It’s easy to confuse Baking Powder and Baking Soda, given their similar names and that neither one looks nor smells any different from the other. Understanding the fundamental roles of the two will move you a lengthy step closer to being a savvy cook. I grant you with the wisdom to know the difference.

It’s actually fairly simple. Baking Powder has an interior effect, while Baking Soda has more of an exterior effect. Baking Powder, which is all about leavening, gives lift to create a light and cake-like texture. Baking Soda, on the other hand, does contribute some leavening, but really only when combined with something acidic, like lemon juice or buttermilk. Otherwise, Baking Soda has more to do with browning.

There are some instances when you would want to use Baking Powder alone. For example, if you were baking cut-out sugar cookies, Baking Powder would be ideal. It would give the cookies a little vertical lift and fluffiness, and wouldn’t encourage the dough to brown or spread and lose its shape.

If you were making chocolate chip cookies, however, you would want a much different result. I don’t like my drop cookies to be cakey– that’s what cake is for. There needs to be some spreading, a little crisping, and some browning. Baking Soda is the answer. The pH of Baking Soda lowers the temperature at which browning can occur. In other words, things will brown a helluvalot faster with a bit of Baking Soda around to accelerate the process.

In recipes that require lift and a little browning, Baking Powder and Soda play well together. In fact, Baking Soda actually helps the Baking Powder activate its leavening powers– which is a little strange, given that Baking Soda doesn’t have much of that power itself. It’s really just a helpful sidekick when the two are paired. Combining the two is perfect for pancakes, cakes, biscuits, and the majority of other baked goods, because there is nice lift and also some subtle browning. Be aware that adding too much of these leaveners can have a reverse effect and make so many big air pockets that all that air has too many places to escape, deflating all your efforts. It’s no different than over-inflating a balloon.

I also love to add a pinch of Baking Soda or Powder to anything cookie dough or cake batter flavored. It gives that itty bit of tang that recreates an unbaked and gooey taste.

Baking Soda In Cooking

A teeny pinch of Baking Soda also has some magic powers just outside the baking kingdom, in the realm of cooking. Baking Powder isn’t as versatile, but Baking Soda is really a well-kept secret ingredient. The trick is to use no more than a pinch, or your food will have a metallic and sometimes soapy flavor to it.  Adding a small dash to a big pot of onions will make them brown much quicker. It can work magic when added to dry beans or grits, to help soften and cook them a bit faster. Add it to meat rubs to coax out a little more beautiful browning. Where there’s brown, there’s flavor! Kill two birds with one stone and add it to a marinade; it will double as a meat tenderizer. Add it to seasoned flour and cornstarch used to dredge anything that will be fried. The end result will be a little extra GBD (golden brown and delicious).

Buying baking powders and sodas in a tin with a plastic lid will keep it fresher much longer than an open cardboard container will. Always write the date on the lid when you open it. If it’s been a while since you’ve used what’s in your pantry, testing for freshness is extremely easy. Baking Powder reacts with heat, so simply add a couple teaspoons to a cup of boiling, or very, very hot water. For Baking Soda, place a teaspoon into a few tablespoons of white vinegar or lemon juice. In both cases, you should see strong and lively bubbles. If you don’t, the ingredient won’t be effective and it’s time to replace it. You can still use the dead stuff for cleaning and air freshening.

Baking powder and soda are dirt cheap ingredients that can make a big difference in your cooking and baking with almost no effort. Make sure your pantry is stocked, and always keep a backup!

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