Filed Under: Baking Science | How To

Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder

Recipe By Tessa Arias
  |  
October 14th, 2021

The surprising differences between Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder and how they work and affect your baking. Be a better baker by learning these fundamentals!

Chemical leavening agents like baking soda and baking powder can have a profound effect on your favorite baked goods. What is baking soda vs. baking powder? How do they actually work? What are the differences between them?

Those are the questions I’ll be answering for you today, and guess what… I brought VISUALS! Let’s dive in!

Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder

What are chemical leaveners? Can you substitute baking powder for baking soda and vice versa?

Baking powder and baking soda are both chemical leaveners that work to create light textures in baked goods—but only under the correct conditions. They release gases, primarily carbon dioxide, through chemical reactions between acids and bases.

Although baking powder actually contains baking soda, the two leaveners are very different. Baking powder and baking soda are not interchangeable, however, they both provide three similar main functions:

  1. Leavening: Baking powder and soda release gases that form bubbles which expand within the batter or dough during the baking process. The protein in the batter or dough then sets around those air pockets. This creates rise and lift in the structure of your baked goods.
  2. Tenderizing: As the gases form and expand, cell walls in baked goods begin to stretch and thin. This results in a more tender texture that’s easier to eat.
  3. Provide flavor: Small amounts of chemical leaveners can contribute a salty, sour flavor that is distinct to baked goods like biscuits, scones, or Irish soda bread.

Why it’s SO important to use a leavener in most recipes!

Take a look at the image below to see what happens when NO chemical leavener is used in my Ultimate Muffin Recipe compared to using both baking powder and baking soda:

The muffins without any leavener are extremely dense and almost taste unbaked despite being baked for the exact same amount of time as the other!

Why do some recipes not call for baking powder or baking soda?

The recipes where you don’t need a chemical leavener are the ones that use yeast, which is an organic leavener that also works by producing gas bubbles, or recipes that whip lots of air into the batter or are custard-based (like ice cream or crème brûlée), where rich creaminess is the desired texture.

What is baking soda and how does it work?

Baking soda, referred to scientifically as sodium bicarbonate, is a natural pure alkaline substance activated by moisture and acid present in the batter, dough, or mixture to produce gas.

Naturally acidic ingredients that will active baking soda:

  • Buttermilk
  • Sour cream
  • Yogurt
  • Lemon juice
  • Honey
  • Natural cocoa powder (NOT Dutch-processed)
  • Unsweetened chocolate
  • Brown sugar
  • Molasses
  • Fruits & fruit juices

There must be some acidic ingredient in the recipe for baking soda to function. Baking soda begins to leaven as soon as it touches liquid present in the dough or batter. So if you wait too long before baking, you may notice a decrease in leavening effect (especially in wetter dough or batters).

In professional baking, this is referred to as ‘bench tolerance,’ or how long a batter or dough can be stored before it has lost its leavening. For recipes that rely mostly on baking soda for their structure which are also full of moisture, such as certain cake batters, they shouldn’t be stored too long before baking.

How baking soda changes baked goods:

If you use too much baking soda, you may taste an unpleasant metallic, soapy, or bitter flavor in your food. This can happen by accident by mis-measuring or when making other changes to an established recipe.

Baking Soda Elevates pH

Baking soda helps add a beautiful browned color to baked goods by elevating pH levels. Baking soda is also present in baking powder but in a smaller amount so it has a lower pH level which results in less browning.

A higher pH in baked goods can affect color, flavor, texture, and gluten development! For example, baking soda in brownies or gingerbread enhances the deep dark color and smoothes out the chocolate flavor.

Meanwhile, baking soda in cookies leads to more spread and a crispy edge compared to baking powder:

Since baking soda must be fresh to work properly, it’s important to switch out your container before the expiration date. However, baking soda can lose its effectiveness even before that date.

How to test baking soda for freshness:

Place 1/4 teaspoon baking soda in a bowl and pour 1 teaspoon of distilled vinegar on top. If the baking soda immediately bubbles violently, it is fresh. If nothing happens, throw away the baking soda and buy a new package.

What is baking powder and how does it work?

