Double-acting baking powder is an almost foolproof leavening agent that provides two separate rises. Plus, it’s often your only option at the grocery store.
During my years as a professional baker, I learned that double-acting baking powder is far more versatile than the single-acting variety. And that’s true in both professional and home baking situations.
However, single-acting baking powder does have instances when it could be a better choice. Like if you’re recreating some historical recipes from years past or when you want to keep certain items from cracking while they bake.
In this article, you’ll learn more about why they’re different, how to use them, and when it’s best to use single vs. double-acting baking powder.
In This Article
Single-Acting Baking Powder
What it is and how to use it
Have you ever made a Depression-era cake recipe that uses a combination of baking soda and vinegar to rise? If yes, then you’ve already used something similar to single-acting baking powder.
Single-acting baking powder is a combination of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and a powdered acid–often cream of tartar. The combination provides one quick chemical reaction that forms gas bubbles immediately upon contact with moisture.
Those bubbles are what give your recipe lift and cause them to rise.
For this reason, recipes made with single-acting baking powder need to be baked in a fully-heated oven immediately after mixing. If you wait too long after mixing to put your food in the oven, the bubbles will start to die off. And that means your item will rapidly start to lose its rise.
In addition, you’ll need to take care not to overmix your recipe so you don’t end up popping too many bubbles and ruining your rise.
A Great Use for Single-Acting Baking Powder
If you have any issues with unwanted cracks forming on the outside of your baked goods, consider using single-acting baking powder. A good example of why some commercial bakeries prefer this type of baking powder when making donuts.
As they’re fried in oil, donuts tend to form a crust quickly. And when they’re made with double-acting baking powder, the dough continues to rise as the donut fries. This creates cracks as the rising dough tries to expand within the already-formed crust.
Single-acting baking powder can prevent this cracking effect. Since it’s already finished rising by the time the crust forms on the frying donut, it creates an attractive, smooth surface without cracks. That’s baking magic at its finest!
Double-Acting Baking Powder
What it is and how to use it
Double-acting baking powder is usually made of an alkali, such as baking soda and two acids. It also contains a moisture-absorbing agent like corn starch to keep it dry on the shelves and in your cupboard.
Just like the single-acting variety, it starts to react and bubble upon contact with moisture. But then it has a second, more significant rise that is only activated by heat.
This offers the flexibility of being able to freeze or refrigerate your dough or batter until you’re ready to bake it. For this reason, it’s the perfect all-purpose baking powder and what most recipes use as standard.
Double-acting baking powder is so popular because it’s much more foolproof. Even if you’re not on top of your mise en place, or life just gets in the way, you’ll still get a full rise if you wait a while after mixing to bake your product.
Summary and Next Steps
The good news is that both types of baking powder provide the same amount of leavening. So you can get great results regardless of which option you use. The trick is to know which is right for your recipe and to understand what’s activating the baking powder; moisture, heat, or both.
However, in most instances, double-acting baking powder is your best bet.
If you want to be able to freeze or refrigerate a product and bake it later, always use double-acting baking powder.
This also applies if you’re making something like pancakes since the batter won’t all go on the griddle right away. While one batch is cooking, the rest of the batter will start to lose bubbles, and you’ll end up with limp, dense pancakes. No thanks!
However, if you’re ready to hustle and get your recipe whipped up and in the oven quickly, single-acting baking powder might work fine for you.
And If you’re making doughnuts or another recipe that’s prone to cracking, like a bundt cake, single-acting baking powder might be your key to success.
If you’ve run out of either option and need an alternative, check out our article on baking powder substitutes. And if your baking powder has been sitting in your pantry for a who-knows-how long, you can make sure it’s still active with this simple test.
Which baking powder should be my default if a recipe doesn’t specify which to use?
Double-acting baking powder is a safe bet to use if your recipe doesn’t specify a type of baking powder.
Are most baking powders double-acting?
Yes, double-acting baking powder is the most common type that’s sold to consumers because it’s relatively foolproof.
Can I use a single-acting baking powder instead of double-acting?
Yes, but only in recipes that can be baked immediately after mixing. Use the same amount of single-acting baking powder to replace double-acting and make sure the recipe isn’t over-mixed.