Baking Science: How Does Baking Powder Work?

It’s an essential ingredient in most recipes, but what does baking powder do exactly? We’ve broken down the science behind precisely what baking powder is used for!

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We all see ‘baking power: 1tsp’ in a baking recipe and think nothing of it, except to sometimes roll our eyes and let out a frustrated sigh because, even though you always need it, it never seems to be in the cupboard! But, here at Cake Decoration & Sugarcraft magazine, we decided to stop for a moment and ask the question: what is baking powder used for?

You can probably all answer ‘to help things rise’ which is technically correct. However, how does it work? Why is it important? For those of you who like a bit of baking science, you’re in luck! Read on to find out what baking powder actually does in your makes, cakes and bakes…


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What is baking powder made from?

Baking powder

Baking powder is actually made up of something called baking soda (or sodium bicarbonate) and a ‘dry acid’, which can be either cream of tartar or aluminium sulfate. While dry there isn’t much to be said, however once a liquid is added into the mixture, these two ingredients react and form bubbles of carbon dioxide.

These bubbles of CO2 are what causes your cake batters and bread doughs to rise, however it can only do its job if it is utilised immediately. Once liquid has been added and the reaction begins, it’s important to mix quickly and cook right away, before the bubbles disappear.

Top Tip! Avoid over-mixing the recipe, as this can stir the bubbles out of the mixture.


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Are there different types of baking powder?

baking powder dusting

You may have noticed when out shopping for ingredients that are two types of baking powder: single-acting and double-acting. This doesn’t mean that one is a twice better thespian than the other! Single-acting baking powder creates carbon dioxide bubbles as soon as the recipe is mixed. Double-acting powder, on the other hand, produces bubbles at the same stage as single-acting powder and then once again as the mixture heats up in the over.

This reaction from double-acting powder comes from it usually containing calcium acid phosphate, which releases a little CO2 when mixed with water and then much more CO2 once it is heated.

If you want to use either of these, it’s important to remember that you use the same amount of either, don’t double-up the single-acting powder! Double-acting is generally the more commonly found powder, as it particularly useful for recipes that may not get cooked straight away, such as batches of cookies.


What makes baking powder better than other raising agents?


We’re not here to sell you baking powder don’t worry – we just wanted to explore why baking powder is more often suggested than other raising agents such as yeast.

It’s all a matter of time. Yeast is a very slow-acting raising agent. Indeed, even ‘fast-acting’ yeast still needs a good couple of hours to produce bubbles and create a decent rise in your bakes. Thus, if you’ve got lots to get done in one day or you’ve had a rubbish afternoon and NEED a homemade muffin RIGHT NOW, baking powder is your best option. Instead of stewing for two hours waiting for it to rise and working out everything you totally should have said in that argument, you can be sat down within 20 minutes with your feet up, a plateful of mini muffins and not a care in the world.


Should I use baking powder or bicarbonate of soda?

Baking soda

You may have found that, at any given time, you’ve somehow managed to pick up what you THOUGHT was baking powder but is actually bicarbonate of soda, or vice versa. These two little pots often look incredibly similar, so what is the difference between bicarbonate of soda and baking powder?

Bicarbonate of soda, also known as baking soda, is the basic leavening agent that goes into baking powder as we mentioned earlier in this article. This is best used in recipes that contain some form of acidic ingredient, such as lemon juice, chocolate or honey. Baking powder is simply bicarb plus the pre-added acidic element of cream of tartar. Thus, unless you’re using something particularly acidic in your bakes, it’s best to use baking powder rather than plain bicarb.


Can you make your own baking powder?

baking powder make your own

Yes! You need 1tsp of baking soda and 2tsp of cream of tartar, give them a good mix in a bowl and you’re ready to go! You can make as much as you like, ensuring to keep the ratios the same. If you’re planning to store it, be sure to add a teaspoon of cornstarch to prevent it clumping and then store in an airtight container.

Good to know! Making it at home with the above method does mean you can only make single-acting baking powder and thus needs to be cooked as quickly as possible once liquid has been added.


We hope this answers the questions ‘how does baking powder work?’ for you! We found looking into exactly what does baking powder do surprisingly interesting and it’s especially useful to know what baking powder is used for, especially in relation to getting it mixed up with plain bicarb!

If you’re looking for more baking science, then we’ve got another brilliant blog post for you, all about What Do Eggs Do in a Cake? If you’re a fan of a good pun and some truly terrible ‘yolks’, you should find this truly egg-citing!

Don’t forget that each issue of Cake Decoration & Sugarcraft magazine covers not only basic baking tips like this, but a world of cake decorating techniques and fabulous tutorials for beginner to expert cakers alike! Check out the latest issue in print HERE (or why not try going digital HERE?) and get your cake on!


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