The Confident Kitchen Series
Today’s post will concentrate on, what exactly is the difference between Baking Soda and Baking Powder? In my day-to-day life as a chef, I am presented a lot of interesting questions regarding all kinds of stuff, such as:
1. What is the difference between baking soda and baking powder?
2. What does it actually mean when the recipe calls for “creaming” ingredients?
3. What is the difference between a conventional oven and a convection oven?
But first, I need to start with a story or two. Growing up in a family of five girls, there were lots of learning “incidents” in the kitchen. For example, there was the time that one of my sisters decided to make a cake. Her cooking experience up to that point was limited to scrambling eggs. That was exactly what she did when the cake recipe called for eggs! The addition of a leavening agent in this cake would have been helpful. None-the-less, the end result would still have been the same – the cake did have an “interesting” texture with all the yellow particles.
Recently, I was presented with a few recipes that had been used for quite some time in a bakery with a loyal clientele. One of the recipes was a bran muffin. While it was not a particularly extra-ordinary muffin, it was a regular on the list of items offered. I set to organizing the ingredients for the batter. The verbal instructions were: “you will have to overfill the muffin cups because these muffins do not rise at all”. My inquisitive nature kicked in, so, I asked myself these questions, “Why is this muffin not rising to the occasion?” What is preventing it from becoming a star attraction?
One of my mentor culinary instructors, Chef Maxwell, always ingrained into our heads that we should first read any recipe for balance and accuracy. He was the first to say, “just because a recipe is printed in a book does not mean that it is correct, in balance, or makes sense. So true, Chef, so true!
Making Sense: Baking Powder vs. Baking Soda
My Chef Mentor gave us very good advice. Checking a recipe for balance and accuracy is now something I do with every recipe before I start. When analyzing this particular recipe, I noted a few things:
a. There was baking soda listed as the only leavening agent in the recipe which had a lot of “heavy” ingredients (wheat bran, etc.)
b. The recipe had a good balance of acid (molasses and buttermilk) to counter the bitter effect of the baking soda. This balance is necessary to prevent the batter from tasting “soapy”.
c. When using baking soda, keep in mind that as soon as a liquid is added to the batter, the reaction is immediate (this reaction is caused by the acid); meaning, you should get the muffin in the oven quickly or it loses its effectiveness.
d. Baking powder is often used in addition to baking soda in a muffin recipe to give the muffin batter “lift” and tenderness. Baking powder is actually a combination of three ingredients and they all play an important role in the result.
e. You need to be careful when adjusting leavening products because if you use too much, you have a batter that will likely taste bitter – not very pleasant.
Here is a leavening formula that I use when assessing recipes similar to this one. It depends on the ingredients used, but as a general rule of thumb:
For every two cups of flour in a recipe, use:
a. 2 1/2 teaspoons double acting baking powder, or
b. 1/2 teaspoon soda plus 1 cup buttermilk (for the acid) and 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
Making Sense: Baking Powder vs. Baking Soda
There are a few things that could affect the overall result of your recipes:
1. Was an error made in the preparation of the recipe? In other words, even though you may be diligent about gathering all of your ingredients before you actually start the recipe, did all the ingredients listed actually end up in the prepared item? (i.e. were you distracted by phone calls, doorbells, children tugging at your jeans or chocolate in the pantry? They can affect the overall result.
2. Was there an error made in writing the recipe? Many recipes are not triple-tested or edited for accuracy of ingredients and method. I have a recipe from a professional reference book for a spectacular lemon mousse recipe that completely omitted the sugar in the list of ingredients!
3. Is it inexperience or over-exuberance that affected the overall result of your recipe? I remember when my daughters (youngsters at the time) and I made “The Best Ever Muffin Recipe” together, as we had done many times in the past. This particular time, the muffins were quite inedible. We discovered that the baking soda had been “helpfully” added twice and the baking powder had been inadvertently omitted.
4. Is your oven temperature accurate? A simple and inexpensive internal oven thermometer ($ 5 – $ 10 in a hardware store) can help determine if your oven temperature is accurate. If your oven is set to 350oF and the internal oven temperature is 50oF higher or lower, it can be detrimental to the result of your recipe. Adjust the oven temperature accordingly, and you will be pleased with the results. Money well spent for peace of mind.
As for the problematic bran muffin recipe – it went through a transformation with the addition of baking powder which made a big difference to the end result. The muffin was no longer dense and flat, but tender and light with a nicely rounded top when baked, as it should be. (Go to Muffin tips and Techniques)
In summary, baking soda and baking powder are powerful leavening agents, and when used properly and accurately, will result in excellent baked goods. The “cooked egg” method of making a cake is not recommended! No amount of leavening agent could improve that particular cake. However, it is interesting how this one particular baking misadventure has developed into an over-blown/inflated tale even after all those years ago! Fun in the Kitchen – what are your baking stories?
You Might Also Like These Urb’n’Spice Posts:
Convection vs Conventional Ovens – What is the Difference?
Baking Dilemmas & the Fix – See this Post
David Lebovitz wrote recently about how to tell if your baking powder still works in this post
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