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Let's Talk Chemical Leaveners, Wait CHEMICALS?!

As a chef and focusing on the science of food, big sciencey names don’t scare me at all. Most of the time they are legally required to put these weird names on food labels or they will trick you into thinking it’s good when they don’t have sugar as the first ingredient but then they add three or more sugars under various names. Yeah, food labels are a tricky field and it’s best to know how to read them. But the important thing I want to get at is that chemicals are okay. I hear and see a lot these days about “chemical free” foods and “all natural, no chemical compound” ingredients. Honestly though, that’s all bullshit.

Chemicals make up everything. H2O is water, that’s a chemical. In our bodies we naturally produce chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. Literally any physical thing that exists in our world is a chemical. So when I hear “I don’t use chemicals” all I hear is “I don’t know what chemicals are”. Now this doesn’t mean I don’t believe in not using TOXIC chemicals. Many of these “chemical free” people are mostly referring to toxic chemicals but please let’s use proper terms.

When we look at baking, there are chemical leaveners used all the time. Any recipe that has baking soda or baking powder uses what chefs define as chemical leaveners. The other two types of leaveners are biological like yeast and physical like air or steam from water. Baking soda and baking powder are the best ways to get the great textures in many baked items, but what exactly are they and how do they really work to our benefit in recipes? And can you really substitute baking soda and baking powder for each other? Let’s dive into this world of chemical leaveners.


Baking Soda

First let’s talk about baking soda. In the US we know it as baking soda. It sometimes is also referred to as bicarbonate of soda. The chemical name is sodium bicarbonate, NaHCO3. Baking soda is an incredible chemical to use. It’s perfectly safe for animals and the environment, making it great for cleaning along with baking in the kitchen. I love using it to scrub and polish metals, especially my stainless steel sink. I even mix it with honey and use it as a face wash and sometimes use with toothpaste as an extra polish and whitener for my teeth. When it comes to baking though, it’s the breakdown of baking soda that really helps us out.

At higher temperature, baking soda breaks down into sodium carbonate (a salt), water, and carbon dioxide gas. This gas can be used to our advantage in the kitchen to help leaven foods. But we don’t just love the natural breakdown of baking soda with heat, but if you’ve ever made a baking soda volcano growing up you’ve done the other reaction bakers love. When baking soda and vinegar mix, they produce carbon dioxide gas, water, and sodium acetate (another salt!). Depending on the desired texture, we can get even more gas released and a greater volume in our baked goods!

The use of baking soda in a recipe depends on the other ingredients and the textures desired. I have come across multiple cookie recipes that call for a small amount of baking soda and have no significant acidic ingredient. Maybe I’m looking for less rise and a denser, more gooey cookie. Although some recipes have an acidic ingredient in some form for a larger reaction. This whole reaction sometimes is happening without you knowing. It helps to understand your ingredients and which ones are slightly acidic even if they don’t taste sour. But sometimes we want that nice release of gas into our baked without using an acidic ingredient that can have a larger effect on the flavor profile. That’s when our other favorite leavening agent comes into play.


Baking Powder

Baking powder is very similar to baking soda. It’s actually a mixture of baking soda with an acid salt as a trigger to start the reaction! I do want to point out there are also starches typically in baking powder as a filler and to help with moisture in the powder. BUT, it’s just that little volcano reaction we love so much already doing its thing in our batters and doughs!

The amount of baking soda and acid salt (salts that dissolve in water to release acid) and the results have a lot of factors. Brands all have their own way of making baking powder but by law they all have to release at least 12% carbon dioxide by weight of the powder. So most likely they can be somewhat interchangeable but there are still other factors at play, especially when we get into single/double acting and slow/fast acting baking powders.

