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Oct 28, 2012 05:33 PM

Carbonate of soda/bicarbonate of soda question

I have an older recipe that calls for 1 tsp. of carbonate of soda, and 3 teaspoons of bicarbonate of soda. I've never seen carbonate of soda in supermarkets. Is it available? Can you substitute bicarbonate of soda? Thanks.

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  1. This substance has some interesting food uses. I'd read this article and perhaps you will understand why your recipe calls for carbonate of soda.

    3 Replies
    1. re: sueatmo

      In the 'hot water in banana bread' thread, we were talking about what happens when baking soda is heated. It decomposes producing sodium carbonate and carbon dioxide. This Wiki article calls that the Soda process of making sodium carbonate. I think that if you add baking soda to boiling hot water, you will get a burst of foam as CO2 is produced, leaving a solution that is mix of water with sodium bicarbonate and sodium carbonate.

      1. re: paulj

        Incidentally, this is the chemical reaction:
        NaHCO3 + H2O => CO2 + H2O + NaOH

        Baking Soda + Water Yields Carbon Dioxide + Water + Lye (sodium hydroxide).

        So no, adding the baking soda to water does not create sodium carbonate, but lye.

        The reason the sodium carbonate is combined with the sodium bicarbonate is the same reason an acid in some form is usually in recipes with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) -- to create the chemical reaction that forms gas that leavens the baked good. Either an acid or a strong base with do the trick -- acids like buttermilk or lemon juice are more commonly used, but a strong base like sodium bicarbonate can also be used.

        But when you use sodium carbonate for this purpose in food recipes, you do run the real risk of a soapy taste or off-flavors. The final flavor is better IMO using an acid that augments the flavors in your recipe -- substitute that instead. More on this below.

        1. re: maria lorraine

          I was being a bit sloppy in that the reaction I had in mind is
          2NaHCO3(s) → Na2CO3 + H2O + CO2
          the result of heating dry sodium bicarb, not a solution

          But is lye the final product in your solution? There is further reaction of sodium bicarbonate with the sodium hydroxide?

          NaHCO3 + NaOH → Na2CO3 + H2O

          doesn't that end up give a variation on the reaction I was citing?
          2 NaHCO3 → Na2CO3 + H2O + CO2

          2 NaHCO3 + H20→ Na2CO3 + 2H2O + CO2

          which is more stable in water sodium hydroxide or sodium carbonate?

          Sodium bicarbonate is unique in that it reacts both with acids and bases such as sodium hydroxide.

    2. Sodium carbonate is washing soda, which is common but which is found in the cleaning department, not the food department. Are you sure this is what the recipe intends?

      8 Replies
      1. re: GH1618

        It's what I used in my kid's diaper pail, ca. 1974. Now, THERE'S an appetizing image for you!

        I'd always understood that this was not something you'd want to eat, although the same could be said for any appreciable quantity of bicarbonate (my standard heartburn remedy of 1 tsp. bicarb in a glass of warm water was declared a no-no after my blood pressure was deemed too high). But I'd think the usual recipe amount would be okay.

        1. re: Will Owen

          <It's what I used in my kid's diaper pail, ca. 1974. Now, THERE'S an appetizing image for you!>

          Urgh. I want to throw up.

          In all seriousness, it will be unlikely to use sodium carbonate (Na2CO3) for modern recipes, but I do know some old recipes use it and that some specialized/professional recipes take advantage of its strength.

          "Baked soda (sodium carbonate) is also a standard ingredient in Chinese kitchens, where it’s called jian. Fuchsia Dunlop, an expert on Chinese cooking who is based in London, told me by e-mail that jian is added to bread and bun doughs to neutralize the acidity of the sourdough fermentation, in marinades for tenderizing tough meats, and to reconstitute leathery dried squid, which becomes very tender and “slithery.” "

          I have never used sodium carbonate, but I have used potassium carbonate.

          "Can you use something else besides lye? Yes and no. You can dunk the pretzels into hot water with sodium carbonate (not sodium bicarbonate) in it"

          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

            I don't quite understand Fuchsia Dunlop's explanation. Just some random ideas:

            I wouldn't want to risk the sodium carbonate because of the risk of a soapy flavor.
            Seems a better way to control an acidic sourdough is with fermentation temperature.
            Isn't an acid (not a base, like sodium carbonate) essential in meat tenderizing? That is,
            If you at all buy into the idea that an acid marinade tenderizes meat.
            As far as pretzels and lye...A boiling hot water bath with sodium bicarbonate is commonly used to partially cook and brown pretzels before baking.

