Figuring out when to use baking soda vs baking powder can be tricky. Here’s everything you need to know about these leavening agents, and when to use them.

Baking soda vs baking powder

It’s been a while since I’ve added a new Vegan Baking Basics post and I’ve been wanting to add this one for quite some time! Not only do I love the baking part of this whole blogging thing, but figuring out how recipes work is another one of my favorite things out of the whole process. Ever since I started watching Good Eats with my dad, I’ve been a lot more interested in not only developing my own recipes, but also finding out how they actually work.

Let’s face it, regular baking can be finicky, but vegan baking is even more of a harder nut to crack. One of the main problems I’ve run into with vegan baking is the leavener, or the ingredient that makes your cookies/cakes/muffins rise and get fluffy, rather than a flat, sad pancake that no one wants to eat. Two of the most commonly used leaveners in recipes are baking soda and baking powder. But what actually is the difference between baking soda vs baking powder?

What is Baking Soda?

Baking soda can’t really finish the whole leavening job on its own, it needs a little something to help it out! Since baking soda is a base (hellooo, science!), it needs an acid to help out the rising action. An acid can be anything from vinegar, yogurt, citrus, etc. My apple cake recipe is a perfect example of this base/acid combination, using baking soda and apple cider vinegar to leaven the cake and prevent it from coming out flat. When the baking soda and acid combine, they create carbon dioxide and those bubbles help lift your cake, pretty cool right?

On the flip side, more baking soda does not equal more lift. If you use too much baking soda, a metallic taste will be left behind— gross. Overall, don’t overdo it and just follow the recipe, but my general rule is that if I’m making a recipe with baking soda, I usually add a teaspoon or so of apple cider vinegar to get the reaction going. This ratio varies according to what kind of recipe is being made or what the other ingredients are (if they are dense, light, etc.). The whole ratio/science thing is one of the big reasons why baking is such an exact science and usually shouldn’t be messed with, so if the recipe is written well, everything should rise correctly!

What is Baking Powder?

So we know baking soda needs help, but what about baking powder? Well, when it comes to baking powder, it doesn’t really need any help at all! While baking soda has to be combined with an acid to make sure the proper reactions happen, baking powder already contains an acid, so it doesn’t need any additional acid added in.

Baking powder does have a two-fold reaction that happens, once when the baking powder gets wet and another when the powder is heated (like in my matcha pound cake recipe). Ever wonder why, almost all of the time, a recipe instructs you to combine the wet ingredients separate from the dry, then combine them? This is one of the reasons!

As a self-proclaimed impatient person and one who never wants to wash another dirty bowl, I’ve too often ignored these instructions and just dumped everything together in a bowl, mixed it up and went about baking. Now this can result in a dessert that turns out just fine, but most of the time, it’s not always the best way to go about it. From one impatient baker to another, just take the extra time to separate the wet from dry ingredients and combine later!

Why Use Both?

I know that the next question is going to be, ‘Then why do some recipes use both baking soda and baking powder?’, right? Well, it’s about that lift and rise! Some recipes need lift from not only the baking soda/vinegar but also a little extra help from baking powder as well.

Also, if a recipe used a large amount of either baking soda or baking powder to get the lift it needed, the taste could be really thrown off and totally alter the recipe, so a combo of both soda and powder is usually best for most baked goods. Browning is usually affected by the combination of baking soda and baking powder, so using the two in tandem makes for a better browning baked good. Everyone knows if a cookie looks good (golden brown with those perfect crinkles!), it probably tastes even better.

Does this help solve the mystery of baking soda vs baking powder? I know there are a million other factors that affect how baked goods turn out, from sugar content, to flours to what kind of liquid is used, it can get to be a mess of mumbo jumbo if you think too hard about it. What other science-y baking questions to you have? I love researching these kinds of questions and want to know what other people wonder about with baking science too.

If you want more food science related info, Kelsey’s blog is a really good place to start. I reached out to Kelsey last year to find out a little more about food science and she came back with a wealth of good information, so she knows her stuff! I also love Serious Eats because they take a deep dive into the different ways of making a recipe, how things work in a recipe, etc.

More Vegan Baking Tips You’ll Love:

Vegan Baking Basics: Vegan Egg Substitutes 

How to Make Vegan Meringue 

Vegan Baking Basics: Common Vegan Egg Wash Substitutes 

How to Make Homemade Vanilla Extract

Quick Baking Tip: How to Easily Chop Chocolate