Don't confuse one for the other—these ingredients are essential for baking success.
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Recipes often call for small amounts of baking powder and baking soda, so you may think these ingredients are not essential for baked goods. Think again: Both of these chemical leavening agents are essential to help your baked goods rise to the occasion. They release gases—most notably, carbon dioxide—through reactions between acids and bases. And while they look similar once scooped into a measuring spoon, there is actually a distinct difference between baking soda and baking powder. When comparing baking soda vs. baking powder, the chemical properties of the two ingredients are different. As a result, you cannot simply substitute baking powder for baking soda. So how are baking soda and baking powder similar? Read on for the scoop from our Test Kitchen pros.

Arm & Hammer baking soda measuring spoon
Credit: Karla Conrad

How to Test Baking Soda for Freshness

Similar to how inactive yeast cannot make bread recipes rise, baking soda ($1, Target) can only achieve its purpose if it's fresh. To test baking soda's effectiveness, in a small bowl, add ½ teaspoon baking soda and top with 2 teaspoons of distilled vinegar. If the soda bubbles immediately, you're good to go. If the mixture sits fairly still, toss your baking soda and invest in a new box.

Clabber Girl baking powder measuring spoon
Credit: Karla Conrad

What Is Baking Powder?

Now we'll dive into baking powder's powers, so you can compare and contrast baking soda vs. baking powder. It's understandable if you struggle to remember the difference between baking soda and baking powder because there is actually some baking soda in baking powder. That's right: Baking powder is a combo of baking soda, some acid (typically cream of tartar, which you likely know and love from snickerdoodle cookies), and some anti-caking agent (like cornstarch). Baking powder harnesses the powers of both an acid and a base, so recipes that call for baking powder don't necessarily require an acid to work. Recipes with baking powder simply need heat and moisture to rise as desired.

Most commercial baking powders sold in America are "double acting." The first reaction happens when the baking powder ($2, Target) is combined with a liquid, which begins to aerate the mixture. The second reaction happens in the oven under the influence of heat. The acidic element of baking powder (cream of tartar or something similar) weakens the gluten within the dough or batter, yielding a whiter, more delicate, and usually tighter texture than if you used both baking soda and powder.

How to Test Baking Powder for Freshness

To test baking powder for freshness, in a small bowl, add 1 teaspoon of baking powder, then top with 1 cup of hot water. If the mixture bubbles, the baking powder is fresh enough to use. If the mixture is still, throw it away and refresh your pantry with a new box.

Buttermilk Pancakes
Credit: Jason Donnelly

Why Some Recipes Call for Both Baking Powder and Baking Soda

In short, balance. Some recipes require more leavening than the amount of straight acid (baking soda) the batter or dough can handle. That's when baking powder is beneficial—it creates even more lift for your buttermilk pancakes.

Some baking recipes call for neither baking soda nor baking powder. This is usually the case when either:

What Is the Difference Between Baking Soda and Baking Powder—and What Are the Similarities?

So is baking powder the same as baking soda? No, but they do overlap in terms of ingredients and purpose. Baking soda and baking powder both contain sodium bicarbonate. In combination with an acid, either already in the baking powder or added in the recipe alongside baking soda, this creates carbon dioxide gas that acts as a framework to create a tall and lofty texture.

Can I Use Baking Powder Instead of Baking Soda?

The ingredients are not interchangeable, due to the reasons mentioned above. But in addition to leavening, they're both formulated to: 

  • Create tenderness—The gases expand and cell walls within baked goods begin to stretch and thin, resulting in a tender texture that is less dense and easier to eat.
  • Improve flavor—Chemical leavens, in proper proportion, can lend a salty and/or sour flavor that's signature in biscuits, soda bread, and scones.

Both are so affordable and don't take up a lot of pantry staple storage space, so we recommend having both baking powder and baking soda on hand.

The Bottom Line About Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder

Purchase baking soda and baking powder in as small of boxes and canisters as you can find, then store them in a cool, dry place. Replace every 6 to 12 months, and test for freshness each use beyond 3 months. 

If your baking recipe calls for both baking soda and baking powder and you don't have either, consider swapping in self-rising flour for the all-purpose flour in the recipe. Self-rising flour contains flour, salt, and baking powder, and it can act as a one-for-one replacement for the all-purpose flour called for in a recipe. 

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