Baking powder is a combination of baking soda, an acid (usually cream of tartar), and an anti-caking agent such as cornstarch. Because it contains both the acid and the base necessary for the desired chemical reaction, your batter or dough doesn’t require additional acidic ingredients to work properly. Just moisture and heat! This makes baking powder a complete leavening system.

Most baking powder available in the U.S. today is double acting, meaning its first reaction occurs when combined with liquid to help aerate the batter or dough, and a second more slow-acting reaction occurs when heated in the oven. This means that baking powder dough or batters have a better bench tolerance and can be stored and baked at a later time. If using aluminum-free baking powder, I recommend looking for one that is also marked as double acting for best results.

How baking powder changes baked goods:

The small amount of cream of tartar in baking powder decreases pH and weakens gluten. In recipes like muffins, biscuits, and cakes, many of which rely entirely on baking powder, this results in a tighter, whiter, and delicate texture:

Strength

It’s important to understand that baking soda is four times stronger than baking powder. This means 1 teaspoon of baking powder will raise a cup of flour, whereas only a 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda can produce the same effect. A general rule of thumb is that ½ teaspoon of baking soda is neutralized by 1 teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar.

How to test baking powder for freshness:

Place 1 teaspoon of baking powder in a bowl with 1 cup of hot water from the tap. If it bubbles up, the baking powder is fresh. If nothing happens, throw the baking powder away and buy a new container.

How to store baking powder and baking soda:

Purchase in the smallest size feasible based on how often you bake and use chemical leavening agents. Store in a cool place in an airtight container. Air and light can cause them to lose their effectiveness before their expiration date, which is why I included freshness tests above!

Which is better: baking powder or baking soda?

Neither one is better than the other, they are simply used depending on the chemistry of the recipe, how it will be handled, and what the desired outcome is!

Take a look at some of the experiments we did with baking powder and baking soda.

Below you’ll see the same exact base muffin recipe baked in the same trays at the same temperature for the same amount of time. The only difference is the chemical leavening agent used!

Baking powder muffins: these were tall, light, slightly delicate, fluffy, and cakey. They were evenly domed on top. These were my favorite, followed by batch 3 which had both!

Baking soda muffins: these were slightly more browned, they had very tall peaks in the center, and they had an ever so slightly sour taste. Almost like there was sour cream in the batter (there wasn’t).

Both baking soda and powder muffins: These muffins were the most browned and caramelized and had a more springy texture.

No leavener muffins: These were leaden, dense, rubbery, and really just a doughy, inedible mess.

We repeated the same experiment with my Bakery Style Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe:

Baking powder cookies: These were extra thick and tall, not chewy, more fluffy, and not quite as flavorful.

Baking soda cookies: These cookies were well browned with slightly crispy edges, chewy interiors, and regular thickness. They didn’t stale as quickly so they were more shelf stable. They were my favorite!

No leavener cookies: These were dense, heavy, and had a similar texture to “Mexican Wedding Cookies.”

Why do some recipes call for both baking soda and baking powder?

As you can see above, sometimes we want the best of both worlds! Some recipes call for both baking soda and baking powder in order to have the highest effect of acid-neutralizing and leavening powers.

This works especially well for an acidic dough that needs to be stored overnight, such as my favorite Ultimate Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe.

More science of baking articles to check out:

Recipes you’ll love:

Photos by Joanie Simon | The Bite Shot.

Tessa Arias

About Tessa...

I share trusted baking recipes your friends will LOVE alongside insights into the science of sweets. I'm a professionally trained chef, cookbook author, and cookie queen. I love to write about all things sweet, carb-y, and homemade. I live in Phoenix, Arizona (hence the blog name!)

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  1. #
    Joann Hartmann — December 16, 2018 at 6:07 am

    Thank you for this great information. I do have a question about cutout cookies, such as Christmas shaped cookies. Because of the leavening agents, the cookies rise and the shapes are distorted. How can I keep the flavor and texture of the cookie but reduce the puffiness of the shapes?
    Thanks for any help you can give.

  2. #
    Becca — November 15, 2018 at 4:25 pm

    Howdy Tessa,
    Thank you for the info!!
    If I am making a ton of cookies for Christmas, and need to make the dough ahead of time… would you suggest making recipes with baking powder so they will have an optimum bake with the double acting leavening? I don’t want them to come out flat after the dough being refrigerated/frozen for about a week.
    Thank you in advance for your help!

