Know your Leavening Agents

Have you ever wondered why some recipes call for baking soda while others call for baking powder? Or why some bread use yeast? These questions can undoubtedly give you a pause. These leavening agents are the key ingredients that make our baked goods rise, without which the dough or batter becomes flat and crisp.

The Secret Ingredients 😉

Not all leaveners are equal. The more you know about what they are, the easier it is to understand how they’ll behave.

Chemical Leaveners

  • Baking Soda: Baking soda or Sodium Bicarbonate is a commonly used agent in baking goods. To be used when the recipe involves an acid like lemon juice, vinegar, yogurt, buttermilk or apple cider to cause the reaction. This, when combined, will begin to form carbon dioxide bubbles and the dough will start to rise. It is important to bake the batter immediately because the air bubbles will be lost over time. Typically found in biscuits, pancakes, recipes involving buttermilk, thin batters.
  • Baking Powder: It’s a mixture of baking soda and an acid. They are activated with heat. As baking powder dissolves in the batter, baking soda reacts with the acid present, creating carbon dioxide which is trapped by the dough. Typically found in quick breads, cakes and muffins.
    • Baking Powder comes in two forms
      • Single Acting: This needs moisture to react and requires immediate baking.
      • Double Acting: This is the common form of baking powder and has two or more acids, one reacts at room temperature and the other one reacts when heated.

Baking Soda or Baking powder?

Use baking soda when there is an acid involved and when you want a nice golden brown color on the surface. You can use baking powder when you want to have a quick rise without having to wait.

Why do recipes have both? Some recipes call for both baking soda and baking powder. The baking soda neutralizes the acid in the recipe, while the baking powder does the work of rising.


Biological Leaveners – Yeast

Yeast, when used, causes leavening of dough through biological reaction. Yeast can help strengthen the elasticity of the dough resulting in a chewier and fluffier bread. Typically found in breads, enriched doughs, pizza dough. There are three types of yeast.

  • Fresh Yeast: It is soft and crumbly and requires no proofing or blooming—fresh yeast will dissolve if it is simply rubbed into sugar or dropped into warm liquid. It is ideal for use in breads that requires slow fermentation. Their active reaction lasts longer than other form of yeasts. They are highly perishable and must be refrigerated.
  • Active Dry Yeast: Active dry yeast Is a dehydrated yeast. They require activation or blooming by dissolving in a hot liquid.
  • Instant Yeast: Instant yeast can be mixed directly with the recipe without being proofed.

When to use it? Unlike baking powder and baking soda, yeast leavens dough through a biological process and takes substantially longer to leaven the dough. It is best to use yeast when dough needs longer time to leaven, to have a nice rise and in making shaped doughs like pizza and rolls.


It can be difficult to choose the right leavening agent. Ask yourself a few questions related to time, ingredients and flavors. If time is of concern, it is best to use baking soda or baking powder. If the ingredients include acid, baking soda would provide the base needed for the recipe. If the volume is large, baking powder or a combination of baking soda and baking powder can be used.

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