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Baking soda *and* baking powder: too much of a good thing?

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Kitchen Mysteries is a weekly exploration of oddities surrounding cooking and food. They could be recipes that fail when they shouldn’t, conflicting advice from different sources, or just plain weirdness. If it happens in a kitchen, and you’re not sure why, send a tweet to The Food Geek to find out what’s happening.

Keri asks via twitter:

Hi, Keri,

The purpose behind baking powder and baking soda is to react with the ingredients in your batter and release carbon dioxide gas. Ideally, these gases will meet up with bubbles that you’ve made in your batter by whisking or beating, make them larger, and provide some lift in your baked goods.

Baking soda is alkaline, and it reacts with any acidic ingredients in your batter (such as buttermilk or lemon juice). The baking soda neutralizes some or all of the acid, and in the process releases the carbon dioxide we mentioned before.

Baking powder is a little more clever: it contains a powdered acid along with the baking soda (it’s the balanced Yin and Yang of the leavening world). No reaction can happen without water, so it’s fine in its package, but once the water is added, bubbles happen.

A baked good is a delicate dance of flavor, appearance, and body. Some acid gives a nice flavor to a dough, but too much might overwhelm, and it will certainly keep the baked good from browning as much as it can. Still, the batter might not have enough acid to lift the entire quick bread enough just using baking soda—thus, some recipes call for both ingredients. This way, you don’t have to dial the baking soda up to 11, which can give a soapy taste to your muffins. And nobody likes a soapy muffin.

Like masked heroes from comic books and movies, some baking powders lead double lives. These “double-acting” baking powders use their special, mutant properties to not only add bubbles when you add the liquid, but also to create more bubbles when they get to a higher temperature. The endless war of double-acting baking powders against poorly-leavened quick breads makes the world a better place.

Here’s the situation: you mix together some batter. Bubbles are made. You finish combining the batter, and bubbles escape. You pour the batter into pan, bubbles escape. You realize that the oven hasn’t preheated, and bubbles escape. What’s to be done? It’s no problem if you’ve used double-acting baking powder, which will add more bubbles once heat is applied. Ta da!

So in summary:

Baking soda:

  • Needs an acidic ingredient in the batter to react with
  • Allows baked goods to be browner after baking
  • Can taste soapy
  • Only creates bubbles when it first reacts with the acid

Baking powder:

  • Contains both an acid and a base
  • The double-acting variety will continue to produce bubbles in the oven

I hope this helps to understand the recipes, and how to know when to follow their lead and when to ignore it.

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  • User avater
    TheFoodGeek | 12/13/2010

    Hi, GFBaker,

    Check out http://www.finecooking.com/item/26874/rise-in-gluten-free-cake and let's see if we can figure out how to best fix up your cake.

  • User avater
    GFBaker | 12/13/2010

    Hi Brian,

    I have a question I desperately need some help with, and soon! I am doing a gluten-free chocolate cake for my brother's wedding in 10 days. I've converted our favorite old chocolate cake recipe to gluten-free quite successfully, which is a challenge in and of itself. However, I wanted the cake to rise just a tad bit more, so I added a 1/2 tsp more baking soda to the recipe, and it actually turned out more dense. Did I take it too far? Should I have added a bit of baking powder instead? Or might I have had my water too hot, or something else? Here are the proportions of flour, liquids,and acids, without the addition of the extra 1/2 tsp baking soda:

    3 cups GF flour blend (superfine brown rice flour, potato starch and tapioca flour)
    3/4 cup natural cocoa
    1-1/2 cup sour cream
    1 tablespoon baking soda
    3/4 cup hot water
    6 eggs

    I would love some help - I don't want to do multiple stab-in-the-dark trial batches this week to get it right. Thanks!

    Rebecca

  • User avater
    beenz | 04/30/2009

    I learned from another cooking magazine that in carrot cakes at least, baking soda is necessary to soften the carrots rather than being used as a raising agent. This sounds likely as most recipes for banana bread (which is equally heavy) call for one or the other depending on whether any soured milk product is used.

  • DrDebrah | 04/29/2009

    After reading so many of the posts here about Carrot Cake, it reminds me of the first and last time I baked one.

    I was in college and invited over a group of friends for dinner. The salad and lasagna were a hugh hit, so when I mentioned I prepared home-made carrot, everyone was anxious for a piece.

    I'm not sure *what* I did wrong, but I could barely pierce the cake with my knife to cut a slice! With each 'good 'ole college try', I'd hear one of my guests fein declarations of being full and really not able to have another bite.

    The cake was so ensconsed in the pan, that even of hours of soaking wouldn't release the cake. Eventually, I had to toss out the cake with the pan!

    I have no idea what I did wrong.

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