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Baking Powder and Baking Soda

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For culinary purposes, Baking Powder and Baking Soda are classed as leavening agents, and can therefore be grouped in with ingredients such as yeast. However, it should be noted that these are chemicals or chemical compounds and as such, should be considered as chemical additives. It is also important to remember that in most recipes, you cannot use baking soda if the recipe calls for baking powder due to the different way in which they chemically react in order to produce the rise required and it's safer by far not to try to substitute either one for the other.


For this reason, we are going to start this section, not with the history as in most of the Ingredient of the Month sections, but with an explanation of exactly what they are and how they work.


What is Baking Powder and Baking Soda?


Baking Soda is pure Sodium Bicarbonate, also called Bicarbonate of Soda (NaHCO3). It is a white crystalline alkali which reacts by effervescing (fizzing) when it comes into contact with acids, thus producing gasses, namely carbon dioxide. Because of this chemical reaction, it is often used in fizzy drinks and antacid remedies and it's precisely this reaction which facilitates the rising action in baked goods.


Baking Powder is more complex. It is composite of Sodium Bicarbonate (baking soda), one or more acid salts such as Cream of Tartar (Tartaric Acid), Sodium Aluminium Sulphate, Calcium Acid Phosphate plus a drying agent such as cornflour and the exact mix determines whether it is "Single" or "Double" acting. The difference between baking soda, single and double acting baking powders, is when the chemical reactions actually take place, and is explained below. However, the rising principal is the same in that a chemical reaction produces carbon dioxide bubbles which expand through the cooking mixture.


What's the difference between baking powder and baking soda ?


When using baking soda, the mixture to which it is being added must contain some sort of acid, often in the form of honey, molasses, brown sugar, sour cream, yoghurt, cocoa, citrus juice or fruits. The chemical reaction takes place as soon as it is added to the acid ingredient in the mixing bowl. This means you have to work swiftly and get the mixture into the oven as soon as possible before the carbon dioxide starts to dissipate, which they will quite quickly. (Think back to those fizzy drinks once they've been poured into a glass - that initial burst of fizz soon dies down to a little murmur).


When using "Single Acting" baking powder, the chemical reaction, once again, takes place in the bowl at the mixing stage, with the catalyst being any liquid as opposed to an acid, so the same applies as to the speed at which you get the mixture into the oven. Remember, the acid is already present in the baking powder usually in the form of Cream of Tartar: it just needs to be triggered off by the addition of moisture (water, milk etc).


"Double Acting" baking powder adds another dimension. Not only does it start reacting in the bowl as with baking soda and "single acting" baking powder, but it also reacts a second time when it is cooked. This is achieved by the addition of slower reacting acids to the single acting baking powder, which hardly react at room temperature. These only become active once they achieve higher temperatures. So it has a double action - once when subjected to moisture in the bowl and once when subjected to heat in the oven. This quality means that the rush to mix and get it into the oven is avoided, which is especially useful if there are many ingredients which need thorough blending.

History of baking powder


Food historians believe the use of baking soda dates back to ancient civilization and it is perhaps this age-old use of it which has prevented its demise as a chemical additive.


Until the late 1700's, yeast was the main leavening ingredient used. However once it became widely accepted that bicarbonate of soda would create carbon dioxide gas in the presence of certain acids, housewives began making their own chemical leavening. Although the rising process was faster, it was a little hit and miss due to the majority of the leavening gases being released in the bowl (at the bench stage).


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By 1835 the first baking powder compound had been created with the addition of Cream of Tartar. It was found that it gave more consistent results although it was more expensive than bicarbonate of soda and had a shorter shelf life. Experimentation continued and by the 1850s the Cream of Tartar was replaced with calcium phosphate which, whilst cheaper than Cream of Tartar, still produced most of the gas at the bench stage. The first Modern day, commercially prepared baking powder was born.


However, it wasn't until 1885 when sodium aluminium sulphate was discovered. This acid reacted only when heat was applied. The combination of Bicarbonate of Soda, different acids plus cornflour to keep the mixture more viable in storage, revolutionised baking powder.


Of course, that wasn't the end of it. Not only was baking powder added to flour to create Self Raising Flour, but also further refinements and experimentation have taken place over the years and today, we are left with a stable and dependable product.

Baking Soda and Baking Powder in cooking

One of the oldest usages of baking powder/soda is in the making of Soda Bread which is widely associated with Ireland. This is a leavened bread which, because of the use of baking soda/powder rather than yeast can be very quickly made cutting out the need for heavy kneading or proving time. This makes up for the fact that it doesn't keep fresh for very long.


Another old use is the addition of baking soda when cooking green vegetables in order to keep them greener. However this is no longer encouraged as it has been found that vitamins B1 and C are lost through this practice. 


By far the most popular use of these ingredients is in cakes and baked goods as a leavening agent,  however another, lesser known use is to lighten certain batters, in particular tempura batters which are required to be ultra light, crisp and thin.


General tips

Do not be tempted to add more baking powder or soda than a recipe suggests as not only can too much cause the mixture to taste bitter but it can also cause the mixture to rise too rapidly so that the air bubbles grow too large and burst causing the mixture to fall. Having said that, too little baking powder or soda results in a tough end product that has a poor close grained texture.


Weights and Measures
1 teasp = 5 grams
Use -1 teasp Baking Soda for each 140ml/8fl.oz. liquid
Use 1 teaspoon of baking powder for every 125g/-5oz Flour


Baking Powder - has a limited shelf life - 6-12 months, and nowadays packages will have a use by date. It should be kept in a cool dry place in an air tight container.
Baking soda - has an indefinite shelf life and should be stored in an air tight container in a cool dry place.


Tests for viability
Baking Soda - mix teasp with 2 teaspoons of vinegar. The mixture should start to bubble immediately
Baking Powder - mix 1 teasp in 120ml/4fl.oz.of hot water. If it fizzes it's still ok to use.

For Baking powder - teasp cream of tartar, 1/3-teasp Baking soda and 1/8-teasp salt = 1 teasp. Treat as "single acting" baking powder   OR
1/4 teaspoon Baking soda to 120 ml/4fl.oz. of an acidic ingredient (buttermilk, sour milk or yoghurt) Treat as "single acting" baking powder
For eggs in cake recipes - Add an extra 1/2 teaspoon baking powder and about 2 tablespoons extra liquid to replace one egg

A last word without getting too technical
Carbon dioxide gas expands more quickly at altitude and therefore has greater leavening action. For this reason, the amount of baking powder should be decreased if you are cooking at high altitude. Whilst baking soda should also be decreased, in recipes using sour milk, never reduce soda to less than teaspoon for every cup of sour milk or cream called for in the recipe.



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