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Hi Bold Bakers!
NOTE FROM GEMMA: Let’s welcome back Dee, one of our Bold Baking Network starts and founder of One Sarcastic Baker! — Dee has a Baking Science cookbook coming out in April (pre-order here) and is here to teach us the science behind Baking Powder VS. Baking Soda when they’re on their own, and the combination of both, when it comes to baking cookies. Here she is in her own words!
I totally get the confusion and curiosity when it comes to baking powder vs. baking soda. Not only do they have almost the same name, but they kind of look alike and many times are also packaged the same way.
Since baking powder is made of baking soda plus the addition of an acidic substance, I think it would benefit us all, if baking soda would be called Senior and baking powder would be called Junior.
And just like any Senior and Junior while there are some similarities, the two are completely different. The best way to showcase the wonderful qualities and differences between the two is with cookies and to take a close look at the science behind it.
Now, before we dive deeper into the wonderful worlds of the two, I would like to add a note that while the two have a significant effect on our cookies, these are not magic powders. Other elements such as the ingredients, how much of each, the mixing process, and temperature are all key to the end result.
I used this Chewy Chocolate Chips Cookies recipe to demonstrate the difference between the two powders. I baked it in 4 different ways: baking soda only, baking powder only, both baking powder and baking soda, and baking soda only plus melted butter.
As I mentioned before, baking powder is a mixture of baking soda and an additional acidic powder. It is used in baking as a leavening agent, and unlike baking soda, baking powder is a balanced formula with limited abilities.
Baking Powder Leavens Our Cookies
Most common baking powders sold in our local markets are marked as double-acting. That means that the powder dissolves when mixed with liquid and when exposed to heat, releases carbon dioxide — a gas that makes its way into the air bubbles in our dough and wherever there is a free space and leavens our cookies.
Baking Powder Contributes To The Flavor Of Our Cookies
Another byproduct of the chemical reaction is the release of sodium, a salt. I might get a lot of heat over this but this is the reason why I am not a fan of adding salt to my baking.
When To Use Baking Powder
When baking cookies, I highly recommend that you use baking powder whenever you cream the butter and sugar, or whenever you want a “lift” to your cookies. Read more about it in my upcoming book Baking Science.
Baking soda is a powder used not only for baking but also for many other uses such as cleaning. In baking, it is most known and used with the presence of acids such as sour cream, buttermilk, and even coffee.
However, when we bake cookies, we do not have the privilege of using a large amount of liquid so we use it for its other amazing properties.
Baking Soda Delays The Setting Process And Allows The Cookies To Spread More
In the presence of baking soda, the cookies take longer to firm up and set, which makes it easier for the melted butter, dissolved sugar, and liquids to spread the cookies.
The Science Behind It
Ok, so now we are getting into the fun scientific part, but before we do I want you to first think of your remote control at home. For the remote to work, it needs batteries and it also needs the batteries to be inserted in a specific way. The negative charges (-) and positive charges (+) are facing opposite directions on purpose. Otherwise, the charges will repel each other and no energy will be released. Not so good for our Netflix binging plans.
And just like our home remote, most substances (molecules) have electrical changes. While some carry only positive or negative charges, others carry both positive and negative charges, like the proteins (amino acids) in our eggs, flour, and butter.
Baking soda is also known as Sodium Bicarbonate and its chemical formula is NaHCO3. But what is interesting is that the Na=Sodium has a positive charge (+) and the HCO3=Bicarbonate has a negative charge (-).
Now let’s take a closer look at what happens during baking. For our cookies to firm up and bake, the proteins in the eggs, flour (gluten), and butter (milk solids) need to bind together (coagulate) into a firm net. In their natural state, the proteins carry both positive (+) and negative (-) charges, they both repel each other and attract each other which is why they are folded. In order for them to unfold and bond together into a net, they need a source of energy, like force (mixing) and heat (baking).
When the proteins are introduced with a source of energy they unfold and create a complex net, that is when our baked good firm and set.
