Baking soda is a common ingredient in most cookie recipes. But why? What does this ingredient do, and is it possible to make substitutions for baking soda when baking fresh cookies?
To understand your best substitute options, you must first understand what it is, how it works, and why its required in so many recipes.
What Is Baking Soda?
Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, sometimes also referred to as bicarbonate of soda. No matter what you call it, this alkaline powder is a unique part of modern cooking.
Baking soda is a leavening agent, and it undergoes a special chemical reaction when it is baked. This reaction produces tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide, and the carbon dioxide gas causes baked goods like cookies and bread to rise.
Without baking soda, it is safe to say your favorite baked goods would look and taste very differently than they do today!
Where Does Baking Soda Comes From?
Sodium bicarbonate has been around for at least 5,000 years. It comes from a special rock called Trona, which was left behind as the earth’s vast salt lakes evaporated over time.
Trona is processed into sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda. There are many areas that still produce baking soda from Trona deposits, and the largest is located in the United States. In fact, the Green River area in Sweetwater County, Wyoming is considered the Trona capital of the world!
Civilizations have been converting Trona into soda ash (sodium carbonate) for thousands of years. The oldest known uses date back to the Ancient Egyptians, who used soda ash to make glass and vessels. Later, the Romans used soda ash to make glass, medicine, and to bake bread.
Why Baking Soda Is Used in So Many Cookie Recipes
As you may have already guessed, baking soda is a key ingredient in baking because it allows cookies to have a better rise and spread. The result is a soft and fluffy cookie. It also upgrades the overall taste, texture, and look of a fresh baked batch of cookies.
During the baking process, the baking soda reacts with acidic liquids to produce carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide creates bubbles that are released, expanding the cookie batter. Acid is necessary for this reaction to take place.
Acidic ingredients include lemon juice, cream of tartar, yogurt, sour cream, cocoa, vinegar, buttermilk, regular milk, sour milk, chocolate, and granulated or brown sugar. The acidic ingredient your recipe calls for will vary depending on the type of cookie you are baking.
Important note: Baking soda will lose its leavening power if not fresh. An opened box of baking soda will stay fresh for about 6 months. After that, head to the grocery store to replace the baking soda to ensure freshness and leavening effectiveness. For the best cookie results, be sure to always use fresh baking soda.
Best Substitutes for Baking Soda in Cookie Recipes
1. Baking Powder
The most common replacement for baking soda is baking powder. It is another popular leavening agent and is simply comprised of baking soda, cream of tartar (dry acid), and sometimes cornstarch.
Since the baking powder already has the leavening agent (e.g. cream of tartar), another acidic ingredient is not needed in the recipe.
Double-acting baking powder actually contains 2 acids that act as leavening agents. The first activates when the baking powder is mixed with other liquids. The second activates when the cookie batter is heated in the oven.
Baking powder results in a light, fine cookie texture. However, the end product may taste a little bitter.
Substitution: Use 3 teaspoons of baking powder to every 1 teaspoon baking soda. (Baking soda is 3-4 times stronger than baking powder).
- Baking powder is a little saltier than baking soda, so you may want to decrease the salt called for in the recipe by ½.
- If the recipe calls for an acidic liquid, replace it with a non-acidic at a 1:1 ratio. Otherwise, the acid could put a halt to the leavening process.
- When the recipe calls for a citrus liquid (acidic), use the zest rather than the juice to achieve the flavor called for in the recipe.
- Cookies might be somewhat bitter when using baking powder instead of baking soda.
- An interesting fact: You can make your own baking powder using 1 part baking soda to 2 parts cream of tartar.
2. Potassium Bicarbonate
As you can tell from the name, potassium bicarbonate is very similar to sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). Both potassium and sodium are electrolytes, although they affect the body in different ways.
When it comes to baked goods, however, potassium bicarbonate makes an excellent substitute for baking soda because it is so chemically similar.
It has the same leavening capabilities as baking soda and is less salty. This substitution is especially popular among those following a low sodium diet, as it replaces sodium with potassium. That said, the resulting cookie (or other baked goods) may taste a little differently.
Specifically, cookies may taste a little less “salty”. But salt can also accentuate other flavors, so “less salty” may also mean that other flavors are less pronounced as well. For example, cookies that contain peanut butter may have that element of the flavor muted in the absence of sodium.
Since potassium bicarbonate is more difficult to find in grocery stores, look in the supplement section of the drugstore or look in a health/vitamin store as it is often used as a dietary supplement.
Substitution: 3 teaspoons of potassium bicarbonate for every 1 teaspoon baking soda.
- If the recipe calls for an acidic ingredient like yogurt or sour cream, use milk or water instead.
3. Egg Whites
Whipped egg whites are another great substitute for baking soda. They will cause a similar amount of rise in the cookies, while also making the cookies light and airy.
However, egg whites add liquid to the batter. When substituting egg whites for baking soda, it’s important to compensate for this added liquid by removing the same volume from the other liquid ingredients.
Begin by adding the egg whites to a measuring cup to measure their volume. Then, simply reduce other liquid ingredients by that same amount. For example, 2 ounces of egg whites would require reducing water or milk by 2 ounces.
The key to using egg whites lies in the whipping and folding. Whip the whites until stiff peaks form. Then, gently fold into the cookie batter. One egg white should be enough. However, a second egg white can be added for a fluffier cookie.
Substitution: 1 egg white will work for most cookie recipes. Add a 2nd egg white for a fluffier batch of cookies.
- If the recipe already calls for eggs, separate yolks from the whites. Add yolks to the batter. Whip the whites and fold it into the batter.
- Remember to reduce other liquids in a 1:1 ratio. For example, 2 tablespoons of egg whites requires a 2 tablespoon reduction of other liquids.
4. Club Soda (unflavored)
Club soda can also be used as a substitute for baking soda. However, this substitution is not without its drawbacks.
For example, the bubbles in club soda will not last. Much of the carbon dioxide bubbles will enter the air as your prepping, just before the cookie batter hits the oven. With that in mind, only use club soda if you are familiar with the recipe and prepared to work quickly.
Another drawback: Club soda doesn’t give cookie batter quite the same lift as baking soda. As a result, your cookies will be only moderately light and fluffy– maybe even a little flat.
Substitution: When using, reduce other liquids by a 1:1 ratio. For example, ¼ cup club soda requires a reduction of ¼ cup other liquids called for in the recipe.
5. Self Rising Flour
Interestingly, self rising flour has baking soda and salt mixed into it. This makes it a good alternative for ordinary baking soda when making cookies.
However, self rising flour is– wait for it– flour. Keep in mind that this substitution can only be used in cookie recipes that call for flour. Otherwise, you might end up with some… interesting tasting cookies.
Many cookie recipes call for flour, though. Same with cakes and quick breads. As long as the original recipe calls for flour, this is a solid option to replace baking soda in cookie recipes.
This substitution is best used by experienced chefs. Self rising flour contains 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda and ¼ teaspoon salt per every cup. A little kitchen math and experience goes a long way in calculating your ideal substitution amount.
Substitution: Each 1 cup self rising flour contains 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda and ¼ teaspoon salt. Substitute accordingly, depending on what your recipe calls for and your personal preference for saltiness.
6. Baker’s Ammonia
Also known as ammonium carbonate or ammonium bicarbonate powder, Baker’s ammonia was a precursor to baking soda.
While it definitely does not have the best smell, don't worry– the smell disappears with cooking. Rest assured that using Baker’s ammonia will not leave an ammonia taste, either.
Baker’s ammonia is used for low moisture baked goods, like thin crispy cookies and crackers. These kinds of baked goods “dry out”, which means there is no lingering ammonia smell.
Note when storing Baker’s ammonia be sure to store it in an airtight container.
Substitution: Use a 1:1 ratio of Baker’s ammonia to baking soda.
Chefs and foodies are divided on whether or not yeast makes a good substitute for baking soda when making cookies. If you do choose this substitute, know that it will produce a more “cakey” cookie.
On the positive side, yeast is not a chemical compound, is gluten free, and doesn’t add any bitter flavor to the cookie batch. When using yeast, you can expect a similar rise as baking soda.
Substitution: Use 1 teaspoon active dry yeast for every 1 teaspoon baking soda called for in the recipe.
Whipped cream is a leavening agent, however it is not considered to be a good substitute for baking soda when making cookies. Instead, try one of the substitutions listed above instead.
Most Popular baking soda Substitutes for different cookie recipes
Below is a short list of common cookies and which baking soda substitutes are most popular for each.
- Baking Powder– creates a less dense and chewier cookie.
- Baking Powder
- Potassium bicarbonate– less salt, so you may want to add a pinch.
- Baking powder
- Self-rising flour
- Baking Powder
- Baking Powder
General Cookie Baking Tips
In no particular order, here are some general cookie baking tips from our favorite cookbooks and celebrity chefs!
- Chilling the cookie dough for 24 hours helps to solidify the fat, especially if butter is used. When the cookies bake, the chilled fat will take longer to melt, and the longer it remains a solid, the less the cookies will spread. If you do not chill the dough, it may result in a flatter, crispier cookie.
- Use a light colored rather than dark colored cookie sheet. Cookies tend to burn on darker cookie sheets.
- Line your baking sheet with parchment paper to promote even browning and make for easy clean up.
- After baking and when cool enough to handle, use a spatula to put on a cooling rack. Should be tight wire rather than wide bars of a roasting rack.
- The perfect cookie boils down to how you like your cookie. Be intentional. Choose substitutions and baking methods that bring out your desired tastes, textures, and aesthetics.
Is Baking Soda Really Necessary in a Recipe?
In short, no. Baking soda is not really necessary in a recipe for cookies. Consider, though: Leaving out baking soda will result in a much denser, and possibly flatter, cookie.
There are alternatives to baking soda. Keep in mind that the end result may not be exactly the same as cooking with baking soda. That said, be sure to tweak and experiment until you find your perfect cookie!
A better option is to use a cookie recipe that does not require baking soda. Alternatively, try one of the delicious baking soda substitutes listed above!
Do you have any other tried and true substitution recommendations? Please let me know in the comments!