If you’ve ever taken a home economics class, you already know that certain ingredients work together to produce certain effects in the foods we cook and this is especially true when you bake something in the oven.
Though only a chemist can tell you exactly what is going on when you mix flour, baking soda, salt, and other ingredients together then place them in the oven, it’s easy to tell that something amazing is happening and it takes every one of those ingredients to get great results.
What Is Baking Soda and How Does it Work?
Before we go any further, let’s first talk about baking soda. What is baking soda and why is it included in so many baking recipes?
Baking soda is also known as sodium bicarbonate or bicarbonate of soda, which is a chemical compound that is found in crystalline form. Manufacturers crush the compound into a fine powder before selling it in its current form, in part because it is both easier to measure and easier to use that way.
Although they may not realize it, people include baking soda in their recipes because it is a good leavening agent. Baking soda is an alkaline compound that has to be combined with an acid to produce the results that you’re looking for.
When baking soda is mixed together with ingredients such as lemon juice, cream of tartar, vinegar, or buttermilk, for example, it produces a gas called carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide makes small bubbles that get trapped in the batter and cause it to rise.
Baking soda also produces gas when exposed to high temperatures, which cause it to decompose and then produce the gas. This happens every time that the mixture of baking soda and other ingredients is exposed to temperatures above 80 degrees Celsius, or 176 degrees Fahrenheit.
Baking Soda and Cookies
And if you think that baking soda isn’t an important ingredient in your cookies, think again.
If you were to skip the baking soda when mixing together ingredients for your cookie recipe or skip the acid to go along with the baking soda, not only would the cookies not rise but you would also experience cookies that are soapy and metallic in taste. So as you can see, baking soda is a very important ingredient when making cookies.
Without baking soda, your cookies would not be soft and fluffy and both their taste and their texture would suffer. Of course, baking soda only does this when combined with an acidic ingredient such as vinegar or lemon juice, which is another tip to keep in mind.
Baking soda and baking powder are not interchangeable so never use one of these ingredients when the recipe calls for the other.
In addition to all of this, baking soda raises the pH level of the batter, which helps the cookies brown the perfect amount and turn out a beautiful color. It also affects the texture of the cookie, which is why cookie recipes almost always call for either baking soda or baking powder — and sometimes both.
Of course, to get these results, you have to make sure that you add only the amount of soda or powder called for in the recipe — no more, no less.
Tips to Remember When Using Baking Soda in Cookies
You’ll notice that a lot of cookie recipes and recipes for other baked goods require baking soda and now that you know a few basic rules regarding this important ingredient, you have a better understanding of why this is so.
To get the absolute best cookies when the recipe calls for baking soda, keep in mind the following tips:
- If you want your cookies to turn out chewy and tender, you can add a little bit of baking powder to the recipe. You cannot eliminate some of the other ingredients but adding just a touch of baking powder to the mixture will make your cookies and other baked goods even yummier.
- When your cookie recipe calls for baking soda, make sure that you mix up the ingredients quickly and put them in the oven as soon as possible. In other words, don’t let the mixture just sit around for too long because if you do, the reaction you’re hoping for won’t happen and the cookies will turn out flat.
- Make sure that you follow the recipe exactly as it is written. When you bake something, just one alteration on your part, whether intentional or not, can cause the final product to come out too fluffy, too crisp, or, worse, flavorless.
The Differences Between Baking Soda and Baking Powder
Despite what some people might think, baking soda and baking powder are not the same thing, which is one of the reasons why they cannot be used interchangeably. Baking soda is an alkaline that has to be combined with an acid in order to act as a leavening agent.
Acids essentially have lower pH levels than alkalines and when the two ingredients work together, that’s when the carbon dioxide is released in an attempt to get to a neutral pH value.
On the other hand, baking powder is baking soda to which two different acids have already been added, which means that no acid has to be added to it in order to produce the leavening effect.
In other words, baking powder is a leavening agent on its own, which is why nothing has to be added to it to enjoy that effect.
If you don’t have any baking powder and your recipe calls for it, you can make your own baking powder by combining one part baking soda to two parts cream of tartar, which is an acid that will work with the baking soda to create the leavening effect.
Although soda and powder cannot be used interchangeably, this combination with work in a pinch.
Baking soda is a very important ingredient when baking cookies because it affects the taste, the texture, and the overall look of the cookies. When you follow the recipe exactly as written, you’ll get yummy, fluffy cookies every time.
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.