3 ways baking soda makes food rise and shine

A nondescript powder that packs a punch.

If baking soda were a woman, she would make the perfect 1950s housewife – she cooks, she cleans, she gets rid of smells and excessive gas, she soothes bug bites and sunburned skin.

But any man who thinks he can keep her in the kitchen to take care of the home had better watch out: The long-suffering baking soda wife who has had enough of her no-good domineering husband also has, in her nature, the ability do him serious harm!

The bloke is well advised to sharpen up for a bubbly coupling with his missus.

Baking soda is often billed as a wonder product. You’ll find “51 fantastic uses for baking soda”, “10 quick ways to improve your life with baking soda”, “11 amazing health benefits for using baking soda”, “Surprising uses for baking soda that have nothing to do with baking” and similar listicles all over the Internet.

In terms of household cleaning and personal health, NaHCO3, aka sodium bicarbonate or bicarbonate of soda, is quite the workhorse. You’ll get through half-kilo bagfuls quite easily and will replenish often.

In cooking, however, a little baking soda goes a long way. So, it’s important to get the balance right – too much will result in a soapy or bitter taste, and in baked goods, a coarse, open crumb.

The good people at SeriousEats, the online authority on all things food, have several articles on the fascinating chemistry of baking soda.

They’ve done tests on exactly how much baking soda to use to make gingersnap cookies with the best snap and flavour, and how to turn ordinary spaghetti into springy ramen noodles.

It can be used to neutralise excess acidity in canned tomatoes, tenderise dried beans, produce crisper shrimp, and it helps cut down the time you need to spend at the stove watching your onions caramelise.

baking soda in cooking
The reddish-brown colour of devil's food cake is caused by the reaction between baking soda and cocoa powder. Photo: Pixabay

Baking soda, an alkali, when combined with an acidic ingredient – such as vinegar, citrus juice and buttermilk, but also items like chocolate, brown sugar and honey – reacts to release carbon dioxide gas. This causes doughs to rise and batters to expand, as well as gives that reddish-brown colour to devil’s food cake.

The baked good that is probably best associated with baking soda is soda bread. It is often identified with the Irish, but according to the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread, it wasn’t invented in Ireland. The American Indians are said to have used pearl-ash or potash, a natural soda in wood ashes, as a leaven in their breads.

As for the Irish, they use baking soda instead of yeast in their breads as the wheat that can grow in Ireland’s climate is a “soft” variety, which produces low-protein flour and doesn’t form gluten like traditional bread.

baking soda
A nondescript powder that packs a punch.

The recipe for the spiced bread here was inspired by one made by Nadiya Hussain, arguably the most famous winner of The Great British Bake Off so far, on a TV show she later hosted. It contained five spices and she served it with a lentil curry. Star2 also recently featured a restaurant that serves a curry leaf-studded soda bread that was reminiscent of vadai.

Yeast doesn’t play well with large amounts of spices (some kill it), so a soda bread is the perfect conveyor for this curry-inspired loaf.

Among our recipes, you can see the chemistry of baking soda at work most distinctly in the honeycomb toffee – which also goes by, among other names, hokey pokey, foam candy and cinder toffee.

But baking soda isn’t essential only as an ingredient inside baked goods. Before they are baked, pretzels are poached in a baking soda solution, and this is what gives them their brown, shiny crust (the Maillard reaction at work) and their distinctive flavour.

One of our recipes here is for pretzel bites. They’re little lengths of dough so no need to faff about with the traditional knot, which sometimes comes undone in the boiling poaching liquid.

baking soda in cooking
Have some dhal curry with this savoury soda bread.


You can replace buttermilk with soured milk: For every 250ml of full-cream milk, add 1 tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice and let set for 5 minutes. The loaf can also be baked on a baking tray. Keep an eye on it as it may brown faster. Use any mix of spices you like, such as cumin, coriander, fennel and cardamon.

250g all-purpose flour

½ tsp salt

½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tbsp mixed curry spices

large pinch of turmeric powder

200ml buttermilk

Before starting on the dough, place a large Dutch oven or lidded stainless steel pot in a 230°C oven to heat up.

Sift flour, salt and bicarbonate of soda into a large bowl. Stir in spices and turmeric powder.

Make a well in the centre and pour in three-quarters of the buttermilk. Bring the ingredients together. If there are still dry bits in the bowl, add a little more buttermilk. Once a soft rough ball forms, turn out onto a lightly floured surface.

Flatten the dough gently and fold it over itself. Repeat this for 10 seconds to form a smooth ball.

Carefully take the hot pot out of the oven, take off the lid and dust the bottom of the inside with flour. Carefully drop the ball of dough into the pot and using a sharp knife, cut a large cross into the top of the loaf.

Replace the lid of the pot and return to the oven.

Bake the loaf for about 25 minutes, then take off the lid and bake for another 10 minutes until the top is brown.

When cooked, the bottom of the loaf should sound hollow when tapped. Best eaten warm.

baking soda in cooking
Crushed honeycomb toffee makes a crunchy ice cream topping.


You need a large pot for this as the sugar mixture foams up once the baking soda is added to it.

Use a pot with a light coloured interior surface, such as stainless steel, as it makes it easier to tell the colour of the caramelising sugar.

The use of a candy thermometer is recommended.

200g caster sugar

60ml golden syrup

2 tbsp water

½ tbsp baking soda, sifted


melted chocolate

sea salt

Line the base and sides of a 20cm square tin with greaseproof paper. Place sugar, golden syrup and water into a large heavy pot (see headnote above).

Over medium heat, bring the mixture to the boil, stirring occasionally. Continue boiling until the sugar reaches the hard ball stage (150°C). Immediately remove from the heat and sprinkle in the baking soda. Whisk the soda in gently but quickly.

The mixture will foam up and you don’t want it to deflate. Pour it into the prepared tin. Set aside for 1-2 hours to harden.

Lift the toffee out of the tin using the paper. Crack the toffee into shards with the handle of a wooden spoon or if you want more even pieces, use a serrated knife to saw through it.

If preferred, dip one end of each piece into melted chocolate and sprinkle with sea salt.

Store in an air-tight tin at room temperature.

baking soda in cooking
Pretzels without the knots.


250g bread flour

¾ tsp instant yeast

¾ tsp fine salt

1 tbsp brown sugar

125ml warm water

¼ cup baking soda

1 egg, beaten

Sour cream-mustard powder (optional)

1 tbsp nutritional yeast, crushed into a powder

1 tbsp powdered mustard

½ tbsp powdered milk

salt, to taste

Honey-mustard dip (combined)

¼ cup mayonnaise

2 tbsp English mustard

1 tbsp grain mustard

2 tbsp Dijon mustard

1-2 tbsp honey

salt, to taste

Place the flour, yeast, salt, sugar and almost all the water in a bowl. Mix together, adding more water if needed, to form a firm and tacky dough. Cover and set aside for 10 minutes.

Fold the dough onto itself several times for 10 seconds (yes, seconds – that’s the beauty of the folding method). Cover and leave for 10 minutes. Repeat this folding process 2 more times at 10-minute intervals. Cover and set aside until doubled in size.

Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface; divide into 4 equal pieces. Roll each piece into 2cm-thick rope, and cut out 4cm-long lengths. Place on a greased baking tray, cover and proof, 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven at 210°C. Bring 5 cups of water to the boil in a large pot. Add the baking soda; the water will vigorously bubble. Gently drop in the pieces in batches and poach for 20 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon and return to the tray.

Brush the tops with egg wash. With kitchen scissors, make 2 parallel snips on the top. Bake until deep brown and crisp, 15 minutes.

In a mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients for the sour cream-mustard powder. While the pretzel bites are still hot, toss them in the powder. Serve with the honey-mustard dip.

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