Bicarbonate of Soda vs Baking Powder vs Soda Crystals

Bicarbonate of Soda vs Baking Powder vs Soda Crystals

When I started to look into eco-friendly ways to clean around the house, three substances kept on coming up time and time again.

Bicarbonate of Soda, Baking Powder and Soda Crystals.

However, I always got confused as to which is which!

So I made this short guide about these three similarly named substances and what they should, and should not, be used for.

Bicarbonate of Soda

Washing machine drawer showing all compartments
Official Name - Sodium Bicarbonate
Also known as - Baking Soda, Bicarb of Soda, Bread Soda, Sodium Bicarb, Natron
Chemical formula - NahCO3
PH - 8 (lightly alkaline)

Some what of a magic chemical, Bicarbonate of Soda is used in all sorts of applications:

  • Cooking - Primarily used as a raising agent. Bicarbonate of Soda is slightly alkaline, when mixed with an acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice, CO2 is produced. Bicab of Soda also releases CO2 during thermal decomposition - this just means when you heat it up.
  • Bakers use this characteristic to make cake and bread dough rise in place of the other popular raising agent - yeast. This is where soda bread gets its name from, Bicarbonate of Soda is used as the raising agent in place of yeast.
  • Disinfectant - While not particularly strong, Bicarbonate of Soda can be used as a mild disinfect and fungicide.
  • Medical uses - Bicarbonate of Soda, mixed with water, can be used to treat heartburn and indigestion. It acts as an antacid and neutralizes irritant stomach acid. You may also see it used as an ingredient in some mouthwashes.
  • Cleaning agent - Commonly used as a replacement for water softening tablets in washing machines. Bicarbonate of Soda will bond with the calcium, magnesium and other minerals, turning the water from 'hard' to 'soft'.
  • It has been shown to be nearly as effective at removing certain stains from clothes (such as tea and coffee) as sodium hydroxide.

Baking Powder

Washing machine drawer showing all compartments
Official Name - n/a it's a mix of ingredients!

The first thing to note is that Baking Powder is made from a mixture of ingredients, and is not a single chemical compound like Bicarbonate of Soda or Soda Crystals.

The first Baking Powder was created in 1843 by English inventor Alfred Bird who was driven to find a yeast-free raising agent alternative as his wife was severely allergic.

Baking Powder is made of 3 ingredients - an alkali, an acid and a buffer:

  1. The most common alklai used is our friend Bicarb of Soda!
  2. The acid can be different between Baking Powder brands but a common ingredient is cream of tartare.
  3. The buffer is normally cornflour.

So how do these ingredients work together?

When an acid and an alkali mix together they generate water, salt and CO2. The CO2 is what we are after here. When baking powder is added to wet dough, the acid and the alkali react, CO2 is released, and the dough begins to rise.

So what is the buffer for?

Cornflour is purely there to stop the acid and alkali from reacting together prematurely by physically separating the dry components. It also absorbs any moisture to further extend the shelf life of the Baking Powder.

For this reason, using Baking Powder for cleaning purposes is no good. You will end up with a starchy gunky mess!

Bonus Fact - Self-raising flour is just plain flour with baking powder premixed in. The ratio is normally around 100 parts flour to 5 parts Baking Powder or put another way, a teaspoon for every 110 grams of flour.

Soda Crystals

Washing machine drawer showing all compartments
Official Name - Sodium Carbonate
Also known as - Washing Soda, Soda Ash
Chemical formula - Na2CO3
PH - 11 (moderately alkaline)

In a very simple sense, Soda Crystals can be treated as a more powerful version of Bicarbonate of Soda and it can be used for many similar applications:

  • Cleaning - Soda Crystals are super effect at cleaning... but never use them on aluminum based cookware, utensils or foil because it is corrosive and will discolour them.
  • Water softening - Soda Crystals react with dissolved calcium and magnesium compounds in the water to created insoluble compounds therefore making the water 'soft'.
  • Soda Crystals are especially effective when combined with laundry detergent. If you don't soften the water, the detergent will react with the dissolved compounds rather than getting to work cleaning your clothes.
  • Cooking - Like Bicarbonate of Soda, Soda Crystals are known as the additive E500. It's used as a raising and anticaking agent and is used as a ingredient in sherbets, ramen noodle and pretzels.

If you are finding Soda Crystals hard to come by but have heaps of Bicarbonate of Soda you can make your own!

Preheat your oven to 200 °C (c.400 °F) Sprinkle a thin layer of Bicarbonate of Soda onto a baking tray. Once the oven has reached temperature whack the tray in the oven. After 15 minutes, remove the baking tray and set aside to cool.

Although it won't look any different, your Bicarbonate of Soda has undergone thermal decomposition! The heat breaks the Bicarbonate of Soda down into Soda Crystals, water and CO2.

In the heat of the oven the water will have evaporated and mixed into the air along with the CO2, leaving just the Soda Crystals behind

Andy Smith
Andy Smith

Founder of Reco, a marketplace and community dedicated to find shift from a single-use mindset to a multi-use one. #SingleUseSucks

1 Response

Cathie Jones
Cathie Jones

November 14, 2023

Can I use soda crystals to repel garden insects

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