Filed Under: Baking Science | How To

Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder

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. #
    Reem — December 10, 2021 at 2:32 pm

    Great to find all this info in one article….many thanks!

  2. #
    J. Erickson — November 9, 2021 at 2:07 pm

    Hello, I have followed your work for 4 years. With each article, I appreciate your evidence based approach, but the lack of references and citations is bothersome. Some of the text closely resembles excerpts of other cookbooks, which should be cited if it is the source. Demonstrating another’s work is not original work and deserves a citation. What is your explanation for the lack of citations and references?

    • #
      Emily — November 10, 2021 at 2:02 pm

      Thanks so much for your feedback! Tessa’s knowledge comes from her culinary school experience, it comes from her hand written notes :). Anything else she is sure to mention either in the Recipe’s Notes or in the text above the recipes.

  3. #
    Sherry Jean — October 15, 2021 at 11:31 am

    Great information about Baking Soda and Baking Powder. I now understand how it reacts in the recipes. I will never look at my cookies the same way. Plus I am throwing out my soda and powder to buy fresh ones. Thanks!

    • #
      Emily — October 15, 2021 at 2:28 pm

      So happy this helped, Sherry Jean!

  4. #
    Lea — October 15, 2021 at 10:37 am

    Ok….could you give an option to have this as a printable pdf? These are so awesome for a “joy of cooking” or “americas test kitchen” type of notebook for homeschoolers etc! I’d pay a few $$ a buck for such.

    • #
      Emily — October 15, 2021 at 10:47 am

      Thanks for your feedback, Lea! I’ll bring this up in our next team meeting to see if this could be an option 🙂

  5. #
    sophia Moussallam — October 9, 2021 at 7:09 pm

    Hi Tessa
    I’m from Australia and I stumbled on to to your website after learning about “double acting baking powder” (DABP) as I had just made a batch of muffins and of course once you start researching the WEB you pretty much bounce around from site to site.
    Now, DABP isn’t common in our supermarkets but it is available if you look. I believe i do have an understanding of how baking soda and BP work, but what I don’t understand is what the difference in the “aluminium free” (AF) DABP besides the metal taste of course. My research was going well right up to “AF”, I got confused because I want to trial chilling my muffin batter overnight in the fridge and to my understanding (and please accept my apologies in advance if I got it wrong) if it’s AF then it doesn’t work as well? I rephrase my question another way just in case I’m not asking the correct question. If I’m chilling muffin batter does “DABP” work the same way as “DABP AF”, which do I use?

    • #
      Emily — October 11, 2021 at 11:28 am

      Hi Sophia! Aluminum-free baking powders primarily react only with liquid and not with heat, which makes them react more quickly to your batter than most double-acting powders. With an aluminum-free baking powder, you will want to get your muffins into the oven right away as the longer you wait, the less rise you’ll get. Using an aluminum-free baking powder that is double acting will allow you to chill your muffins. Our favorite brands of baking powder are Clabber Girl, which contains aluminum, or Argo, which is aluminum-free but double acting. I hope that helps! Thanks for asking, I’ll see if Tessa can add more details to this post regarding aluminum-free baking powder.

  6. #
    Upasana — June 26, 2021 at 11:54 am

    Hey tessa! This is upasana from india! I love your vedios and blog. you are really very informative and a wonderful teacher. Do you also have guide for egg substitution?

    • #
      Tessa — June 28, 2021 at 12:57 pm

      I don’t publish egg-free recipes, sorry!

  7. #
    Rhonda Peterson — April 13, 2021 at 9:34 am

    Great information! I appreciate the video format to complement the article. I plan to use this video in my high school cooking classes to help explain the science aspects of leaveners. As I tell my students, baking is chemistry!

    • #
      Tessa — April 13, 2021 at 2:44 pm

      I’m SO glad you found this article helpful, and I agree 100% that baking is chemistry! Definitely feel free to use my video for your class! 🙂

  8. #
    B Lawrence — February 7, 2021 at 7:51 am

    Loved your explanations on baking soda vs powder; needed to hear that chemical reaction reminder. Renewed my products for freshness after reviewing. Thanks.

    5 out of 5 for the information.