            1. re: maria lorraine

              <I wouldn't want to risk the sodium carbonate because of the risk of a soapy flavor>

              It does, but it is considered unique. Don't think of it as usual modern baking. I don't have a recipe which call for sodium carbonate, but I do have one which call for potassium carbonate. Same challenge. Soapy feel.

              <Isn't an acid (not a base, like sodium carbonate) essential in meat tenderizing?>

              Not really. Bases are known to be great meat tenderizer. In fact, baking soda is one. There are several CHOWHOUND posts on this, but I will list one:


              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                Hi, thanks.

                The link is for sodium bicarbonate, not sodium carbonate, so I'm not sure the link applies.

                If you are saying that a powerful base tenderizes, that is worth reading about. However, I question -- as do the Harold McGees of the food world -- whether baking soda or any base can truly tenderize, in the same manner that the use of acid as a tenderizer has been debunked.

                As many food scientists have written, the acid (and I'm presuming, the baking soda) affects the outer portion of the meat, but it does not denature the proteins or tenderize the meat. The acid marinade does flavor the outer meat. What does tenderize is an enzyme, like the one in papaya (and that is a very powerful tenderizer). I've done lab experiments on this.

                But I'm curious about the uses of a base for tenderizing and I will read more when I have time.

                1. re: maria lorraine

                  <The link is for sodium bicarbonate, not sodium carbonate, so I'm not sure the link applies. >

                  <Isn't an acid (not a base, like sodium carbonate) essential in meat tenderizing?>

                  The link is to show that bases are used for meat tenderizing as well. I have used sodium bicarbonate, potassium carbonate, and ammonium bicarbonate for various applications including meat tenderizing. Last night, I just used potassium carbonate for meat tendering.

                  <whether baking soda can truly tenderize>

                  Try it. It works for me.

                  <like the enzyme in papaya does>

                  I have some papaya powder with me too.

                  P.S.: I usually don't use meat tenderizer, but it can be fun to use.

                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                    Thanks for the pics. What's the label on the left say? Looks like Potassium Carbonate and possibly also sodium BI-carbonate. Is that correct?

                    The product on the right -- the enzyme papain from papaya -- is just like Adolph's Meat Tenderizer, a familiar product in the USA the last 50 years or so.

                    Of the two, the papain is the only that truly tenderizes, denatures the protein strands. An acid or a base in a marinade, etc, only affects the outer layer of the meat, so that is not tenderization, per se.

                    But I love velveting, mentioned in the link you earlier provided. What a great cooking technique.

                    1. re: maria lorraine

                      <Potassium Carbonate and possibly also sodium BI-carbonate. Is that correct?>

                      Yes. I think the idea is to mix the two to produce something in between. Not as strong as pure potassium carbonate (which has a very similar pH as sodium carbonate), and not as weak as sodium bicarbonate.

                      <An acid or a base in a marinade, etc, only affects the outer layer of the meat, so that is not tenderization, per se. >

                      For stir fried dishes where meat are cut up, I don't feel the bases are any worse than papaya powder.

      2. Yes, it's washing soda, or water softener. Leave it out.

        Instead, make sure there is an acid in the recipe to react with the baking soda and produce gas (leavening).

        The reason for the sodium carbonate (a powerful base, meaning highly alkaline) in the recipe is
        for it to react with baking soda to produce gas (leavening).

        Didn't I just say that's what the acid is for? Yes, I did.

        As it turns out, baking soda is what's called amphoteric. That means it can react (and needs to react, to produce gas for leavening) with an acid OR a strong base. Usually an acid is in the recipe to take care of this. Acids add flavor, too. Bases usually add a soapy taste. But either will begin the chemical reaction with the baking soda that needs to happen.

        To get around the sodium carbonate issue (not having it, not wanting to use it), just make sure there is an acid like lemon juice, buttermilk or vinegar (or another one that fits the flavors of whatever you're making) in the recipe.

        1. Harold McGee on 'baked soda', i.e. sodium carbonate.

          He says you can make it by baking baking soda for a hour at 200F.

          2 NaHCO3 → Na2CO3 + H2O + CO2

          Sodium carbonate is a stronger alkali, but not as strong and dangerous as lye (sodium hydroxide)

          2 Replies
          1. re: paulj

            <but not as strong and dangerous as lye>

            Agree. Sodium carbonate is about pH 11.6 , whereas Sodium Hydroxide is pH 14.0

            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

              Here's the Harold McGree New York Times article on sodium carbonate. Interesting. I see you already quoted the Fuchsia Dunlop section: