Let's Talk About Baking Powder and Sugar Cookies

Will baking powder make your roll-out cookies spread? What happens if you leave it out? What happens if you keep it in? What is baking powder anyway? And why does it matter? Find out below!

Baking powder and decorated sugar cookies

Baking powder is kind of like the Severus Snape of the cookie decorating world. Poor guy. It gets blamed for everrrrrrrything. And it only half deserves it. 🤣🤣🤣


Stay with me here. We're going to sort this out. And I'll try to make it as simple as possible.

Let's start with what baking powder IS.

Baking powder is a thing. It's white.

Okay, actually...I think I'm going to need to get just little bit technical FOR JUST A SECOND - DON'T LEAVE!!!

Baking powder is a mix of ingredients that are designed to create a chemical reaction that basically add air space to your baked goods. Baking powder usually contains BAKING SODA (a base) and MONOCALCIUM PHOSPHATE (an acid.) You know what happens when you mix baking soda and vinegar? (Volcano explosions that leave stains on the ceiling. That's what happens.) The same thing happens with baking powder when some kind of liquid is added to the mix.

To keep those two ingredients from combining before you want them to explode your baked goods....I mean...to add softness to your baked goods...baking powder also contains CORN STARCH and sometimes CALCIUM SULFATE. Those guys are just there to keep the peace. (Because baking soda and monocalcium phosphate are basically my children.)

But wait -- there's more!! If it's a double acting baking powder (like 99% of baking powders sold in grocery stores) it also contains SODIUM ALUMINUM SULFATE. Let's call it SAS. You know, because nicknaming chemicals makes us all feel smarter. Unlike the monocalcium phosphate, the SAS won't cause a volcano with the baking soda unless it's cozy warm and melty. (140°F)

What in THE WORLD does all of this mean for rolled out sugar cookies?

I don't know.

Just kidding.

Gosh. You guys take everything so seriously all the time.

When you put your cookies in the oven...things heat up. (Still with me?) Hot air expands and rises...the dough puffs up a little bit --- EVEN IF YOU DON'T USE BAKING POWDER --- your dough will puff a little in the oven. That's what hot air does. About the time that all that upward heat is pushing the structure of the cookie to it's very limits...the second round of acid starts working with the baking soda. It's like when one of my kids is trying to keep their sister out of their room by pushing the door closed against them (hypothetically) and another sibling comes in behind and gives them that extra strength they need to keep out the invader.

When a recipe is well written, the baking powder acts as reinforcements to a chemical reaction that is happening with or without the baking powder present. 

When a recipe has too much baking powder in it...the baking powder can force the cookie to puff more than it would on it's own. This is an AWESOME thing for cakes. It's a fantastic thing for most drop cookies. For decorated sugar cookies where you want to keep a bicycle from turning into an amoeba? Not so much a great thing.

Enough talking. Let's look at some pictures.

A sugar cookie baking powder experiment

I made 4 batches of cookie dough. (Because I have issues. That's why.)

0 = NO baking powder.
1 = The amount called for in the recipe.
2 = Double the amount called for in the recipe.
4 = Four times the amount called for in the recipe.

a sugar cookie baking powder experiment

I baked them all together on the same tray. Check this out. Zero baking powder, regular baking powder, and double baking powder  -- all have almost zero spread. The batch with 4 times the amount of baking powder... just...went crazy. Look at all those cracks! That cookie puffed up almost THREE TIMES the amount as the zero baking powder cookie. And the structure couldn't handle it.

How baking powder affects sugar cookies

These are the same cookies. From the top down -- zero baking powder, regular baking powder, double baking powder, and quadruple baking powder. There really isn't a lot of difference in the edges in the first three...but that bottom one basically just lost it's mind.

And from the other side, you can see how the texture and crumb of the cookie changes as more baking powder is added. The top cookie with no baking powder has a tighter, denser texture. The crumb really opens up as you move down the stack. It's hard to tell what it taste like from a photo...but the bottom cookie almost felt cake-like when I ate it. (Because of course I ate it. I mean...CHOCOLATE.)

BOTTOM LINE: BAKING POWDER HAS A PURPOSE. But, like most chemicals, it should be used only under adult supervision. No wait, that's not it. The real moral - you don't have to be afraid of it, if you use it appropriately.

If your cookies are spreading, should you eliminate the baking powder? Probably not. If it's a recommended recipe that TONS of people swear by and use exactly as written and it INCLUDES baking powder? Use the baking powder. Leaving out the baking powder will result in a cookie that is more tough and dense. There are tons of reasons why cookies spread even with a perfect recipe and baking powder is rarely the reason. Read THIS POST to find out WHY COOKIES SPREAD.

If it's a recipe that you found on the back of a bag of flour? Go ahead and try leaving out the baking powder. (But honestly...your best bet is to try a recommended recipe first if you are just starting out in your new cookie decorating/baking life.) (Like THESE.)

What if you are using a recipe that doesn't have baking powder in it? Should you ADD it? Probably not. Baking really is a science. Some recipes are designed to use the reinforcement that baking powder provides. Some aren't.

Can you experiment? Always. 😃


If you're looking for a great recipe for your sugar cookies, try these no-chill and no-spread cookie recipes.

If your cookies are spreading and you need help STAT -- check out these reasons why cookies spread. 

If you are just starting out, you may find this post about the basics of cookie making and baking helpful. 


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