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Are baking powder and baking soda interchangeable?

Chef Asata asks: I don’t bake. What is the interchangeability of baking powder and baking soda?  Can I substitute one for the other?

Baking S.O.S. says: It’s interesting you asked this question.  My first class in Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales was Beginning Baking, and we had to write a research paper on something related to baking.  At the time, I had this same question.  I wondered whether baking powder and baking soda were interchangeable?  So I chose to research and write about that issue.

I’ll spare you my entire long, boring research paper, but in answer to your question, baking powder and baking soda are NOT interchangeable.

Both are classified as chemical leaveners, meaning that when they are activated, they create a chemical reaction that releases gasses that cause your baked good to rise.  However, baking powder and baking soda react in very different ways.

Scientifically, baking powder contains both acid and base ingredients, so it can create the necessary chemical reaction all on its own.  Baking powder is usually called “double-acting” because the chemical reaction will activate both when you add a liquid to the baking powder and again when you apply heat (by putting it in the oven).

In contrast, baking soda only contains a base ingredient.  It requires some kind of acidic ingredient from the recipe–such as buttermilk, sour cream, lemon juice, or chocolate–to cause the chemical reaction to occur.  Without the proper balance of acid to base in the recipe, the baking soda will not make the product rise sufficiently.

Typically, if a product does not rise enough with baking soda alone, then baking powder will also be added to the recipe to help the leavening process.  However, too much baking powder can cause a product to be bitter in taste and abnormally yellow in color.  I, unfortunately, had this exact problem very recently, and it was a complete disaster!  But that’s another story for another day 🙂

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