Focus on: baking soda

how different amounts of baking soda affect cakes | kitchen heals soul
On Monday, I shared with you a recipe for marmalade pudding cakes, pulled from my family’s recipe box. The original recipe had a lot of baking soda, and the puddings browned significantly as they cooked. Like a good chemist, I blamed the baking soda and I wanted to investigate.

To prove this, I remade the pudding cakes, modifying the amount of baking soda and adding only an eighth of a teaspoon to the second batch, instead of the full teaspoon called for in the original recipe. The second batch of steamed puddings were completely different: significantly lighter in colour, with a firmer, spongy texture. Interesting.

What is baking soda?

Baking soda is the common name for the chemical sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3). Sodium bicarbonate is basic (as in alkaline) and reacts under acidic conditions to produce carbon dioxide (CO2), the gas that lifts cake batters and helps your cakes rise (water and salt are also produced). Sodium bicarbonate is a chemical leavener, unlike yeast. Yeast is a living organism, and when you feed it (like when you give it some water and some sugar), it too will produce gas, but through a different process known as fermentation: the yeast organisms eat sugar, digest it, and then they produce CO(along with other compounds like alcohol).  So, in a nutshell, your breads rise because yeast in the bread dough eat sugar and produce a gas, while your cakes rise because baking soda reacts with acids to produce a gas.

Now, why does more or less baking soda make the two batches of cake look so different? There’s more chemistry to discuss here, like the Maillard reaction.

how different amounts of baking soda affect cakes | kitchen heals soul


Baking soda’s effect on colour and flavour: the Maillard reaction

The more you bake a cake or bread, you obviously notice a change in colour as the baked good turns golden brown, but you might also notice that the sweet flavours transform into something deeper, and not as sweet: French pastry chefs like to call this “golden brown delicious.” The change in colour/flavour from cake batter to cake occurs because of the Maillard reaction: sugars break down/transform into brown coloured polymers and aromatic substances that contribute to the aroma and flavour of baked goods. The Maillard reaction turns cakes from pale and very sweet to golden brown delicious.

The Maillard reaction speeds up under basic conditions (like when you add to a recipe a lot of baking soda, which is alkaline, i.e. basic). Because the original marmalade pudding recipe had a large amount of baking soda in it, the resulting cake batter had a higher pH, and the Maillard reaction occurred faster. The puddings browned more quickly while steaming for an hour. More baking soda, more browning.Unfortunately, with more baking soda, a lot of it reacts, but some of it (the excess) is left behind, unreacted. This lingering baking soda affects the flavour, which seems “sharper.” The puddings made with a full teaspoon of baking soda taste less like marmalade and more like something stronger than the expected citrus flavour. That’s the baking soda.

The second batch of puddings had only an eighth of a teaspoon of baking soda, therefore the Maillard reaction occurred much slower. The steamed puddings have a more familiar “golden brown delicious” look to them. The taste of the marmalade is clear, and so is the delicious buttery flavour.

At this point, you would think I’m done with the chemistry chat, but I’m not. I have one more thing to point out about baking soda.

how different amounts of baking soda affect cakes | kitchen heals soul


Baking soda’s effect on texture

I noticed the original pudding cakes had a very tender crumb, and they were spongy and soft. On the other hand, the puddings made with one eighth of the baking soda were still spongy, but much firmer. Once again, we can blame baking soda. Baking soda provides lots of rising power to the pudding cakes, but actually, I noticed that the cakes with less baking soda were more domed, while the cakes with more baking soda were flatter, but with a more bubbled texture on the sides and bottom. The baking soda raised the pH of the cake batter, thereby weakening the gluten in the flour: the texture and tenderness of the cakes were affected. Weaker gluten means a looser structure, with more spread, bigger air pockets (a more open crumb) and tenderness. So the cakes with more baking soda seemed to rise less, but in fact, that’s because the gluten was weak and couldn’t support the forming gas pockets. An adequate amount of baking soda (1/8 tsp) allowed the little pudding cakes to rise up and stay up, while an excess of baking soda caused the cakes to spread out, instead of up.

What’s my point, besides possibly boring you to death?

Baking soda is an important chemical leavener in baking. We all use it. But actually, baking soda does so much more than just cause cakes to rise. Baking soda is a base, and as such, adding it to recipes means that it may affect the colour, flavour, and texture of baked goods.
I do my best to bake with the finest ingredients. Stirling Creamery, a Canadian company, has provided the butter for this post.
Reference:  How Baking Works, 3rd edition. Paula Figoni. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New Jersey. 2011.

