What is Baking Powder?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Baking powder is a leavening agent, most frequently used in recipes like cakes, quick breads, and pancakes. It's often advertised as "double acting," which means that it contains two types of leavening ingredients. Unlike baking soda, baking powder frequently adds an additional ingredient, usually an acid, to bicarbonate of soda. This results in a higher rise in baked goods, because the rise begins at room temperature, instead of when foods are baked.

Jar and a scoop with baking powder.
Jar and a scoop with baking powder.

The most common combination of acids and alkalines that produce baking powder are cream of tartar and sodium bicarbonate. Sodium bicarbonate activates at high temperatures, but combining it with an acid like cream of tartar activates it earlier. Not all recipes require this, and in fact, some baked goods can be ruined by the double rise mechanism. When a recipe calls for baking soda, using powder can create too much rise. Similarly, substituting soda for powder may result in flatter baked goods.

Baking powder.
Baking powder.

If a baker runs out, he or she can combine one part baking soda and two parts cream of tartar. For instance, in a recipe that calls for 3 teaspoons of baking powder, the baker would use 2 teaspoons cream of tartar and 1 teaspoon of baking soda. The powder may also contain a small amount of cornstarch, which helps to keep the ingredients from absorbing moisture, but this isn't unnecessary when mixing up a small substitution batch.

There is some concern the aluminum content in baking powder, especially for its potential to increase the risk for the later development of Alzheimer's disease. People who are concerned about this possible risk can find a number of brands that are aluminum free. This version is commonly available in natural food and health food stores.

Since baking powder begins to activate at room temperature, many recipes for baked goods that tell the cook to have all ingredients at room temperature. Many ignore this advice, and still produce fine baked goods. Bakers who are trying to make a high, light cake need to pay attention to these instructions, however, to make sure that the rising process begins before the cake reaches the oven.

Recipes containing acids like lemon juice and buttermilk will activate baking powder more quickly and render it more effective. Often, recipes recommend using about 1 teaspoon (4.6 g) of powder to 1 cup (125 g) of flour, but this amount should be lower when high acid content foods are added. The amount of leavening required in a recipe that contains about 1 cup (236.5 ml) of lemon juice or buttermilk usually decreases by a half.

Baking powder might be used in recipes for pancakes.
Baking powder might be used in recipes for pancakes.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


What does baking powder contain?


If the baking powder has been in the pantry for a long time, it is relatively easy to see if it is still effective.

Add about half a teaspoon of baking powder to about half a cup of hot water. You do not need to boil it, just hot water from your faucet is fine. If the water starts to fizzle the powder is still good, if it does not it is time to replace the baking powder.


what is the microbial quality of baking powder.


Can baking powder be used in cleaning coffee and tea stains in mugs?

Also, can baking powder combined with something else be used to clean diamond jewelry? I remember as a child my mother cleaning her rings on the stove in some kind of liquid solution.

Anyone know the answers please?


How can you tell if the powder is still good ?


what percentage of baking powder is made up of baking soda?? Is baking powder mostly baking soda, is it one-half or one-quarter?!?

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