Let’s talk real quick about single and double acting. Originally baking powder would sometimes come in a single acting form meaning all of the gas would be release at one time. Depending on the mixture and acid salt used some would react at room temp before going into the oven and some react in the oven with the addition of heat. Pretty much all baking powders used today, though, are double acting. Double acting release some gas at room temperature and then the rest with heat in the oven. This is when we get into the two main types you will come across in the world, fast acting and slow acting.

Fast acting baking powders are leaveners that work, well, fast! It’s in the name! Typically, fast acting will release about 60-70% of the gas at room temperature and then the remaining 30-40% comes out in the oven. These types of leaveners are great for quick mixes that you want to get into the pan and in the oven before losing the initial gas. Slow acting is the opposite of fast acting, about 30-40% released at room temperature and the remaining 60-70% in the oven. Slow acting is great when you have to work with a batter for a while, say a bakery that makes 300 cupcakes in a single batch. This would allow the time to scoop out all the batter without losing all the volume and then in the oven the batter gets the air it needs as it bakes.

Depending on what you need the baking powder for, these variations will play a role in what to use and how to work with your batter. I personally use Clabber Girl, always have and always will. And no I am not being paid to say this about them. I just believe in finding a product that works and sticking to it. I have used a couple other brands in times when I couldn’t find Clabber Girl, but I will say they tend to have a bit of an after taste. Clabber Girl uses two acid salts that have very little after taste so it helps in my opinion to get the best final flavor in your baked goods. Along with the taste though, my recipes are designed to used Clabber Girl. That’s how I get the same textures and results. When I use other baking powders there can always be a difference in the final result because they aren’t 100% interchangeable. It gets even harder if you don’t have any baking powder and only baking soda.


Interchanging Baking Soda and Baking Powders

At the end of the day yes, to a degree baking powders of various brands and baking soda can be interchanged. But you have to do a little playing when this happens. First when you use different baking powder brands they may release the gas at different times or different amounts. This will absolutely affect your batters. The initial release not only is there for volume but also for consistency. The release of gas bubbles helps thicken that batter, making it easier or sometimes harder to use. I love having a thicker batter to scoop out cleanly and quickly. If I use a different baking powder and it releases more gas at the beginning I now have a thicker batter that can get difficult to portion out. On the contrary, my final texture depends on the right release of gas in the oven. If I use a baking powder that releases too much in the oven I may get tunneling or even a collapsed cake. Or if there is no enough gas released I end up with a denser cake that isn’t as delicate and delicious. Depending on what I’m making and for who, I will sometimes refuse to bake with other brands because I’m depending on the texture from the same baking powder I always use.

But what if I don’t have any baking powder at all? Can baking soda be use? In short, yes. But of course there will be an affect. In general, you can use ¼ to 1/3 the amount of baking powder in baking soda, so ¾-1 teaspoon baking soda for 1 tablespoon baking powder. As long as you also include an acid. This can easily be done with some vinegar or cream of tartar, but this can also play into the flavor of the product so it gets a bit tricky. At the same time, baking soda is more of a fast acting reaction and you won’t get the rise in the oven like when using double acting baking powder. You have to work extra fast when using baking soda in place of baking powder.

The opposite of that substitution is baking powder in place of baking soda. Again, 3-4 times the amount of baking powder for the amount of baking soda. Most likely the recipe will include an ingredient that is acidic so you will probably get a bit of an acidic aftertaste, but you can’t really remove an ingredient you need already. This is why it gets a bit tricky when you need to substitute one for the other. There isn’t a perfect way to do it but test it, try it, and see if it can work for what you are looking for.


At the end of the day I’m going to say the same thing I always say, find a brand you like and stick with it. If you don’t have any, go get it. If you can’t get any, don’t bake that day. If you insist on baking anyways or really need to make something, then try a substitution but don’t expect it to be 100% the same. Most likely you will still get a delicious treat and you can learn a little something about a new ingredient that day. At the end of it all, though, baking isn’t so much about the end product but the time you spend getting there. Have fun with it, play with new ingredients, and make something to sweeten someone’s day, even if it’s a little unperfect.

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