Baking Powder, Bicarbonate of Soda, Cream of Tartar – a Guide to Baking Ingredients

“It’s the face powder that gets a man interested,
but it’s the baking powder that keeps him home.”

Gene Hackman, in Bonnie and Clyde

Baking powder…cream of tartar…arrowroot? What are all these ingredients? What do they do, and how do they work? What can you use instead if you don’t have them to hand? What are they called in different places?

Below we look at:

For a post on different types of sugar, how they’re make, how to use them and what you can substitute for each, follow this link.

Cream of Tartar

Made from:

A mix of tartaric acid and potassium hydroxide.

The scientific name for tartaric acid is potassium bitartrate. It forms as crystals during wine making. The crude form (before it’s refined) is known, poetically, as beeswing. Mexico is one of the largest producers of tartaric acid. Not surprisingly, it has a sour, acidic taste. 

The potassium hydroxide partially neutralises the tartaric acid. 

Used for:

  • Stabilising egg whites (increases their volume and tolerance of heat – eg for meringues)
  • It also increases the volume of whipped cream, and gives it a smoother texture
  • Preventing sugar syrups from crystalising
  • Added to baking powder where, when water is added, it will react with bicarbonate of soda to produce CO² – to make the bubbles in a a sponge cake, for example

What to do if you don’t have any:

It’s an acid, so you can substitute lemon juice or white vinegar. Use half a teaspoon per egg white, or per eighth of a teaspoon of cream of tartar specified in a recipe.

If the recipe specifies tartaric acid, you could use double the quantity of cream of tartar instead.

how to use cream of tartar
Cream of tartar – good for meringues

Bicarbonate of Soda


In North America bicarbonate of soda is called baking soda. It’s also known as bread soda and cooking soda.

Used for:

Combining with moisture and an acid – cream of tartar, yoghurt, buttermilk, honey, chocolate – to produce carbon dioxide gas and resulting in whatever you are baking, rising.

Alternatively – did you know that you can add a couple of cups of bicarbonate of soda (and maybe some essential oil of lavender if you have it… ) to a bath and it will relax you for a good night’s sleep?

Or, another use – get your flatware (silver knives, forks etc) sparkling by soaking it for ten minutes in a bowl of hot water and a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda.

You can also use it to clean burnt pots and pans – works even better if you add white wine vinegar.

Another cleaning application – halve a lemon and put a few spoonfuls of bicarb onto the exposed flesh of one half. After it has started to bubble and hiss, smooth it down and then use to clean any metal surface – be it cooker, fridge, hob or sink. Rinse with hot water.

You can also use bicarbonate of soda to help remove a splinter – make a paste with water and apply for several minutes – the splinter should emerge out of the skin.

Made from:

The salt, sodium bicarbonate.

What to do if you don’t have any:

There doesn’t seem to be any very acceptable alternative – I have asked and searched, but to no avail.

what to do with bicarbonate of soda
Bicarbonate of soda… combine with moisture and an acid to make bubbles and get your baking to rise

Baking Powder

Used for:

  • Mostly used in cakes, muffins, puddings which need to rise
  • In fishcakes as a binder

Made from:

The alkali, bicarbonate of soda; a acid, for example, cream of tartar; and a moisture-absorber such as cornflour (Dr.Oetker uses maize starch), or rice flour (Waitrose’ own brand uses rice flour which is gluten free), some sort of starch.

How it works:

When liquid is added the salts become acidic. Then the alkali and acids react together to form carbon dioxide gas. Once this reaction begins, if you’re using a single action baking powder, you need to get your cake into the oven quickly so that the heat will cause the gas bubbles to expand more and the cake to be lighter and fluffier.

Double action baking powder release some gas at room temperature, but most of the gas is released once the cake, or whatever you’re baking, is in the oven. Most American brands are double acting. The cocktail of chemicals is chosen to ensure that CO² is released throughout the cooking process. Tartaric acid (which comes from cream of tartar (see above) reacts with bicarbonate of soda at room temperature, but aluminium sodium sulphate will need higher temperatures.

Waitrose baking powder uses just sodium hydrogen carbonate.

