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

By Brian Geiger, contributor

April 23rd, 2009

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.

posted in: Blogs, food geek, baking, baking soda, acid, baking powder, muffin, quick bread, maillard reaction, carbon dioxide
Comments (11)

TheFoodGeek writes: Hi, GFBaker,

Check out and let's see if we can figure out how to best fix up your cake. Posted: 6:28 pm on December 13th

GFBaker writes: 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 Posted: 10:37 am on December 13th

Mommainternet writes: I have a couple questions. What causes brown spots in a quick bread? Is it too much baking soda? And if you made a recipe but found that it tasted bitter from the baking soda but you need to keep the leavening effects would you add more lemon juice to counter this? Interesting that the carrot cake recipe used 1/4 cup of lemon juice. I've never tried that much in a quick bread or cake.

I'm creating a recipe and I'm trying to determine just how much baking soda it takes to counter the acid in the recipe, but mostly it's trial and error. Due to allergies I create my own baking powder using the same mixture mentioned above and it always has worked very well for me. Posted: 9:49 am on April 8th

beenz writes: 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. Posted: 12:15 am on April 30th

DrDebrah writes: 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. Posted: 6:21 pm on April 29th

Keri_K writes: Thanks, Brian and Bowl of Plenty, for further elucidating. It was indeed the carrot-wheat ring recipe I was looking at. I know among the others I considered making, a few included buttermilk, which it sounds like would explain why the recipes called for both leaveners. Posted: 5:26 pm on April 27th

TheFoodGeek writes: Thanks, Lisa and Jenni. And good work on remembering the login. :)

Keri, you are quite welcome. If you're talking about the recipe I found for Golden Wheat Carrot Cake (or if she has another, similar recipe), then it would seem that she's neutralizing the 1/4 cup of lemon juice. Which is understandable. If it weren't something highly acidic like lemon juice, I'd probably lean towards swapping it out 1:4 with baking powder (you use 4 times as much baking powder as baking soda). However, 1/4 cup of lemon juice is quite a bit, which is why 2/3 of the leavening is coming from the soda.

In this instance, I'm pretty sure that most of the point behind the powder is the double action. Well, that and all the extra ingredients such as carrot. Normally, with two cups of flour, you'd only really need 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda. Nuts, raisins, and carrots are heavy things, though, and a little extra lift doesn't hurt in this instance. Posted: 6:47 pm on April 26th

Bowl_of_Plenty writes: Keri, some recipes call for both baking powder and baking soda in order to achieve proper acid/base balance. While I doubt that bakers go around putting litmus strips onto every ingredient to test for pH (well, maybe Rose does), the inclusion of both leaveners should not comes as an accident.

I don't know what carrot cake recipes you're looking at, but my guess is that the baking soda is needed to neutralize brown sugar, which is acidic because of its molasses content.

To make homemade baking powder, combine two parts cream of tartar and one part baking soda. This will be a single-acting powder, and I'd also recommend making only as much as the recipe calls for instead of a large batch to store for later. When using homemade baking powder, you should also reduce the amount in the recipe by by 1/4 (for example, if the recipe calls for 1 tsp store-bought powder, use only 3/4 tsp of the homemade stuff); this is because commercially-made baking powders contain cornstarch, which has no effect on baking but is needed to extend shelf life. Posted: 7:32 pm on April 25th

Keri_K writes: Brian, thanks so much for deconstructing this in a way that even a chemistry ignoramus like me can understand! I'd always sort of guessed that if a recipe called for both it was a red flag that something was amiss in the formulation.

However, this past weekend I was trying to find a new carrot cake recipe and was surprised to find that Rose Levy Beranbaum's recipe called for baking powder and soda. (And she's not someone I would ever think ignores the chemistry behind baking.)

In fact, in looking through my cookbooks, most recipes I found called for both. So I wondered how to know when using both leaveners makes sense. (Maybe, with carrot cake, it has something to do with the carrots?)

Incidentally, in The Gift of Southern Cooking, Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock recommend making your own baking powder from mostly cream of tartar mixed with a small amount of baking soda. Haven't tried it yet, but the idea is intriguing. Posted: 12:13 pm on April 25th

jfield writes: I remembered my login! Woo hoo! Anyway, nice discussion of the difference between baking poweder and soda:) Both of them are Magical Powders. Posted: 5:28 pm on April 24th

LisaWaddle writes: Great summary, Brian!
That banana bread in the photo looks like a victim of the double-acting stuff! Posted: 9:47 am on April 24th

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