Baking soda and baking powder are two ingredients that help baked goods rise. Due to their similar names and appearances, they can easily be mixed up. This article explores baking soda vs baking powder, and the role both ingredients play when making cookies.
What Is Baking Soda?
Baking soda, also known as sodium bicarbonate or bicarbonate of soda, is a leavening agent that is used in baked goods. It is a chemical component that comes in a crushed fine white crystalline powder that’s inherently alkaline, or basic. When baking soda is combined with both an acidic and a liquid, it becomes activated. Carbon dioxide is created when the enzyme is activated, allowing baked foods to rise and become light and fluffy. This is why most baking soda recipes usually contain an acidic component like lemon juice or buttermilk.
What Is Baking Powder?
Unlike baking soda, baking powder is a complete leavening agent, meaning it contains both the base (sodium bicarbonate) and the acid (acetic acid) required for the product to rise. Cornstarch is commonly included in baking powder. It acts as a buffer, keeping the acid and base from activating during storage.
When combined with a liquid, the acid in baking powder reacts with sodium bicarbonate and releases carbon dioxide, similar to how baking soda reacts with water and acidic material. Single-acting and double-acting baking powders are available, with single-acting versions being used primarily by food manufacturers and not available for household use.
When a recipe calls for baking powder, it’s almost always double-acting baking powder. This means that when the powder is mixed with liquid at room temperature, it produces two distinct reactions: the first occurs while the mixture is cold, and the second occurs when the mixture is heated. Many recipes benefit from a prolonged response, so the leavening, or rising, does not occur all at once.
Baking Soda vs Baking Powder in Cookies
Both baking powder and baking soda are sometimes required in cookie recipes because the carbon dioxide produced by the acid (yogurt, brown sugar, etc.) and baking soda is not enough to leaven the amount of batter in the recipe. Baking powder is also used to provide the necessary lift. It’s all about striking the right balance.
Another reason to combine baking powder and baking soda is that they have different effects on browning and flavor. Take, for example, this amazing and highly recommended Amish buttermilk cookie recipe from the Homesteader. Both baking soda and baking powder are used in this recipe because if it just used baking soda the cookies would lose some of their delicious tangy flavors! However, by also adding baking powder (which contains its own acid), the buttermilk flavor is retained while still providing enough leavening for the cookies to rise and cook to perfection.