Baking soda and baking powder are used in many different baking recipes, but have you ever wondered about the differences between baking soda and baking powder? Their names sound similar, they look similarly white and powdery, and many recipes call for both of them. So, what’s the difference?
First, a little background:
Baking soda is also known chemically as sodium bicarbonate, and it requires some sort of acid to react with in order to get the leavening effect necessary for baked goods to rise. Once upon a time, you may have made a volcano in science class, using vinegar and baking soda to create the eruption. That eruption is carbon dioxide forming in the bubbly mess it produces. In baking, a similar reaction producing carbon dioxide is captured within the dough to create the light, fluffy cakes and breads we all enjoy.
Baking soda was not produced within the United States until 1839 though. So, up until that point, Colonial America was getting it imported from Great Britain. Baking soda is technically a crystalline salt, however, when we buy it from the store it comes in the form of a powder. In chemistry, baking soda is known as a base alkali that has the ability to neutralize things. Because of its ability to neutralize odors, it is often an ingredient added to cat litter or a box of it placed in the refrigerator to reduce and eliminate smells. Another “off label” use for baking soda is to stop grease fires in kitchens. In nature, it is found as trona ore deposits on the bottom of river banks and lakes.
Baking powder arrived on the scene later; it wasn’t around until the late-1840s. A British chemist by the name of Alfred Bird combined baking soda and cream of tartar (an acidic powder) to create the first form of baking powder.
About a decade later in 1856, another chemist named Eben Horsford boiled animal bones to extract monocalcium phosphate. He found that combining this with baking soda would create the chemical reaction needed more efficiently than the cream of tartar method. He created a patent, and he started his own business selling baking powder afterward. His Rumford brand is still around today, so Horsford’s recipe turned out to be a keeper.
Back in the 1800s, there was a dispute over baking powders in the United States. One of the leading baking powder manufacturers of the time was the Royal Baking Powder Corporation. Their baking powder was single-acting and was not nearly as effective as the double-acting competitors. Single-acting means that the chemical reaction only occurred once during the cooking process. Royal baking powder used baking soda and cream of tartar as the main ingredients for their product, and it turned out to be comparatively ineffective.
By the 1870s, Royal baking powder was starting to have financial troubles. They tried to get baking powder that used sodium aluminum sulfate banned in order for their brand to stay in business. Royal falsely claimed that sodium aluminum sulfate (alum for short) was toxic and cannot be used for human consumption. They tried in vain to get each state to pass a law saying alum baking powders must be banned; however, Royal only managed to bribe officials in the State of Missouri into passing that law. After decades of lawsuits and countersuits their claim ultimately didn’t hold up because — well — it turns out that double-acting baking powders simply worked better.
Brands such as Clabber Girl started manufacturing the so-called double-acting baking powder, which allowed the chemical reaction to happen twice during the cooking process. Baked goods are more fluffy by leavening a second time right when your dessert is turning from a liquid to a solid state, temperature-wise. That is why brands like Clabber Girl have been around so long; they helped solve a common problem in baking recipes.
Recipes back in the day that called for baking soda required enough acid to support the chemical reaction. Often these recipes would utilize clabber (spoiled milk) or milk mixed with a bit of lemon juice. The problem with these recipes is, you have to get your baked goods in the oven as soon as possible. Put it in too late and all of the bubbles created by the chemical reaction pop and the leavening agent has no chance to let the baked good rise.
It is interesting to note that baking powder actually contains some baking soda. For instance, the Clabber Girl brand lists sodium bicarbonate as the second ingredient in their baking powder. Baking powder contains both the base and the acid necessary for the leavening chemical reaction you want in baking. In order for the base and acid chemicals to not react prematurely, corn starch is also added to the mix.
The Clabber Girl company has been around since 1850 and produces the number one, best-selling baking powder in America. As many in the local area may know, Clabber Girl is still headquartered in nearby Terre Haute, Indiana, despite selling to B&G Foods in 2019. They have made a name for themselves and are a brand that will surely continue for many generations to come, too.
So, there you have it: the differences between baking powder and baking soda. Baking powder is a wonderful modern invention to be able to use in our dessert recipes. It is far more efficient and useful than prior methods used in colonial times. We are grateful to be in Indiana, which is still home to the well-established Clabber Girl brand. Interestingly, Clabber Girl has actually bought the Rumford brand among others over the years. They stick to each brand’s unique formulas, too, so their customers can buy a variety of baking products, based on their individual needs. No wonder they are America’s leading baking powder brand based right here in southwestern Indiana!
Featured photo of Clabber Girl Baking Powder is a file photo, The Lintonian – 2021