I am sure we all have a box of baking soda in our pantries. Mine sits in a cupboard that contains most of my baking supplies – flour, sugar, baking powder, extracts, etc. However, baking soda has culinary uses beyond baking and that is the subject of this Cooking Tip.
Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, a naturally alkaline substance. Therefore, it raises the pH of foods to which we add it. Below are some ways that chefs like to use baking soda in the kitchen.
When combined with an acidic ingredient (buttermilk, yogurt), it produces CO2 gas bubbles, causing the batter or dough to rise. Because this chemical reaction occurs immediately upon moistening the baking soda, it should be mixed with the other dry ingredients before adding any liquid. Also, the batter should be placed in the oven immediately after combining or you will lose the lift it provides.
Baking soda is well known for aiding in browning. Acidic items will be paler whereas alkaline ones will be darker. I was told in culinary school that if you see a recipe that just has a small amount of baking soda in it, it is probably there not for its leavening effect but for increased browning. It turns out there is a scientific reason for that.
To explain it, let me discuss two different but related reactions we often see in the kitchen – caramelization and the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction is also known as the “browning reaction”. It is a chemical action that takes place in food between sugar and amino acids as heat is applied. That is what is happening when you get that brown color on your steaks or other food items.
To caramelize something is to heat it until the sugar liquefies into a clear syrup and then continuing to cook it to stages of browning. It is similar to the Maillard reaction but note that it only involves sugar while Maillard is both sugar and amino acids.
As the pH of the environment rises, both of these reactions proceed at an accelerated rate leading to enhanced browning. Boiling bagels in water with baking soda added to it is just one example. A tiny pinch of baking soda added to veggies while roasting or sauteing accelerates the rate of these reactions, resulting in better browning.
The pigment anthocyanin is what gives the purple color to purple cabbage, purple asparagus, etc. It will turn blue or green in the presence of baking soda. (Conversely, the color becomes more red or pink in an acidic environment.) For a more detailed explanation of this along with photos and a fun experiment to do with your kids, see this article from Decoding Delicious.
Baking soda and its alkaline effect can actually help set the green color found in foods with chlorophyll.
Potatoes, onions, cauliflower, and the white parts of celery, cucumbers, and zucchini get their white color from flavones. They may turn a brownish-yellow when cooked with alkaline ingredients.
Pectin is a carbohydrate that occurs naturally in the cell walls of fruits and vegetables and is what gives them structure but will be broken down when cooking, resulting in softening.
Adding a pinch of baking soda creates an alkaline environment that breaks down the pectin and weakens the cell walls. This allows them to cook and soften more quickly.
Examples include veggies and dried beans. Adding baking soda to the latter can dramatically cut down the cooking time. One caution from experts is not to add more than ⅛ teaspoon per pound of soaked beans. This helps prevent developing an unpleasant taste that can occur with excessive baking soda. Soaking the beans overnight in a mixture of water and baking soda will help speed up the cooking time and lead to better texture. This is especially true if you are going to use them to make a great batch of hummus
The process of sauteing or caramelizing alliums (onions, shallots) can be sped up with the addition of just a bit of baking soda but too much can be detrimental to the final texture. