That square cardboard box in the back of your pantry, does more than banish last nights fishy smell from stinking up the fridge. Baking soda, while seemingly inconsequential, is actually an invaluable part of the baking process. When combined with specific ingredients, baking soda stimulates a chemical reaction to create baked goods that are light and risen rather than dense and flat. Sugar cookies are loved for their interplay of crisp and tenders textures. Therefore, if you find yourself with sugar cookies to make and no baking soda on hand, it may result in you silently panicking before the your guests arrive. Luckily, there's a way around the baking soda dilemma-- this method will allow you to concoct delicious sugar cookies without the baking soda.
The Science of Soda
Baking soda helps cookies and other baked goods rise. To activate this leavening effect, cooks must mix baking soda with an acidic ingredient such as buttermilk or vinegar. Baking powder is a slightly different compound. It contains baking soda but also has a powdered acid that activates the baking soda. Along with its non-culinary uses, baking soda is useful when an acid is integral to the flavor. It also works well in combination with baking powder to counteract acidic ingredients, when too much acidity would toughen the final product.
Take The Powder
If you've got baking powder, but no soda, you're in luck-- the powder will work just as well. The traditional sugar-cookie recipe calls for only baking soda because there aren't acidic ingredients in sugar cookies, such as molasses or lemon juice, that would counteract the powder's leavening ability. Baking soda can encourage extra browning when added to baking powder, but this consideration isn't needed with white sugar cookies.
Skirting the Soda
If you have neither baking soda nor baking powder, or simply prefer to steer clear of any chemical leavens in your cookies, consider shortbread. These sweet cookies rely on the right combination of butter, sugar and flour to give them their characteristic crumbly but tender texture. A basic recipe calls for about 2 parts white flour to 1 part butter and 1 part sugar. Flavorings such as vanilla or almond extract may be added. Shortbread generally is cut into rounds, rectangles or wedges once the dough is formed.
If you're a traditionalist, it's helpful to know of other leavening agents. Potassium carbonate, or potash, can be used in a pinch, especially in German honey cake or gingerbread. Use the same amount of potassium carbonate as you would baking soda. Other substitutes for baking soda or powder are ammonium carbonate, or baker's ammonia. Use about 3/4 the amount of baker's ammonia as you would baking soda, or the same amount of baking powder. Reserve this substitution for cookies, whose flat shape helps dissipate the ammonia taste during baking.