Baking Powder and Baking Soda

I thought it was time for another entry in my Kitchen Basics series of articles.  This one came to mind as I was working to adapt an old recipe to today’s style of baking and ingredients.  It is about chemical leavening agents.

As you may know, I have quite a collection of old cookbooks acquired over the years and through hand-me-downs.  There are lots of neat recipes that catch my attention, but one thing that I have noticed is that the amounts of baking powder and baking soda are sometimes out of whack.  So here is some basic information about these two ingredients;  what they are, why they’re in a recipe, and how much is appropriate.  Knowing this information helps in recognizing if a recipe needs adjusting, or if you’re creating a recipe of your own.


Sodium Bicarbonate, the chemical name for baking soda, is an alkaline substance used in batters that have acidic ingredients such as buttermilk, molasses and sour cream.  When the baking soda is mixed with the acidic ingredient, there is an immediate release of carbon dioxide gas. Batters and doughs that only use baking soda as a leavening agent should be baked immediately.  Otherwise the baked product might not rise as high and the texture won’t be as light.  It creates a crisp texture in cookies, a crumbly one in quick breads.  Used to excess it adds a salty, bitter, unpleasant taste, and can give a brownish or yellow color to baked goods.

The recommended amount to use is 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda for the first cup of flour in a recipe, and 1/4 teaspoon more for each additional cup after that.  Always check the recipe to be sure there is an acidic ingredient to react with it.  ( buttermilk; sour cream, pumpkin, molasses, cocoa, brown sugar)


This is a mixture of baking soda and tartaric acid in a buffer such as cornstarch.  It too, causes baked goods to rise and have a light texture.  Before baking powder, items like biscuits and cakes were made using yeast or a yeast-based sponge.  Double-acting baking powder is the most readily available type found on grocery shelves today.  “Double-acting” means it produces carbon dioxide in two stages;  when it is mixed with liquid and then again from the heat of the oven.  This increases the reliability of recipes, since getting a batter into the oven within a short time frame becomes less important.  Baking powder can lose its ability to leaven, so discard any baking powder that is past the expiration date on the can.

How much to use?   A general rule is 1 teaspoon of baking powder for each cup of flour in the recipe.  If there are a lot of add-ins such as chocolate chips, nuts, dried fruits, then increase baking powder to 1 1/2 teaspoons per cup of flour.

You are probably aware that most recipes tell you to mix either one or both of these products with the flour, stirring with a whisk to evenly distribute them throughout the batter,  thereby avoiding unpleasant little “lumps” that didn’t get mixed in well.

I hope this little tutorial was helpful in becoming more familiar with these two ingredients, and their use. I always feel that if  you understand what  the various ingredients are there for, then you are better equipped to make adjustments to a recipe.  Good luck, and Happy Baking!


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