Levure chimique (baking powder in English) Alsatienne,  a French baking powder, is single acting. This type of baking powder is used widely in Vietnamese cooking, especially in fishcakes. It acts as a rising agent, but also as a binder so that the fish doesn’t need to be cut with potato – the eater benefits from more of the taste of the fish.

What to do if you don’t have any:

You can make an equivalent by combining half a teaspoon of cream of tartar with a quarter of a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda. This equates to a teaspoon of baking powder.

Alternatively, if you don’t have any cream of tartar, you can mix 1/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda with 1/2 cup (120 ml) buttermilk, sour milk or yogurt which are all acidic. You will have to reduce the rest of the liquid used in the recipe proportionately.

Another approach for a different type of recipe would be to sprinkle some of the ingredients with lemon juice, and then use bicarbonate of soda and a little cornflour.

what to do with baking powder
Baking powder, a raising agent, but the French Levure chimique Alsatienne also acts as a binding agent

“When your chemist is not to be relied on, use a baking powder which has been tested and proved true”.

-Mrs D A Lincoln, Boston School Kitchen Text Book for the use of classes in Public and Industrial Schools, published 1887

Cornflour – or corn flour


In North America cornflour is known as cornstarch. Huge confusion here regarding terminology. Go here for further explanation

Made from:

It’s extracted from (mostly genetically modified) maize kernels.

Used for:

Thickening and binding in gravies, sauces and batters.

How it works:

It reduces the amount of fat required because it blends with water to a smooth cream, whereas, when making a white sauce for example, you need to cook the flour (plain flour) with a little butter or oil first before you begin to stir in the milk.

You need to mix it with cold liquid first – if you add it to a hot liquid it will form lumps.

What to do if you don’t have any:

Instead of a tablespoon of cornflour, you can use two teaspoons of arrowroot.

what to do with cornflour
Use cornflour for thickening and binding


– so called because it draws out the poison from wounds caused by poisoned arrows

Made from:

The roots of several different tropical plants – not normally genetically modified. Not to be confused with tapioca root (made from cassava). It doesn’t have the ‘floury’ taste that cornflour has

Used for:

  • Giving a gloss to glazes
  • Thickening
  • Prevents ice crystals from forming on homemade ice cream
  • Making biscuits
  • NB – don’t use with dairy – it goes slimy

How it works:

Mix with water as for cornflour, but be careful not to overheat – take it off the heat as soon as the thickening process starts – its thickening powers reduce with heat.

What to do if you don’t have any:

One tablespoon of cornflour will substitute for two teaspoons of arrowroot.

Arrowroot thickens and gives a gloss
Arrowroot thickens and gives a gloss

Self-raising Flour


Self-rising flour in North America

What’s it made from and what to do if you don’t have any:

You can make self-raising flour by a teaspoon of baking powder to 110g/1 cup of plain flour (AKA all-purpose flour in north America).

how to make self-raising flour
Self-raising flour is flour with the raising agent already added.


Made from:

Lecithin is a generic term applying to any plant or animal derived, yellow-brownish fat which attracts both water and other fats. The word is derived from the Greek, λέκιθος, which means egg yolk (yellow, fatty, animal derived). Other common sources are milk and cream; rape and sunflower seeds; fish roe; and overwhelmingly, soybeans.

Used for:

  • stabilising the fermentation process by spreading out the gluten content
  • emulsifying the fats in the dough, thus ensuring a smoother texture and helping to reduce kneading time
  • acting as a surfactant, coating gas bubbles, stabilising the structure, and thus increasing volume
  • attracting water and thus preventing bread and cakes from going stale too quickly
  • replacing eggs
  • it suppresses contraction and thereby helps to make puff pastry flakier
  • if dough needs to be frozen the ice crystals will be smaller, and the final texture will be improved
  • lecithin attracts water so that doughnuts will be more moist. It also reduces fat take-up during frying thereby preventing them from becoming too greasy.

How to use it:

It’s rather complex. You’ll need less flour. For detailed instructions go to the Live Strong website.

how is lecithin used
Lecithin is a great aid for bakers
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Joy Carol

Thank you for a very clear article.

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