  3. #
    Judy — October 30, 2018 at 7:01 pm

    I was taught that baking soda made cookies spread and baking powder made them rise. Is there anything factual about that?

  4. #
    Marie — September 2, 2018 at 7:25 pm

    Thank for the info! Really interesting!

  5. #
    korina vathi — May 23, 2018 at 6:44 pm

    Thanks Tessa..great info and very helpful indeed

  6. #
    Nonnine — May 8, 2018 at 9:36 pm

    Thanks for this, I never really understood the function of these two. Now I do.

  7. #
    Yvonne — February 3, 2018 at 2:57 pm

    Which kind of cookie sheet do you find is best to produce a thicker cookie that is soft and chewy? Thank you for easily explaining the difference between the two.

  8. #
    Carol — January 2, 2018 at 11:53 am

    Do you lose much of the leavening effect of baking powder or baking soda when you refrigerate cookie dough?

    • #
      Tessa — January 2, 2018 at 8:57 pm

      You lose more from baking soda. Most baking powder on the market is “double acting” so it’s activated when mixed with liquid, then again when exposed to heat!

  9. #
    Paul — December 2, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    Thanks for the short and informative video!

  10. #
    Bella — September 30, 2017 at 6:39 am

    Hi Tessa,

    Thanks for a great article clarifying the two baking ingredients. I have a question though. Someone told me baking powder and baking soda will keep fresh indefinitely if you store them in the freezer. Since I use Bob’s Red Mill baking powder and baking soda, they come packaged and I don’t have to worry about metal cans or boxes. However, I trust your judgement impeccably. 🙂 Could you please respond on your thoughts about this? Thanks, greatly appreciated!

  11. #
    Yulana — September 12, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    What a wonderful vlog on these two leaveners. You’re the first to explain in an understandable manner. I love the science of baking.

  12. #
    Peter — September 7, 2017 at 11:57 pm

    Thanks for the very informative video in South Africa we get bicarbonate of soda which I think is the same as baking soda & baking powder and the weight equivalent of a stick of butter as we do not get sticks of butter.

  13. #
    Olivia — August 27, 2017 at 8:21 pm

    Thanks so much for that information! I will not substitute those two ingredients again because thanks to you I have a better understanding how and why they work!!

  14. #
    jim — June 14, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    I’ not sure what your point was about the cookie pics. Are you saying that the anemic looking cookies with both powder and soda are the preferred ones? Maybe the picture doesn’t give a good representation. My main question is concerning the baking powder with no aluminum in it. Does it proof the same way. I have some that is a year away from its expiration date, but it did nothing when the water was added. Actually, the powder rose up and floated, but no bubbling. Any thoughts on this?

  15. #
    Hami — April 9, 2017 at 7:34 pm

    Thanks for the info n tips Tessa, keeo up with the sharing efforts

  16. #
    Alice Niki — February 21, 2017 at 11:58 pm

    New lesson/insights for me. I never pay attention to all these! Now that I begin to venture into baking, your tips/tricks/traits are really helpful and make our baking more interesting & more fulfilling. Thank You.

  17. #
    Deb F — January 31, 2017 at 10:47 am

    Hi Tessa,
    I was eating an Ultimate Chocolate Chip cookie while watching this….

    • #
      Tessa — February 1, 2017 at 8:27 am

      LOVE that!!

  18. #
    Carol — January 24, 2017 at 10:57 am

    Very helpful.
    I’m having a lot of problem with all purposes flours to make cake some time the Birthday cake is very dense or pound cake like , I have to used cake flour,even if the recipe call for all purposes flours.
    Thank you, carol

  19. #
    Catharina — December 13, 2016 at 11:19 pm

    Thank you so much for this, always wondered the difference as I made a gorgeous chocolate cake and got the measurements the wrong way round and yes, I had to throw it out, it tasted awful! So now lesson learned and make sure I never ever confuse the two!

  20. #
    Bonnie — December 9, 2016 at 9:13 pm

    If a cookie recipe calls for 1 tsp baking soda and I wanted to use baking powder instead, how much baking powder would I use?

