for leavening and cleaning within 6 months to a year of opening. To test its potency, you can mix it with vinegar; if it bubbles vigorously, it’s still active.

Does baking powder go bad?

Like baking soda, baking powder can lose its leavening power over time, especially if exposed to moisture or heat. It should be used within 6 to 12 months for best results. To test if baking powder is still effective, you can mix a small amount with hot water. If it bubbles, it’s still good to use.

Is baking powder gluten-free?

Most baking powder is naturally gluten-free because it is made from a combination of baking soda, cream of tartar, and a starch to absorb moisture and prevent clumping. The starch is usually cornstarch, which is gluten-free, but it’s essential to check the product label. 

Some brands may use wheat starch or process the baking powder in facilities that handle gluten-containing products, leading to potential cross-contamination. For individuals with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, it’s crucial to use baking powder that is specifically labeled as gluten-free to avoid any health risks.

Tenderizing Meat with Baking Soda

Baking soda is not just for baking; it also plays a surprising role in cooking, particularly in meat preparation. When used as a meat tenderizer, baking soda breaks down the proteins in meat, resulting in a tender and more palatable texture. This method is especially useful for tougher cuts of meat, enhancing their tenderness and flavor.

To use baking soda for tenderizing meat, lightly sprinkle a small amount of baking soda over the surface of the meat. Let it sit for 15-20 minutes for smaller cuts, or up to an hour for larger pieces, before cooking. The alkaline nature of baking soda raises the pH of the meat’s surface, making it less tough and more tender. 

After the meat has been treated with baking soda, rinse it thoroughly under cold water to remove any residual baking soda, then cook as desired.

Gluten-Free Baking with Baking Powder

Baking powder is a staple in gluten-free baking, where it plays a crucial role in ensuring that gluten-free baked goods rise properly and have a fluffy texture. Since gluten-free flours lack the elastic properties of gluten, baking powder becomes essential to help achieve the right leavening and airiness in breads, cakes, and other baked items.

When selecting baking powder for gluten-free recipes, it’s vital to ensure that it is indeed gluten-free, as some brands may contain additives or be processed in facilities that also handle wheat or other gluten-containing ingredients. 

Discover the Best Baking Essentials From Thrive Market

From aluminum-free baking soda for your culinary and cleaning endeavors to gluten-free baking powder for all your baking projects, we carry baking ingredients that support both your health and the planet. Here are just a few:

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Baking, Baking Tips

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Amy Roberts

Amy Roberts is Thrive Market's Senior Editorial Writer. She is based in Los Angeles via Pittsburgh, PA.

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