Before baking soda, baking was a grueling task. Back then, nobody could’ve dreamed of ten-minute banana bread for breakfast.
Truth is that bakers had to plan ahead if they wanted their cakes to rise before serving time. Since they entirely depended on wild yeast, the bread could take more than half a day to develop the admired fluffy texture.
In 1846, John Dwight and Austin Church cofounded the first American baking soda factory. From that point on, quick baking grew in popularity with time. Currently, baking soda is key to all instant baked goodies like pancakes, muffins, and the beloved banana bread.
So, does this mean you can’t bake banana bread without baking soda? In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the science of leavening agents. Read on to bake your banana bread with whatever you’ve got at hand.
No, you don’t need baking soda for banana bread. As far as you’re concerned with raising the dough, you can use other leavening agents. However, the traditional recipe calls for this ingredient, so you’ll miss the fluffiness and a bit of the taste you’re used to.
It’s fascinating to watch your baked art rise in the oven. Still, there’s a lot more happening inside the batter as you watch. Here’s the science behind baking soda reactions in banana bread.
To start with, baking soda is a basic ingredient. which means that its pH is above 7. To make the baked goods fluffy, it’ll have to react with an acidic substance having a pH lower than 7.
This reaction will produce carbon dioxide, the star behind the beloved airy cake texture.
There are several ingredients that can provide the needed acidity. First, typical recipes call for mashed bananas, which usually have a pH of around 5. However, they get less acidic as they ripen, so you’ll need additional acidic ingredients.
Next, there’s an optional ingredient that adds acidity, buttermilk. Many of us underestimate this alternative to plain milk.
It greatly contributes to the perfect cake texture without much effort. For a substitute, you can simply add vinegar to plain milk and let sit for a few minutes.
Another acidic ingredient that cooks recommend is brown sugar, which has a pH of around 5.5. You can use white sugar and it won’t affect the texture, but brown sugar certainly adds a depth of flavor.
In case you’re out of brown sugar, some home cooks add a bit of molasses to white sugar. This simple trick imitates the brown sugar taste and raises the pH of the batter.
In general, you can expect a recipe to balance the acidic ingredients in the batter with just enough baking soda. This is because too much of this powder will make your banana bread taste bitter or soapy.
To illustrate, we usually add half a teaspoon of baking soda to one cup of mashed bananas or buttermilk. This mixture should produce enough carbon dioxide to leaven two cups of flour.
Banana bread wouldn’t seem that appetizing without its brown outer layer. This is the color we look for on our toast, coffee, and steak.
Interestingly, this browning process has a scientific name, the Maillard reaction.
Scientists have found out that baking soda speeds up this effect. That’s why some cooks use baking soda for browning meat and onions faster.
Simply put, baking soda raises the pH, which helps proteins and sugar in the batter react. The reaction produces a new set of aromas, textures, and pigment molecules known as melanoidins.
Maillard reaction is different from caramelization because it includes both proteins and sugars. Caramelization, on the other hand, only involves sugars.
The important point to note here is that the flavor is what matters, not the color. We’re only after the brown tint because we know it indicates the rich aromatic flavor we desire.
So, when you bake banana bread without baking soda, you’ll likely lose this appealing brown crust.
Yes, banana bread can rise without baking soda. You can opt for baking powder, which is the most common alternative for quick baking methods.
Alternatively, you can use the traditional sourdough starter, but the bread might take over half a day to rise.
We previously mentioned ways you can make banana bread rise without baking soda. Here are more details about the alternatives.
1 – Baking Powder
Baking powder was the standard leavening agent in some of the earliest banana bread recipes. Take for example the recipe from Mrs. Dean in 1918. It called for baking powder without mentioning baking soda.
The ingredients of baking powder are acids, sodium bicarbonate, and anti-caking substances. As a result, it can leaven a batter without other ingredients. All you’ll need is add some water and the batter will start bubbling right away.
That’s why you need to heat the oven before mixing the ingredients because the moment they get wet the clock starts ticking. You’ll have to stick the pan in the oven immediately for the batter to rise properly.
Like baking soda, baking powder produces carbon dioxide. If you add baking powder in the correct manner, your bandana bread will probably rise to the same level.
However, there are some slight differences that you’ll notice.
The first thing you’ll realize is that the bread would have a lighter brown color on the outside. Additionally, it will likely have an admirable round top, as opposed to the flat surface of the baking soda bread type.
In general, you need to add more baking powder to give the same leavening effect of baking soda. We mentioned before that every cup of flour needs a quarter teaspoon of baking soda in addition to half a cup of an acidic ingredient.
As for baking powder, you’ll need to add one teaspoon to leaven a single cup of flour. You might even need up to two teaspoons of baking powder for every flour cup if you’ve got heavy ingredients, like whole wheat or bananas.
Many of the sourdough banana bread recipes add sourdough discard to enrich its flavor. The tangy taste balances the sweetness of this traditional treat.
Not all recipes use sourdough to raise the bread though. Here’s a breakdown of the different techniques.
If a recipe adds baking powder, then the sourdough isn’t doing the leavening work. It would still be a quick bread that can be baked in under two hours.
Fermented sourdough recipes would call for mixing the ingredients one night earlier. If you want wild yeast to raise the batter, you’ll have to leave it for around 12 hours.
This period should be long enough for active sourdough starters to form carbon dioxide and raise the bread. It’s a healthier option too because your body will absorb the nutrients will more easily.
There are a few tricks you need to take care of with sourdough starters.
- Don’t overmix your ingredients because, then, gluten will make your bread tough.
- Raise your oven temperature by 10°F. This will help your bread rise higher. We recommend baking at 360°F.
- Use an active sourdough starter instead of the discard for better leavening.
- Incorporate the milk and oil/butter at the end. This allows sourdough to ferment the flour more effectively.
So, can you make banana bread without baking soda?
Aside from some crepes recipes, we can’t think of a batter that requires no leavening agent. Even the flattest pancakes have baking soda or baking powder added to them.
So, the bottom line is that you don’t need baking soda for banana bread, but you’ll need to use an alternative to raise the batter.
If you’re in a hurry, go for baking soda. As for the adventurous cooks, you can enjoy a 12-hour leavening marathon with sourdough, instead.
Perhaps, many of us would return to the versatile baking soda once it’s available. Still, having the alternatives at hand will ensure you don’t have to give up a heartwarming banana bread because of a missing ingredient.
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.