  21. #
    matthew — December 8, 2016 at 9:37 am

    what am i doing here i have test tomorrow and i need to study i dont even bake

  22. #
    Deb — October 8, 2016 at 6:08 am

    This is really useful info. Once I was out of baking soda so substituted baking powder in a favorite chocolate cake recipe and the flavour and texture were different. This explained why.

  23. #
    Jeannie — September 22, 2016 at 8:44 pm

    Knew most of this, but after sixty some years of baking still didn’t know there was a way to test baking powder for freshness. Bet some of my friends don’t either from listening to comments about guessing” they needed to get new. I do not use self rising flour so my powder doesn’t get a chance to get old. Thank you for the “new” information.

    • #
      Tessa — September 23, 2016 at 9:16 am

      You are so welcome, Jeannie! I’m glad to hear you found this helpful 🙂

  24. #
    Joanne — September 21, 2016 at 9:05 pm

    Very well explained! Thank you!

  25. #
    Melinda — September 21, 2016 at 6:21 pm

    Love your Videos and Recipes

    On a funny note, another difference:

    You can Brush your Teeth with Baking Soda

    You can’t with Baking Powder

    Once again, you’re recipes are wonderful

  26. #
    joan nass — September 21, 2016 at 8:20 am

    Thanks Tessa,

    Your video did a great job in explaining the difference. Keep up the good work.

    • #
      Tessa — September 21, 2016 at 4:43 pm

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  27. #
    joan nass — September 21, 2016 at 8:18 am

    Hi,
    Thank you Tessa.. Your video was greatly helpful.

  28. #
    Blanca Marrufo — September 12, 2016 at 1:25 pm

    Gracias, soy Mexicana vivo en México pero. aunque se algo de inglés, entendí todo, por la excelente pronunciación además de lo valioso de la información

  29. #
    Kanika Jindal Pathak — July 29, 2016 at 10:49 pm

    Thanks Tessa….you explained it so wonderfully well

  30. #
    Michelle — July 5, 2016 at 7:11 pm

    Thanks Tessa I never knew or understood the difference from baking soda/powder I would love to know your secrets to scratch made cakes

  31. #
    Tsitsi — July 4, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    Thank you Tessa for the information. I have learnt a lot.

  32. #
    Natallia — July 4, 2016 at 8:33 am

    Thank you, Tessa. I substituted baking soda for baking powder easily without even thinking before I read your article. Now I will follow the recipes’ instructions strictly. I see the difference now. I used to wonder why the final bakery had such a clumsy look.

  33. #
    CONFIDENCE KAAKPO. — July 3, 2016 at 9:47 am

    Thank you very much for the information.recently I did not known any different between soda and baking power but now i know.it is possible to use soda power in meat pie? thank you and may God bless you.

  34. #
    Peggy — June 4, 2016 at 11:22 pm

    Hi! Thanks for the sharing.
    I have this puzzle that quite bothers me lately–cookies don’t spread. Years ago when I was in Canada, they turned out fine. But since I moved back to Hong Kong and started baking again, the cookies just refused to spread and I had to use a stamp mid-way. I wonder if relative humidity has anything to do with it? But even in dry winter conditions, they remained stubbornly the same shape as they were dropped on the sheet. Some say granulated sugar helps, but it didn’t work either. Other trials I had: melted butter; molasses; mix of sugars; shortening…
    Maybe you could enlighten me on this?

  35. #
    Deloris Berry — June 4, 2016 at 6:02 pm

    Excellent information!!!!!!! Thank you so much.

  36. #
    Noran — May 31, 2016 at 5:06 am

    Thank you so much
    I asked so many people what’s the difference between them & nobody have an answer

  37. #
    Gerry Eaton — May 12, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    I hate a problem I used to make the best chocolate chip cookies, I used swans down self-rising cake flour. They stopped making it. I’ve tried regular cake flour but don’t know how much baking power to use. Can you help me Thanks Gerry
    If you want the recipe I will give to you.

  38. #
    Rose — May 12, 2016 at 1:47 am

    Thanks for your info,Tessa you have done justice

  39. #
    Anitha — May 8, 2016 at 8:05 am

    Thanks Tessa for the valuable info!!