    • #
      Tessa — February 8, 2021 at 1:45 pm

      So glad you found this article helpful!

  9. #
    Marlayne — January 13, 2021 at 3:41 pm

    Could you please tell me, if you want to double a cake or cookie recipe. Do you double the baking soda and. THe baking powder too?

  10. #
    Karen Lynn McQuiston — November 20, 2020 at 7:02 am

    I love her videos and very informative. I’m glad I found her

    • #
      Tessa — November 20, 2020 at 11:58 am

      Thank you so much for the kind words, Karen!

  11. #
    RaDreamFarm — November 8, 2020 at 6:47 am

    I recently made the Libby’s pumpkin roll recipe, which calls for baking soda. Other recipes, I have noticed call for both soda and powder. Is pumpkin acidic enough to activate the baking soda?

  12. #
    Sharon — September 30, 2020 at 8:50 am

    What is your favorite cookie cooling racks? I’m looking to get some but I wanted to have it to last a long time.

  13. #
    Janet Wilson — September 25, 2020 at 7:50 am

    Very interesting video. Thank you.

  14. #
    Robin Hughes — August 26, 2020 at 11:37 am

    Thank you!!

  15. #
    Yvonne — August 12, 2020 at 11:33 am

    Do you have tricks on making the best sweet breads especially banana bread?

  16. #
    Sandy Lambert — August 7, 2020 at 5:34 am

    I want to make cookie dough ahead of time and keep it in the freezer. It may be in the freezer a couple weeks before baking.
    If the cookie recipe I use only calls for baking soda, won’t freezing the dough inactivate the baking soda?
    Should I adjust the recipe to include baking powder? If so, how much baking powder?
    Thank you

  17. #
    Jodie — July 20, 2020 at 11:48 am

    I’m so impressed with all the information you have given me.
    Thank you,
    Jodie

  18. #
    Pati Young — May 25, 2020 at 3:16 pm

    Great video. Thank you. Trying to put together a gluten-free cookie recipe with oats and nut flour that is also low sugar. This info is really helpful.

  19. #
    Jean — May 25, 2020 at 8:45 am

    This was sooooo helpful. Thanks.

  20. #
    georgia nichols — April 29, 2020 at 9:37 am

    loved your video Learned a lot and the video was not too long which is good

  21. #
    Harsimrat — April 28, 2020 at 12:41 pm

    Very informative and simply explained

  22. #
    Allison — April 14, 2020 at 1:21 pm

    Thanks!

  23. #
    Lynette Visagie — April 8, 2020 at 12:53 am

    Hi Tessa,
    Thank you, the tip on baking soda vs baking powder is very informative. Just a question… my red velvet cake recipe requires one to add the baking soda to the vinegar then to the batter, but by the time I add it to the batter, it stopped fizzing, no matter how quick I try to do it. Any suggestions please?

    Regards,
    Lynette Visagie

  24. #
    Gretchen — March 17, 2020 at 4:56 am

    I love learning the science behind the ingredients. Thank you so much when you post things of this nature.

  25. #
    Dada Maria Romoke — March 6, 2020 at 8:23 am

    Thanks for shearing ds topic.Pls which flour is best for cake

  26. #
    Jeffrey Mouttet — February 17, 2020 at 2:21 am

    We operate a small factory in Trinidad West indies (Caterers Choice Ltd.) where we produce frozen Dumplings, but when we fry the Dumplings and Samosas, they are not crispy and fluffy we use about 100 lbs of flour to do our daily production, what can we do to make the product “fluffy and crispy after cooking”

    Regards,

    Jeffrey

  27. #
    Linda Denzer — January 15, 2020 at 5:09 pm

    I have two questions actually. First I wondered the proper techeneic for measuring powered sugar that calls to be sifted. Is the proper amount before or after the sifting process?
    And secondly, if I want a really thick choc chip cookie that doesn’t spread how do I achieve it? Thank you

  28. #
    Helen — January 5, 2020 at 7:10 pm

    Very much appreciated

  29. #
    marie horner — December 8, 2019 at 3:05 pm

    awsome info thank you

  30. #
    janice — November 21, 2019 at 11:21 am

    i added 1 tsp of baking soda to the recipe instead of 1 tsp of baking powder. how can i fix this

  31. #
    Carol-Ann Rogers — November 2, 2019 at 7:08 am

    Thank you !

