Kitchen Science – Baking Powder vs. Baking Soda & What to Use When

Last week, one of my brothers and a couple friends decided to make chocolate chip cookies from scratch without a recipe. Totally impressive, right?

guys cooking

Josiah Jost, Caleb, and Joel Jost – What would you caption this pic? :D
Instagram pics borrowed from Emily Jost

As part of the “Kitchen Council” sitting behind the bar, I was privileged to see baking from a whole different point of view. What I had always taken for granted and just did “because that’s the way it’s done” suddenly developed question marks in big text bubbles over every ingredient in the kitchen.

Why not melt the butter?

Why cream the sugar and butter before adding eggs?

Is milk in cookies really a no-no?

Do you have to mix the soda into the flour before adding to the wet ingredients?

And what does baking soda do to cookies?

Why am I sitting on this panel of “cook consultants” anyway??? :)

To be honest, I was embarrassed that I didn’t have “down pat” answers to these questions. I mean, I should, right? I have a cooking blog for crying out loud!

Being humbled is a good thing for several reasons, one of which is this: it spurs one to grow in areas that one may not have experienced without it. Hence, I cracked open my copy of Kitchen Science by Howard Hillman and pulled up about 45 different tabs on my browser. It’s time to do some research!

The most pressing question in my mind had to do with baking soda. I already knew that soda reacts to leaven baked goods when used with acids like buttermilk, vinegar, and yogurt, but chocolate chip cookie batter wasn’t very acidic as far as I could tell. So why use soda over baking powder?

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First we have to explore the science behind it all.

Baking Soda, or sodium bicarbonate, is a leavening agent that reacts with moisture and acids. This chemical reaction produces bubbles of carbon dioxide that expand in a hot oven or skillet, causing baked goods to rise. Any baked good using baking soda must be cooked immediately before the carbon dioxide disperses, or the finished product with be flat.

Canister 2 (531x800)

Click on this awesome pic for free printable labels like the one on this jar.

I found a list of acid ingredients that answered my question. Buttermilk, sour cream, creme fraiche, yogurt, fruit juices, brown sugar, molasses, honey, maple syrup and cocoa powder that is not acid-neutral, are all used to activate baking soda.

One blog stated that the chocolate chips in chocolate chip cookies warrant using baking soda, but I would contest that the chocolate morsels have very little to do with the activation of the soda. Rather, the brown sugar (which has molasses in it), or other natural sugars like sucanat or coconut palm sugar, create the right amount of acidity to ensure the needed chemical reaction.

Too much baking soda causes an unpleasant chemical taste because the soda does not have enough acid to neutralize. On the flip side, not enough baking soda in the recipe creates a batter that is too acidic due to the un-neutralized brown sugar, buttermilk, etc. According to Cookies 101,  a quick formula for figuring out how much baking soda you need in a recipe is to use 1/2 to 1 teaspoon soda for each cup of liquid. In the case of cookies, that would be butter and eggs.

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Betty Crocker’s Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies

Other reasons to use baking soda in cookies…

Baking soda causes a slight rise during the baking, then partially deflates when cooled yielding a cookie with a more crunchy exterior.

It is also added to cookies to increase browning and flavor.

Livestrong.com states, Baking soda increases the spread of cookie dough in the oven, which may be desirable in certain types of cookies such as chocolate chip. The spreading occurs because baking soda increases the dough’s pH level and weakens both the gluten and egg protein structure. Baking soda also contributes to cookies being more porous, coarse and crispy. 

Baking powder
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I knew that baking powder could be made using baking soda, but I had no idea what the science was behind it until I began this research. Baking powder is simply a combination of soda and an acid, like cream of tartar, to make an instant leavening for baked goods that don’t have their own acid. Baking powder releases carbon dioxide bubbles immediately upon contact with ANYTHING liquid, whereas baking soda must be combined with liquid AND acid in order to work. That is why cornstarch is added to baking powder because cornstarch absorbs any moisture that would start the leavening process while it is being stored and before it is needed.
Most baking powder you buy at the store is “double-acting” meaning it has two leavening stages. The first release of carbon dioxide is activated by moisture and the second one by heat. This makes baking powder a better choice for breads, scones, or cakes that are baked for a longer time period – 30 to 60 minutes as opposed to 10-15 for cookies and less for pancakes.
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To make your own baking powder combine 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon of cream of tartar, and 1/4 teaspoon of cornstarch to equal 1 teaspoon baking powder. Keep in mind that the baking powder you make at home will not be double-acting, so you have to bake your batter immediately. The quick formula, again from Cookies 101,  is: 1 teaspoon of baking powder for every cup of flour.
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For a more in depth read on these two leavening agents check out The Food Lab: Baking Powder vs. Baking Soda on Serious Eats.

So what about those other questions? Stay tuned for more Kitchen Science posts, including a comprehensive study into the crumbly (or gooey) depths of a chocolate chip cookie.

Oh! And back to the cookies the guys made? Well, I was impressed by how good they were!

How long will it take?

Almost done!

…Especially after watching the process. :P