What Is Baking Powder?

Right this way for light, fluffy biscuits and desserts.

October 22, 2021
Close-up delicious pancakes, with fresh blueberries, strawberries and maple syrup on a light background. With copy space. Sweet maple syrup flows from a stack of pancake.

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Close-up delicious pancakes, with fresh blueberries, strawberries and maple syrup on a light background. With copy space. Sweet maple syrup flows from a stack of pancake.

Photo by: vasiliybudarin/Getty Images

vasiliybudarin/Getty Images

By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen

Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.

Baking powder is so important when baking quick breads it's sometimes included in the name of the recipe (baking powder biscuits sound familiar?). In this story, you'll find out what exactly is in the box, plus its many uses.

What Is Baking Powder?

Baking powder is a dry chemical leavener made from sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), an acid (like cream of tartar) and cornstarch. Recipes call for baking powder when lift is needed. If you’ve ever forgotten the baking powder when making a cake, you learned the hard way just how important it is. Wondering how baking powder is different from baking soda? Check out our story Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder: What's the Difference?.

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Photo by: Jupiterimages/Getty Images

Jupiterimages/Getty Images

How Does Baking Powder Work?

When baking powder is mixed with any liquid, a chemical reaction occurs, releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) into the batter. The cake or cookies start to rise and expand immediately, and continue doing so as they bake in the oven and the proteins solidify into a scaffolding around the CO2.

Cornstarch (or another filler) is in baking powder to prevent it from clumping, absorbing moisture in the air and reacting in its box before you can get it to your mixing bowl.

There’s cornstarch is in the mix to keep baking powder from clumping and to absorb moisture from the air which would cause the baking soda and the acid to react and release CO2 in the can before it got to your mixing bowl.

What Is Double-Acting Baking Powder?

Double acting baking powder gives two rises: the first one when the liquid and dry ingredients come together, then another when cakes, cookies or muffins are in the oven and the heat activates it.

However, keep in mind that boxes labeled double acting baking powder are a thing of the past because all baking powder today is double acting.

How to Test Baking Powder for Freshness

Even though baking powder comes in a canister with a tight-fitting plastic lid, high humidity and time cause it to lose its power. If you can’t remember when you bought it, you should probably test it before doing any recipe prep - you don’t want to waste butter, eggs, chocolate, etc. and end up with a flat cake. Simply stir a teaspoon of baking powder into 1/2 cup water, and if it bubbles up it’s fresh. Replacing your baking powder every year right before Thanksgiving is an easy way to be sure your it's fresh for baking during the holidays.

What Is a Substitute for Baking Powder?

For an in-depth explanation about substitutions look at our Best Baking Powder Substitute article.

Here’s a brief guide: if you’ve run out of baking powder, a mix of baking soda, cream of tartar and cornstarch is the perfect stand-in. 2 tablespoons cream of tartar, 1 tablespoon baking soda and 1 tablespoon cornstarch will give you 1/4 cup baking powder that you can use for months if it’s stored in a tightly sealed jar. Don't know what cream of tartar is? Head over to our article What Is Cream of Tartar?.

Recipes Using Baking Powder 

Food Network Kitchen’s Pork Belly Bao for NEW FNK, as seen on Food Network.

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Food Network Kitchen’s Pork Belly Bao for NEW FNK, as seen on Food Network.

Photo by: Renee Comet

Renee Comet

Crispy Pork Belly is all about the crackling skin, and the way to get there is by poking little holes all over it and then covering it with a dry rub of baking powder and salt, which draws moisture out of the meat.

Go To Cupcakes
Marbled Cupcake 3 Ways
FNK
Beauty Shot

Go To Cupcakes Marbled Cupcake 3 Ways FNK Beauty Shot

Photo by: Matt Armendariz ©2012, Television Food Network, G.P.

Matt Armendariz, 2012, Television Food Network, G.P.

Marble cupcakes are the best of both worlds: chocolate and vanilla cake, in this case a butter-rich cake with a tender crumb compliments of the baking powder.

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Photo by: Levi Brown

Levi Brown

Baking powder gives these cookies their lift: it happens over a medium-long baking time for cookies at a low oven temp so they don’t burn or rise and then fall like crackle cookies baked at a higher temp.

Photo by: Tara Donne

Tara Donne

We’re always looking for a good vegan cookie, and the baking powder in this recipe gives it lift and tenderness, exactly what we want.

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