  32. #
    Diane Steele — October 29, 2019 at 9:43 pm

    I learn so much from your baking advice! Can’t argue with chemistry. . . but it was so BORING in high school! Thank you for your generosity in sharing your expert advice with us.

  33. #
    Bonita L Simione — October 26, 2019 at 6:18 am

    I am 78 years old and never heard of testing baking soda/baking powder. I wrote it down and will be testing these two items. (never to old to .learn). Love reading your column.

  34. #
    Wendy — September 29, 2019 at 6:27 am

    Hola muchas gracias por la información, es muy valiosa

  35. #
    Denise S. — September 25, 2019 at 9:22 pm

    Wonderful information, thank you so much.

  36. #
    Emilie — June 29, 2019 at 1:24 pm

    Does the acidity make rise the dough ? I don’t understand why we don’t use baking powder after using baking soda.. when the acidity is neutralized, but we don’t add any other leaveners, does it still rise evenly ?

  37. #
    Clara — June 16, 2019 at 10:37 pm

    How about the taste? Will it taste bitter if only baking powder is used?

  38. #
    Holly Sabo — June 2, 2019 at 4:22 pm

    This is super helpful!

  39. #
    Thank you — June 2, 2019 at 10:51 am

    First of all – thank you for clearing that one up. We don’t find Baking Soda on our shelves here in South Africa but I have been told that baking soda is the same as Bicarbonate of Soda. Can you help me out on this one ???

    • #
      Queenie — October 27, 2019 at 1:43 pm

      Baking Soda is AKA bicarbonate of soda or sodium bicarbonate.

  40. #
    janet — April 3, 2019 at 9:47 am

    I have a recipe that uses single acting baking powder. I have used Alsa baking powder which is single acting, but it gives off a weird smell. I’ve been searching on the web how to make my own single acting baking powder but the ratio of cream of tartar to baking soda was either a 2:1 or 3:1 etc, which is correct please?

    Also one time, I added a bit much(forgotten and used a Tablespoon instead of teaspoon) of baking soda and baking powder, the cake came out bitter, is this due to the baking soda or baking powder?

    thanks.

  41. #
    John Crawford — March 5, 2019 at 9:13 am

    I found your video by searching for baking soda vs. baking powder. It was exactly what I needed to know. I have a recipe for oatmeal pecan cookies that I have used for years, just as it is written. It contains brown sugar and baking soda. Never before had I realized the “acid” required to activate the soda was in the brown sugar. I should have checked before I completed the recipe, because I switched to baking powder this time, thinking that I had been doing it incorrectly for 50 years. I thought perhaps the church lady who gave me the recipe had gotten it wrong. I won’t know until the dough chills and I bake them, but I have a feeling I am going to regret my decision. But NOW, I know. Thank you for the insightful information.

    • #
      Tessa — March 6, 2019 at 2:35 pm

      Hi John – you are so welcome! Cookies without baking soda won’t spread or brown as much. How did they turn out?

  42. #
    Lei — February 15, 2019 at 7:35 pm

    Thank you, Tessa. This is informative. The cookies looks soooo good!!!

    May I ask if you have already tried baking with less sugar and putting in substitute like Stevia and or Erythritol?

    Thanks!
    (fr Bangkok)

  43. #
    Jennifer D. — December 21, 2018 at 9:34 pm

    Hi, I just stumbled across your website through reading about your cake flour article & enjoyed it. Than I came to this one & was wondering two things first what about cream of tartar? Second have you heard of the DIY baking powder? What I’ve come across is you substitute 1/2 teaspoon baking soda & a 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar for 1 teaspoon baking powder. I’ve found it works in a pinch but I’ve never done any side by side comparisons & I have noticed the baking soda flavor in some of the more delicate flavors of my baked goods. Just curious?

  44. #
    Lyn — December 21, 2018 at 7:34 pm

    I have a recipe for ginger cookies that calls for two teaspoons baking soda, and they come out very thin. Should I use one teaspoon each of soda and powder? The recipe does call for refrigeration.

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