In which I might learn the difference between baking soda and baking powder

Despite having spent many years eating I still have much to
learn about cooking. For example, I did not know there was any particular technique
needed to fry an egg. When my husband walked my oldest son through the steps of
egg frying, it was a night full of revelations—and not just for the intended
student. These are just a few of the tips I picked up: sprinkle salt from high
above the pan so that you do not get a salt clump; push the oil around with the
spatula; do not leave the spatula resting on the hot pan. (Ok, I sort of knew
that last one.)

What I can do is read a recipe. I can measure things and follow
directions, more or less. Yet I know I am often just skimming the surface, as I
did when I memorized things like the times tables and mnemonics like sohcahtoa. The unknowable lies behind
the ingredient list, but I am usually hungry enough that I do not really feel
like getting to know the unknowable at the time.

I made muffins the other day, and this time, I must have
made them on a full stomach because I noticed that the recipe called for baking
soda, but not baking powder. I especially noticed this because I could not find
the baking soda. The cans look very similar, but there seems to be an important
difference—bad things can happen, I’ve heard, if you mix up the two. How bad? I
don’t know. But I always carefully check the name of what the one I’m measuring
to ward off this mysterious fate.

Yet I want to throw off the shackles of this curse! I am a
grown woman! I should not be afraid of two small cans of white powder! So I had
a fortifying glass of wine and took to the internet.

Baking soda, I learned,
is a straightforward fellow. With just one ingredient—sodium bicarbonate—it reacts
with the acids it comes into contact with. This can mean rising cookies or “lava”-spewing

Baking powder, on the other hand, is one of those kids who’s,
you know, different. Different like an
explosion that could happen at any moment. First, it has baking soda in it—no wonder
I’m confused. But it also has an acid it. Sometimes it has two acids! You’d think
this was the recipe for instant explosion, but no, BP sits quietly on the
shelf. The first acid, monocalcium phosphate, turns on when
it’s mixed into wet batter. The other acid, which is usually either sodium acid
pyrophosphate or sodium aluminum sulfate, needs both a liquidy batter solution
and heat to start to fizz out carbon dioxide.

This sounds complicated, but not as complicated as what
people used to do before baking powder made
its debut in 1846
. Home cooks used to make their own pearlash, which
involved combining ashes with water to make lye, and then boiling off the

And now to my real question: why would you use baking soda
and not baking powder? Or the reverse? Or sometimes both? Luckily, Bon Appetit
had my back. Since I am still getting to know this problematic pair, I’ll let
their writer Claire
explain it: “…Recipes vary widely in acidity levels and very often
you need both kinds of reactions to achieve the right overall balance of flavor
and texture. When baking soda reacts with an acid, it neutralizes it and makes
the batter more alkaline. This takes away the sour flavor that the acid lends,
and sometimes you actually want a little tartness. If there is additional
bicarbonate of soda leftover after a reaction, it gives the baked good an
unpleasant soapy flavor. Not good, right? The amounts of acid and sodium bicarbonate
in a recipe need to be in some sort of balance, and you need to achieve the
right level of airiness. In most cases that means soda plus powder.”

I am suddenly more intimidated by these muffins than I was before I started. So I will continue to rely on my foolproof method—when in doubt, add as many chocolate chips as possible.


Images by Flickr user Rakka and the Boston Public Library under Creative Commons license, 5/8/19


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