This is when the baking soda comes into play. When we add baking soda into our dough, we essentially add positive (+) and negative (-) charges. The charges coming from the baking soda will neutralize the charges and strip the proteins of both the negative and positive charges. And for the proteins to bond and set the cookies they need slightly more energy, slightly more time in the oven. This space in time is what allows the butter to melt and the sugar to dissolve and spread the cookies further.
However, it is important to also note that since there are no charges to repel each other, once the proteins bond, their bond is slightly tighter. We will notice that as we take a bite and our cookies are slightly more chewy and firmer. This is a GREAT example of the complexity of the process that is baking.
Baking Soda Contributes To The Browning Of The Cookies
The presence of baking soda encourages and speeds up the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction that causes our food to brown. It happens when an amino acid (a part of the protein) attacks the carbon on the glucose (sugar). The interaction between the two creates many other reactions that contribute to the color (browning) and flavor. A great example of the Maillard reaction is Dulche De Leche, its beautiful golden color and rich deep flavors are the results of the Maillard reaction.
The Science Behind It
It turns out that the amino acid (protein) that attacks the carbon (sugar) has a double charge of both positive and negative (- +), and it takes quite some time for it to attack the positively charged carbon (+).
When we add baking soda the Bicarbonate (-) neutralizes the positive charge of the amino acid. Now it is a negative charge molecule that can make its way towards and makes it much easier for it to attack the carbon.
The interesting thing is that as the Maillard reaction occurs, more energy is released speeding up the browning and baking process. This is why it is important to pay close attention to the cookies once they start browning, they can go from brown to burn fairly quickly.
Baking Soda Contributes To The Flavor Of Our Cookies
In addition to the Maillard reaction, baking soda is also sodium. Sodium is salt, and salt enhances the flavors of our food.
When To Use Baking Soda
When it comes to baking cookies, baking soda is a great option when we want a chewy, dense, and thin cookie, with dark colors.
Note that while it helps with the spreading of the cookies and color, it is not the sole element and your choice of ingredients will make the main difference. For example, the melted butter will contribute significantly to both the texture and spreading of the cookies.
Here are some common questions when it comes to baking powder and baking soda.
Does Baking Soda Leaven Our Cookies?
Great question, yes and no. Baking soda will release carbon dioxide when in touch with water but without an acidic substance present, it will release less than 50% of the amount. Also, the release of carbon dioxide is immediate with the interaction of liquid, meaning during the mixing process. So by the time the cookies hit the oven, the baking soda contribution to leaving the cookies is minimal if at all.
Does Baking Powder Help With Spreading The Cookies?
No. The baking soda is reacting with the acidic substance in the baking powder not leaving any spare molecules to neutralize the electrons in the proteins. The same is true when it comes to the Maillard reaction.
Baking Powder VS. Baking Soda: Can I Use Both?
The key and the most important thing to remember is both baking powder and baking soda are only the background artist. And while they contribute to the baking process and help set the final tone, the main characters are the ingredients, mixing methods, and baking temperature.
Connect With Dee Everywhere
You can find Dee in all kinds of places on the internet. Give her a visit, a follow, and some online love!
Buy Dee’s Cookbook
If you’re into baking science, look no further than Dee’s new cookbook that’s all about the why’s and how’s of baking — it’s literally called Baking Science. You can buy it right here.
The Bold Baking Network
Bigger Bolder Baking is thrilled to introduce you to the Bold Baking Network, a team of talented chefs, creators, and experts looking to teach, entertain and help you on your baking journey. Here are more articles from our amazing collaborators.
Hi Bold Bakers! I’m Gemma Stafford, a professional chef originally from Ireland, a cookbook author, and the creator of Bigger Bolder Baking. I want to help you bake with confidence anytime, anywhere with my trusted and tested recipes and baking tips. You may have seen one of my 500+ videos on YouTube & TikTok or as a guest judge on Nailed It! on Netflix or the Best Baker in America on Food Network. No matter your skills, my Bold Baking Team & I want to be your #1 go-to baking authority.