Baking soda is one of the staples of natural house cleaners. No home should be without at least one packet of it. Even if you don’t use it for cleaning, baking soda is good for so many other things.
First of all, what is baking soda? It is the common name for sodium bicarbonate, although it can also be called bicarbonate of soda. Chemically speaking, the formula for it is NaHCO3 and it appears as a white powder that is mildly alkaline. It is important to distinguish sodium bicarbonate from sodium carbonate: the latter is known as washing soda, which also has a range of uses ranging from being the foaming agent in toothpaste to cleaning up bones for display in museums or trophy cabinets. Washing soda is another commonly used natural cleaning product, as it is excellent for softening water, removing grease and oil from cloth, and for descaling appliance such as coffee machines. It is chemically related to washing soda, obviously, as it is a by-product of producing washing soda – which in itself is either a by-product of common table salt or is produced from soda ash obtained by burning certain types of seaweed.
The alkaline properties of baking soda make it an important addition to not just the cleaning cupboard but to the first aid kit. The venom in bee stings is acidic, so it neutralizes the acid and relieves the effects of the sting. The alkalinity also means that it in water is a sure-fire method of settling an acid stomach. It may not taste brilliant but it works. If you find you are using it to settle an upset acidic stomach too often, then it would be best to look for the root cause, however.
However, because it is only a mild alkali, it does not damage the skin – it is less alkaline than soap and much less alkaline than other cleaning products such as chlorine bleach. This makes it excellent for use as a cleaning product, as the skin can stand prolonged contact with that.
And baking soda is very good as a general home cleaner of nearly everything. As it is mildly abrasive and adds to the surfactant power of water (water’s ability to wet and float dirt away from where you don’t want the dirt to be), it is able to get things clean and sparkling but without scratching and scouring. It is readily soluble in water, which means it is easy to rinse away after it has done the job of cleaning. And if a little baking soda does dry on, the fun way to remove it is to spray a little vinegar onto it – it foams and fizzes as the baking soda reacts with the acid. It is suitable for cleaning whiteware such as refrigerators, ovens and microwaves, benchtops, basins and baths, toilets, and even your teeth. It is not so suitable for cleaning glass, however.
Baking soda is also used, obviously, in cooking. While most people these days use self-raising flour or baking powder, it is possible to make your own baking powder from baking soda, or just use baking soda with the right ingredients. When it reacts with an acid, it releases lots of bubbles of carbon dioxide, which makes dough or batter rise and puff up. To make your own baking powder, mix one third of a teaspoon of baking soda with half a teaspoon of citric acid or tartaric acid per cup of flour. Or else just make your scones or cake with something acidic in the batter, such as yoghurt or even a teaspoon of vinegar. Don’t use too much baking soda – no more than one third of a teaspoon per cup – or else the resulting baking tastes a little metallic.
Baking soda also makes a fun and safe introduction to chemistry for children – even preschoolers. Children can safely react it with acids such as vinegar or lemon juice without any risk (you don’t need special clothing or safety goggles to do this). Another fun science project with baking soda for children is to use the purple liquid left after boiling red cabbage as “litmus liquid” – baking soda turns the liquid bluish, while acids make it go pink/magenta. Hours (well, quarter of an hour for small children!) of fun.
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