  40. #
    jimmygourmet — March 30, 2016 at 2:44 pm

    Hi, I tried to print the info regarding the difference between baking soda vs baking powder. But it won’t print any ideas what I should do? Thanks.

    • #
      Tessa — March 30, 2016 at 4:41 pm

      Oh hm, well the print function is meant for recipes and since there’s not a recipe here, it doesn’t exactly work 🙁 If you highlight the text you’d like printed, right click, and hit print, you should be able to get it done that way! Hope that helps.

  41. #
    Orietta — March 27, 2016 at 2:56 pm

    Hi Tessa, it’s really interesting your explanation, I’m italian since I’ve been leaving in America I’m not able to bake my usually cake because I’m not able to use and balance baking powder and baking soda. Is there any role I can refere to?

  42. #
    Caitlin — February 9, 2016 at 4:52 pm

    When did you finish and post your website?

  43. #
    Caitlin — February 9, 2016 at 4:45 pm

    What temp attire does baking soda and baking powder cook at? This is great information. Thank you.

  44. #
    Diane — December 1, 2015 at 6:43 am

    Thanks for the info on how to determine their freshness

  45. #
    Karrie — June 15, 2015 at 8:53 am

    I have been cooking for the better part of 40 years, and never knew the difference, nor did it matter when baking a recipe calling for one , then not having it and using the other! Now I know why it didn’t turn out. Thank you for clareyifying! ;p)

  46. #
    Jillian — June 6, 2015 at 9:08 pm

    This is the first video I’ve come upon that really explains baking soda and baking powder differences so clearly! I’m always working on creating and formulating recipes, so this was SUPER helpful! Thanks for making this video!

    • #
      Tessa — June 10, 2015 at 9:50 am

      I’m so glad you enjoyed!

  47. #
    Ana — May 19, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    Thank you for explaining it so well!

  48. #
    ZsuZsu — May 8, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    very helpful information, but was wondering why the pic of the cookies with both baking power and soda are incredibly flat cookies compared to the slightly fluffier ones above.

  49. #
    Andi — May 2, 2015 at 9:19 am

    This is great, I’m learning lots from you! If you ever need content, I always like to hear good prep tips and why they are needed (temp of ingredients, specific type of cookie sheet etc) and storage tips (like a piece of bread in with the cookie container to keep moist, how to freeze). Sometimes those tips save a whole batch! Great stuff on here, thanks!

  50. #
    Zonara — May 1, 2015 at 8:29 pm

    Thanks for the clarification! Love your iG and recipes.

  51. #
    Erin @ Miss Scrambled Egg — April 30, 2015 at 5:20 pm

    Always informative and helpful, Tessa. Thank you for sharing. I made some chocolate chip cookies tonight. 🙂

  52. #
    Sarah @ Sarah’s Bake Studio — April 30, 2015 at 6:44 am

    Great explanation and video! Very helpful!

  53. #
    Kay — April 30, 2015 at 2:59 am

    Thanks for sharing! You learn something new every day! =)

  54. #
    SALMAN — April 30, 2015 at 2:26 am

    Thanks for the info.

  55. #
    Dulcistella — April 30, 2015 at 1:00 am

    So, correct me if I’m wrong: in the recipe down here it should be better to have baking soda instead of baking powder, or a mixture of the two agents, right? What would you recommend?
    http://localmilkblog.com/2015/01/flaky-fluffy-buttermilk-biscuits-from-scratch.html

  56. #
    Anetta — April 29, 2015 at 9:16 pm

    Tessa, you are my hero! I never feel confident developing baking recipes, but I’m learning so much from you.

  57. #
    Dawn norman — April 29, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    I have always wondered about the two .
    Very interesting!
    I’m going to have to make those cookies!

  58. #
    Gaby — April 29, 2015 at 2:44 pm

    Great info Tessa!

  59. #
    Teri — April 29, 2015 at 9:41 am

    Wonderful video, great info for all bakers!

  60. #
    funsize wife — April 29, 2015 at 8:07 am

    We never learned that in home ec- great article! Thank you!

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