Last updated on August 13th, 2016
Ever wondered about the difference between baking soda and baking powder? I certainly have. I’ve also wondered why some recipes request just one of these ingredients, while others require both. And now, thanks to the experts at Google University, I finally have some answers.
First, let’s conduct a fun experiment!
And jump back! The mixture will bubble furiously as the alkaline ingredient (baking soda) neutralizes the acidic ingredient (vinegar). This is the chemical reaction that causes pancakes, muffins, biscuits, and other quick breads to rise. Unfortunately, the bubbles never last for more than a few minutes. And that’s why baking powder was invented.
Baking Soda, or sodium bicarbonate, is pure alkaline. It relies on vinegar, lemon juice, buttermilk, chocolate, or some other acidic ingredient to become foamy, or “active.” The foaming action is fast but brief, so batters and doughs leavened exclusively with baking soda must be baked immediately after mixing.
Baking Powder is a miracle blend of sodium bicarbonate, powdered acid, and some starch. The powdered acid is there to insure that foaming, or leavening, will occur even without other acidic elements in a recipe.
Today, almost all brands of baking powder are “double-acting,” meaning they leaven first on impact, and again during the heating stage. Thus we can mix our batters and doughs without having to rush them into the oven.
And what about recipes — including the Herbed Cottage Cheese Biscuits I made last week — that require both baking soda and baking powder? These baked goods might contain a certain acidic ingredient — cottage cheese, for instance — that requires additional alkaline for sufficient rise.
Leavening isn’t the only benefit of baking powder. It can affect the taste and color of foods, too. Enjoy the tangy flavor of buttermilk pancakes? Sodium bicarbonate can neutralize the acid in the milk, thereby rendering it flavorless. Since baking powder already contains its own acid, the tang of the buttermilk isn’t overly compromised.
Quick breads which are highly-acidic will not color (brown) well during baking. But by adding just a little sodium bicarbonate to the mix, the breads will turn alkaline enough to darken on a sizzling skillet or in a hot oven.
In any event, never over-mix any batter or dough that contains baking soda or baking powder. If you beat, stir, or knead too vigorously, you will press out all of the leavening bubbles. And without those bouncing bits of carbon dioxide, there will be no rise!
Now, I hope you learned something from this culinary class. If nothing else, just remember that NaHCO3 + KHC4H4O6 → KNaC4H4O6 + H2O + CO2.
Confession Time: Chemistry, when taught without emotion, or worse — without something to eat — always bores me to tears.
And speaking of eating…why not head into the kitchen and turn some bicarbonate of soda into something screamingly-delicious? Here are some of my favorite quick breads (click titles for recipes):
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