What Is Baking Soda?

A Guide to Understanding and Using Baking Soda

Baking soda in a bowl

The Spruce/Julia Hartbeck

Baking soda is one of the most widely used leaveners in baked goods. This simple chemical compound, also known as sodium bicarbonate, is found in crystalline form in nature but is ground to a fine powder for use in cooking.

How Does Baking Soda Work?

Baking soda is an alkaline compound that, when combined with an acid, will produce carbon dioxide gas. The small bubbles of carbon dioxide gas become trapped in batter, causing it to inflate, or rise. Common acids used to cause this reaction include vinegar, lemon juice, buttermilk, yogurt, and cream of tartar.

Baking soda will also produce gas upon decomposition caused by heat. No acid is necessary for this reaction to take place, only exposure to temperatures above 80 degrees Celsius (176 degrees Fahrenheit).

what is baking soda

The Spruce Eats / Julie Bang

When Is Baking Soda Used?

Baking soda is used to leaven many “quick breads” like pancakes, muffins, and cakes, as well as fried foods. These batters are not strong enough to hold shape for the length of time that it takes for yeast to create gas. Because baking soda produces gas quickly, it is not necessary to let the batter rise for long periods as with yeast bread. When the batter is exposed to heat, it becomes ​rigid and the expansion caused by the gas bubbles is set in place.

If a batter containing baking soda is left to sit at room temperature, it will begin to rise slowly and become slightly fluffy as the acids and bases react in the batter. The second, more dramatic rise occurs in the oven when the batter is exposed to heat. Heat accelerates the acid-base reaction as well as causes decomposition of the baking soda, both of which produce the leavening gas. The leavening action of baking soda is often so rapid that it can be observed in real time.

How to Store Baking Soda

After you open the cardboard box, store baking soda in a sealed zip-top bag or container. Keep it in a cool, dark location such as a pantry, away from the stove and the spice cabinet, to prevent it from absorbing unwanted odors. It's theoretically good indefinitely, but it can lose potency after about six months. Expired baking soda can still be used for household cleaning, but do not use it for cooking.

How to Tell Baking Soda Is Fresh

Because baking soda can decompose over time, you may want to test the potency of your baking soda. To test baking soda, simply add a pinch of baking soda to a small amount of vinegar in a bowl. If it foams vigorously, the baking soda is still active. This reaction can create a great deal of foam so be sure to do this over a sink.

Fast Facts

  • Culinary Uses: Leavening agent and tenderizes meat
  • Household Uses: Cleans and deodorizes
  • Shelf Life: Two years unopened; six months after opening

Baking Soda vs Baking Powder

While baking soda is strictly an alkaline compound, baking powder is sodium bicarbonate already combined with an acid. The acid compound in baking powder is in the form of a salt, which means it will not react with the base until a liquid is added.

Baking soda is good to use in recipes which include other acidic ingredients. If a recipe does not contain an acid, using baking powder is appropriate as it contains its own acid. Using baking soda in alkaline recipes may yield a bitter taste as there is not enough acid to neutralize the alkaline sodium bicarbonate.

Many recipes call for both baking soda and baking powder to provide maximum leavening action, but the ratio will depend on the relative acidity of the other ingredients. In general, you should use less baking soda than baking powder. A good rule of thumb in baking recipes is to use 1/4 teaspoon baking soda per cup of flour or 1/2 teaspoon baking powder per cup of flour.

Recipes Using Baking Soda

Baking soda works not only as a leavening agent in baking recipes, but it is also used to give a bronzed color to pretzels and to break down tough pectins, such as those found in chickpea skins.

Other Uses for Baking Soda

Baking soda is well known for its ability to absorb odors. For this reason, baking soda is often placed in refrigerators, freezers, and other enclosed spaces to absorb unpleasant odors. Baking soda is also a favored cleaner because of its granular texture, which aids scrubbing, and its alkaline pH can dissolve some deposits and buildup.

You can use baking soda to extinguish small grease fires, but you will need to keep a large quantity of baking soda on hand.