Do you remember the last time you tried following a recipe but realized too late that you didn't have all the ingredients you needed? That was me last week, when I tried making homemade biscuits for a family dinner. Even though the recipe called for baking powder, I had completely forgotten to check that I had it. As a result, I tried substituting it for the baking soda I had in my fridge. Unfortunately, it was a complete disaster, and my biscuits ended up tasting like soap.

The experience later made me wonder: what is baking powder and does it act differently than baking soda in my baked goods? Lucky for you, this article will explain everything you need to know about baking powder, so you won't have to go through a baking mess like I did. You’ll learn exactly what baking powder is, how it works in baked goods, and what substitutions you can use if you don’t have any in your pantry.

What is Baking Powder?

Flour in a jar · Free Stock Photo

on Pexels

Baking powder is a chemical leavening agent that’s used in baking. It’s essentially sodium bicarbonate (an alkali, or basic compound) mixed with some sort of weak acid, such as calcium acid phosphate, sodium aluminum sulfate, or cream of tartar.

There are three types of baking powder: double-acting, tartrate, and phosphate. Double-acting baking powder is most commonly used in baking because it produces two different leavening phases during baking. In contrast, tartrate and phosphate baking powders are single-acting baking powders. They're not used as often, because they don't leaven baked goods as much as double-acting baking powders do (given they only have one leavening phase).

Baking Powder vs Baking Soda

milk, sweet, salt
Jedd Marrero

Baking powder and baking soda are both chemical leavening agents. The main difference between them is that baking soda is pure sodium bicarbonate, whereas baking powder is a mixture of sodium bicarbonate and a weak acid. Because baking soda contains no other ingredients besides the bicarb, it’s three to four times stronger than baking powder. This means that when used in the right recipes, baking soda can cause baked goods to rise a lot more than baking powder.

How Exactly Does Baking Powder (and Baking Soda) Work?

The ways in which baking powder and baking soda work boil down to the basic chemical reaction that occurs between an acid and base (don’t worry— you won’t need any chemistry knowledge to understand what happens.) Generally, when you follow a recipe for a baked good, you’re mixing together a combination of acidic and basic ingredients.

Some acidic ingredients you may recognize include buttermilk, yogurt, vinegar, sugar, honey, and natural cocoa powder (believe it or not.) Basic ingredients you might find in recipes are baking powder and baking soda. The reaction that takes place between these acidic and basic compounds creates carbon dioxide (CO2) bubbles, which get trapped inside the batter or dough during the baking process to produce a nice rise in baked goods.

Why Do Some Recipes Use Baking Powder Over Baking Soda?

chocolate, cake
Isla Duckett

As previously mentioned, baking soda is much stronger than baking powder, meaning that it produces more CO2 bubbles (and therefore a bigger rise.) However, as it reacts with whatever acidic ingredients are being used in your baking, baking soda also produces sodium carbonate, which is strongly alkaline and can add an unpleasantly bitter and “soapy” taste to your cakes and muffins.

Consequently, one solution that bakers might use is to replace the baking soda with baking powder. Since baking powder includes additional amounts of weak acid, it can help neutralize some of the alkaline by-products that are formed during the baking process, leading to a tastier baked good. For some recipes, using baking powder can also help improve flavor and browning.

Can I Substitute Baking Powder If I Don’t Have It?

flour, milk, cereal, dairy product, bread, coffee, wheat, dough, sweet
Jocelyn Hsu

Typically, it’s best to follow a recipe the way it’s written, because substituting baking powder for another chemical leavening agent can alter the texture and taste of the baked good. However, if you’re really desperate and don’t have baking powder on hand, you can try substituting 1 teaspoon baking powder with 1/4 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar, and 1/4 teaspoon cornstarch.

Another alternative is to use 1/4 teaspoon baking soda with 1/2 cup of an acidic ingredient, such as buttermilk or yogurt, but be mindful that your baked good might turn out differently. Also note that in some recipes, baking powder cannot be interchanged with baking soda. For example, when baking with cocoa powder, natural cocoa powder must always be paired with baking soda, because it’s much more acidic than Dutch-processed cocoa powder.

How Can I Test My Baking Powder?

Water, fizz, bubbles and texture HD photo by chuttersnap (@chuttersnap) on Unsplash

on unsplash

Testing your baking powder couldn’t be any simpler. Just add 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder to a few tablespoons of warm water. You’ll know it’s still fresh when the baking powder starts fizzing immediately. If there’s no reaction, then it’s time to toss your canister of baking powder and buy a new one.

Hopefully this article was useful in explaining what baking powder is, how you can use it in your baking, and what substitutes you may use if you run out of baking powder. It’s amazing to believe that using an ingredient as simple as baking powder can dramatically improve your baked goods. It’s also cool to understand the chemistry behind baking powder in making your baked goods rise. Here’s to successful baking!