Beginner’s guide to baking: Baking powder vs. baking soda

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Ever wondered what all those different kinds of sugar are all about? Or why the temperature of butter really matters? Then you’ll love this new series covering off all the basics of baking – from why ingredients are important right through to how to set up your kitchen. Have a burning question? Then pop it in the comments below and I’ll try and cover it off in an upcoming post.

First off we’re taking a look at those two little white powders that seem to do the same thing, but you always seem to need the one you don’t have – baking powder and baking soda! While they’re both leaveners (which means they make things rise), they’re actually pretty different. So…

What is baking soda and when do I use it?
Time for my sixth form chemistry to shine! Remember the whole base vs. acid thing from high school? Well that’s pretty much what this comes back to. Baking soda is a base, which means that when you mix it with an acid it’ll react to create something – in baking, that means carbon dioxide which puffs up your baking.

Basically, when you see baking soda in a recipe there will also be some kind of acid in there – maybe lemon juice, buttermilk, yoghurt or brown sugar. You need to have this acid there for the baking soda to react with, otherwise your baking won’t rise and will have a strange metallic taste to it.
The trick is making sure you use just the right amount of baking soda in your baking – that means measuring carefully! Baking soda is pretty strong (about three times more powerful than baking powder) and you need to hit the sweet spot between having enough to react with the amount of acid in your recipe – that way, no metallic after taste.

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How about baking powder?
So baking powder is actually a mixture of a couple of things – baking soda, cream of tartar and often a little cornflour. The clever thing is that cream of tartar is actually an acid (just a dry one!), so the baking soda already has the right amount of acid to react with in every teaspoon.

Because of this, you’ll notice that baking powder is usually used when there isn’t another acid in a recipe. But, because life’s not always simple, there are always exceptions to this rule.

Sometimes you have a recipe that uses an acid that you don’t want to use up through a reaction with baking soda – for example, you might want a tang of lemon or yoghurt in your cake. In that case, you’d use baking powder instead of baking soda so the acid can live on the baking, bringing in all that lovely tangy flavour.  

Why do some recipes need both?
These recipes usually have some acid in them, but not enough for a reaction with baking soda to create the lift that’s needed. If that’s the case, baking powder is used as well to give the recipe that little boost it needs. You need to strike the perfect balance.

If I’m playing around with my own recipe, how much do I need to use?
As you can probably tell, it really does vary. But as a general rule, use around ¼ tsp of baking soda OR 1 tsp of baking powder for every cup of flour in a recipe.

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Pretty interesting, right? Whether you’re just getting into baking or are already a keen cook, knowing why things work the way they do is such a helpful skill to have – I know I love it!

If knowing the ins and outs of baking soda and powder was super interesting to you, then you might be a Curious Novice – you’re keen to improve your skills, enjoy a good recipe book, love giving things a go yourself and are curious about why things work the way they do.

Sound like you? Maybe not? Fisher & Paykel have created eight different cooking styles to help Kiwis get the most out of their time in the kitchen – if you know why you cook the way you do, you’re more likely to get the best results.

Either way, pop over to the Fisher & Paykel website and do their ‘What’s Your Cooking Style’ quiz – you might be surprised!  

Now that you’re a baking soda and powder pro, check out my recipe for blueberry and lemon scones below and see if you can work out why baking powder is used over baking soda. Good luck!

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Blueberry and lemon scones
Makes six. Recipe adapted from Radio New Zealand.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups flour
  • 4 tsp baking powder
  • 4 Tbsp caster sugar
  • 80g butter, cold
  • 1 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen
  • 2 tsp lemon zest
  • ¼ cup natural, unsweetened yoghurt
  • ¾ cup milk

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Line a baking tray with baking paper and set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and caster sugar.
  3. Grate butter and add to dry ingredients, tossing to mix. Add blueberries and lemon zest and mix until combined.
  4. Combine yoghurt and milk in a small bowl and whisk to combine. Pour onto other ingredients and mix with a butter knife until just combined.
  5. Scoop batter onto a floured bench and shape into a rectangle around 3cm (two fingers) thick. Brush with a little milk and sprinkle with caster sugar. Cut into six squares.
  6. Transfer to a baking tray and bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden. Cool slightly before serving.

This post was made possible thanks to Fisher & Paykel. All words and images are, and always will be, my own.