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25 Responses to Focus on: baking soda

  1. Tora January 23, 2014 at 3:26 pm #

    This was incredibly interesting, thank you so much for sharing! I have attempted to caramelize onions faster by adding baking soda. It sort of worked, but I think I got too excited and impatient and added way too much of it so the onion just disintegrated. Now I shall explore more of this wonder that is baking soda! Thank you.

  2. Adrienne January 23, 2014 at 4:35 pm #

    Super interesting! Great post. So well written! Such a good read.

  3. Isabelle @ Crumb January 23, 2014 at 5:54 pm #

    Thanks for taking us for a walk on the nerdy side. 🙂 I’ve always been intrigued by the chemistry of baking… after years in the kitchen, I have a pretty good idea of what happens when I adjust the amounts of certain ingredients, but I couldn’t tell you why it happens. Seriously, love everything about this post. Please write more!

  4. Liz January 23, 2014 at 6:08 pm #

    Really interesting blog, Janice!

  5. wannafoodie January 23, 2014 at 7:39 pm #

    Awesome post, especially the visual/side by side comparison!

  6. bellwilde January 23, 2014 at 9:26 pm #

    Thank you for the education. I was curious which tasted the best to you?

    • Janice Lawandi January 24, 2014 at 2:07 am #

      Honestly, I like the cakes with 1/8 tsp baking soda better (sorry family recipe!). The flavour of the marmalade was much more prominent and so was the rich butter taste in the puddings with 1/8 tsp baking soda!

  7. Mardi Michels January 24, 2014 at 11:42 am #

    Janice – I LOVE this post! Please make the “chemistry in the kitchen” a regular feature!

  8. Christelle is flabbergasting January 24, 2014 at 3:05 pm #

    You didn’t bore me at all! So interesting! So, which one tasted the best for you? (at 1/8 tsp?)

    • Janice Lawandi January 26, 2014 at 6:04 pm #

      I’m glad I didn’t bore you 😉
      I definitely preferred the flavour of the puddings made with 1/8 tsp baking soda. They had a better butter flavour and the marmalade was more recognizable. I’d definitely use 1/8 tsp baking soda next time!

  9. Franceska January 24, 2014 at 3:34 pm #

    I just loved this post! Please keep posting things like this! It’s really interesting 🙂

    • Janice Lawandi January 26, 2014 at 6:05 pm #

      I will try! I just have to come up with more topics and examples 😉

  10. Mallory Frayn January 24, 2014 at 9:20 pm #

    Not boring at all, I love science! I cannot believe how drastic the colour difference was though.

    • Janice Lawandi January 26, 2014 at 6:02 pm #

      I know! Isn’t it amazing! And it’s the exact same “steam time” in both cases. I even asked my mom about the darker color, and she says that her mom’s pudding cakes were always this dark. It’s really the baking soda!

  11. Tory January 26, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

    Hi there – just came across your blog from a pin on Pinterest. I like your blog quite a bit and hope to look around more later. Just wondering if you are perhaps a food scientist or a chemist? (I’m just finishing up my bachelors in Food Science).

    • Janice Lawandi January 26, 2014 at 5:49 pm #

      Hi Tory, thanks for stopping by! I am a chemist. I did a BSc in Biochem, and then a PhD in Organic Chemistry, but it sadly wasn’t food related. I hope you enjoyed your bachelors in Food Science. I bet the labs are even more fun than in Chemistry 😉

  12. Stephanie January 27, 2014 at 3:00 am #

    Fabulous post!! I love the science behind baking and your kitchen experiments are always awesome

  13. Amber | Bluebonnets and Brownies January 27, 2014 at 3:47 pm #

    This is SO interesting! Now I want to see you try a baked good with baking soda versus baked soda (i.e. baking soda that’s been baked low and slow – it’s how commercial cookie makers add that distinctive “crunch” to their cookies.)

  14. Laura November 10, 2017 at 2:27 am #

    You can use baking soda plus an acidic ingredient as leavening for all kinds of dough. I have made everything from pizza to rolls and pies. Basically its using 1/2 – 3/4 teaspoon of baking soda and 4 table spoons of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar per 500 g of flour.

    With this combination the sour taste is used up by the baking soda and all is left is a very fine aftertaste, similar to yeast but a bit more neutral. Metallic aftertastes like with baking powder are avoided ( there are organic baking pwders where this is also the case).

    The only downside is the dough needs to be processed right away, the bubbles start to form after activation. But this was not even an issue with pizzas, if the toppings are ready and the sour ingredient for activation is added last.

    The upside is zero rising or preparation times, and a very fine taste of the dough.

    • Janice November 26, 2017 at 9:50 pm #

      I’ve never leavened a pizza dough with baking soda! That’s so smart and I love the idea of zero rising time!


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