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12/06/2010

~ Two Baking Basics: Baking Soda & Baking Powder ~

6a0120a8551282970b0148c677d1ed970cWhat's is the difference between baking soda and baking powder?  What's the difference between evaporated milk and condensed milk?  What's the difference between natural and Dutch process cocoa powder?  What's the difference between all-purpose, bread, cake and pastry flour?  When it comes to baking, these are top-shelf examples of questions I get asked.

Baking soda (also known as bicarbonate of soda or sodium bicarbonate) is a slightly salty alkaline that comes to us in the form of a fine white powder.  It releases carbon dioxide gas when combined with an acid liquid, such as buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt, honey, cocoa, any citrus juice or vinegar.  This gas is what causes some doughs or batters to rise.  Baking soda is also used a lot for cookie baking.  Baking soda is single-acting, as opposed to double-acting (like baking powder), which means its gas is released just once -- immediately when introduced to moisture.  Unless it is used simultaneously with baking powder (which will give dough or batter a second rise in the oven), it must be mixed with the dry ingredients before adding any of the acidic liquid.  Then the resulting batter must be transferred immediately to the prepared baking pan and placed immediately into the preheated oven.  I know this sounds frenzied, so let me explain it to you this way:  work as quickly as possible without getting sloppy or messy and it will be ok.

Note:  Always follow your recipe and use the amount of baking soda recommended.  The decision to use more should be considered carefully as it is not necessarily the right one.  More baking powder will definitely result in a bigger rise, but too much will neutralize the flavorful acidic liquid, resulting in your end product tasting flat and boring.

Baking powder is a leavener containing a combination of baking soda, an acid (such as cream of tartar) and a moisture-absorber (such as cornstarch) to keep the mixture dry, preventing a reaction until liquid is added to it.  It too comes to us in the form of white powder.  When mixed with any liquid (unlike baking powder which requires an acidic liquid), it releases carbon dioxide gas bubbles that cause quick breads, biscuits, muffins, scones or cakes to rise (batters that lack the structure to hold gas bubbles for more than a few minutes).  There are three basic kinds of baking powder:  1) double-acting (the most common), which means it contains two acids which release gas at two different times in two different ways (once, very quickly when it first becomes wet, then, a second time, when exposed to oven heat); 2) single-acting tartrate, and; 3) phosphate baking powders.  The latter two, which release their gases as soon as they are moistened,  are very hard to find in American markets because of the popularity and reliability of double-acting baking powder.  While batters using double-acting baking powder do allow the baker to relax somewhat (as time is not as critical as it is when using baking soda alone), for best results, they should still be placed in the hot oven within 5-10 minutes of mixing.  To repeat what I said above:  work as quickly as possible without getting sloppy or messy.

Note:  Baking powder is perishable and should be stored in a cool, dry place.  Always check the expiration date on the the can before purchasing or using it.  If it's close to or a bit past the expiration date, it's wise to test to see if baking powder still packs a punch:  Combine 1 teaspoon of it with 3-4 tablespoons hot water.  If it bubbles/fizzes enthusiastically, it is fine to use.

FYI:  You can substitute baking powder for baking soda but you can't use baking soda when a recipe calls for baking powder.  Be aware, when substituting baking powder for baking soda, you will have to use more of it, which might affect the taste of the end product.  Also, in a pinch, you can make your own baking powder by mixing two parts cream of tartar with one part baking soda.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Commentary and Photo courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2010)

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