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What's the Difference Between Baking Soda and Baking Powder?

Everyday Einstein explores the science behind why substituting baking powder with baking soda is a no-no when making muffins. 

By
Lee Falin, PhD
November 4, 2013
Episode #075

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muffinHave you ever made a mistake in a recipe and wondered just what went wrong?

Once, I was making muffins and instead of adding baking powder, I added baking soda. I thought this was no big deal, since I knew both of these powders were supposed to make dough rise. Much to my surprise however, my muffins still came out like hockey pucks. So what went wrong? What's the difference between baking soda and baking powder? Was there anything I could have done to save my poor muffins? Let’s look at the science behind the recipe.

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Rise Up

The first clue to unlocking the mystery of my flat muffins is understanding what baking powder and baking soda are made of. Baking soda’s name sounds a bit misleading. After all, it’s a powder, not a fizzy drink

As I mentioned in my episode about baking soda and vinegar cleaners, baking soda also goes by the names sodium bicarbonate, bicarbonate of soda, and sodium hydrogen carbonate. The origins of the “soda” part of baking soda’s name are shrouded in history and legend, but most etymological dictionaries I consulted said that the name is derived from the Italian word “sida” which referred to a kind of plant from which baking soda was originally made.

Regardless of where the name came from, baking soda is a base. This means that when it is mixed with an acid, it undergoes an acid-base reaction. Most importantly for my muffins, this reaction releases carbon dioxide gas. That gas gets caught in the gluten matrix of the dough, causing the dough to rise.

So now that we know what baking soda is, let’s take a look at its close cousin, baking powder.....

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