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Everything you need to know about baking soda in baking

Did you add too much baking soda to your recipe and you’re wondering what it’s going to do to your baked goods? Find out everything you need to know about baking soda in baking: what baking soda is, what baking soda does, what happens if you add too much baking soda, does it expire, and what happens if you use baking soda instead of baking powder?
how different amounts of baking soda affect cakes | kitchen heals soul
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 (or bicarbonate of soda, as the Brits like to call it). The chemical formula for baking soda is 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). 

To summarize, 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. This is also the principle behind baking powder, another leavening agent.

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

What does baking soda do?

Baking soda causes baked goods to brown via the Maillard reaction

As 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. Baking soda and Maillard browning give Boston brown bread its signature taste and look.

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

What happens if you add too much baking soda?

There’s a fine line between the right amount of baking soda and the wrong amount. Make sure to use the right methods to measure your ingredients.

Too much baking soda causes cakes to brown and may leave a weird taste

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” and too much baking soda might cause your cakes and cookies to taste soapy even. 

two marmalade pudding cakes, but one is darker than the other. The darker cake was baked with 1 tsp baking soda, while the lighter cake was baked with 1/8 tsp baking soda to show how too much baking soda leads to browning of cakes

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.

Baking soda is a tenderizer and too much baking soda affects 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.

How much baking soda to use in cakes and other recipes: rule of thumb

Too much baking soda is clearly not a good thing, creating too many bubbles in cakes, causing cakes to sink, leading to over-browning, and producing an off-flavour that might even be soapy. So how much baking soda is enough? In general, the basic rule for how much baking soda to add to a recipe is 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda for each cup of all-purpose flour (125 grams). 

In recipes where that contain large volumes of acidic ingredients, you would need 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda to neutralize 1 cup of a mildly acidic ingredient, like sour cream, buttermilk, or yogurt. For example, this Irish soda bread with raisins is made with 500 mL (2 cups) of buttermilk and 1 teaspoon of baking soda. Of course, this is just a guideline and recipes may vary for other reasons (pan size, presence of “heavy” ingredients like nuts and dried fruit that might require extra leavening, etc.). 

Does baking soda expire?

Baking powder does expire and can lose potency over time, given that baking powder contains both baking soda and an acid (or two) that it can react with in presence of humidity. For this reason, it is super important to check baking powder periodically to make sure it is still reactive. On the other hand, baking soda is just sodium bicarbonate, a single compound and even if it’s exposed to a little humidity from the air, it won’t completely break down and lose potency the same way baking powder does. For this reason, baking soda does not expire. 

The problem with older containers of baking soda

Though baking soda doesn’t expire, you still have to be weary when baking with a container of baking soda that has been open for months (or even years). It’s not that the baking soda will break down over time and stop working, but open containers of baking soda exposed to humidity will clump. You will have trouble incorporating clumpy baking soda into your cake batters and other baked goods, which can lead to clusters of baking soda in cake batters and cookie doughs. These clusters will lead to tiny patches of baking soda in your baked goods, causing brown spots and larger air pockets in your baked goods.

How to store baking soda?

Given that baking soda will lose clump if exposed to moisture, it’s important to store it in a cool, dry place, in an closed container that has a good seal to make sure moisture doesn’t get in. Baking soda is often sold at the grocery store in a cardboard box that, once opened, doesn’t shut, so you may want to either store the box in a bag with a seal or to transfer the powder to an air-tight container with a proper lid. This way air exposure will be minimal and your baking soda won’t clump. 

Conclusion

Baking soda is an important leavening agent in baking. We all use it and it is a vital ingredient in commercial and homemade baking powder. But actually, baking soda does so much more than just cause cakes to rise. Baking soda is alkaline, and as such, adding it to recipes means that it may affect the colour, flavour, and texture of baked goods, as does too much baking powder. 
 

References

How Baking Works, 3rd edition. Paula Figoni.  Buy it on Amazon

baking soda, chemical leaveners, leavening agents

62 Responses to Everything you need to know about baking soda in baking

  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!

    • Christelle is flabbergasting January 24, 2014 at 3:10 PM #

      I AGREE with Mardi!

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

      Okay, okay 😉

      And thank you for the encouragement!

    • Jerlyn September 3, 2020 at 5:36 AM #

      Hi Janice,

      Thank you so much for this awesome experiment with baking soda. I’m glad I came up to page. Very informative. I am new to baking and so I wanted to curious to know what each ingredient does in a recipe. I hope to read more baking experiments from you. Have a nice day!

  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!

  15. Clare July 23, 2019 at 3:08 PM #

    Hi, I made a mistake and used tbs instead of tsp. As in your experiment the centre collapsed. I wonder given the 4 tablespoons instead of 4 teaspoons, the cake is still safe to eat. It’s chocolate so has a nice flavour though the aftertaste leaves a slight chalkiness in your mouth.

  16. Bonnie August 24, 2019 at 8:27 PM #

    If I put too much baking sofa in my brownie recipe, will it hurt my health? I put 2 teaspoons instead of a half teaspoon, when I realized it I could not take it out without throwing out all my dry ingredients which of course contained cocoa. So instead I added half of the recipe of all other ingredients. My ingredients included black beans, maple syrup, pumpkin pure’ as well as almond milk, oat and rice flour, baking powder, cocoa; to mention the main ingredients. They turned out okay and taste okay but the extra amount of baking soda worries me.

  17. David H October 3, 2019 at 11:57 PM #

    I have an urgent question. I recently noticed that my gluten free devil’s food cake recipe made a really light cake that was lighter and raised higher than my yellow. So I decided to use the 2 tsps baking soda and 1 tsp vinegar in my yellow cake( just like the devil’s food recipe,) instead of 2 tsp baking powder. I also used 1/2 tsp baking powder. The cake came better than ever with one exception–the inside of the cake was brown when I cut into it. Mostly the bottom half and in an hombre-like way. Meaning browner toward the bottom and lighter brown/tan starting at the midway point down the cake. I baked it 3 times and it was the same thing each time. Do you have any idea if baking soda would be the reason for this? I am desperate to know

  18. Judy November 19, 2019 at 2:19 PM #

    the vanilla cake recipe i use calls for 1tbsp plus 1tsp of baking soda….other ingredients are: sugar,flour,salt,milk,vinegar(to be poured in milk),oil, and vanilla extract…..the cake is super moist and taste great, but the cake turns brown (in the “body” of the cake”)…so if this is caused by the baking soda, what would happen if i didn’t use the full amount of baking soda the recipe calls for?

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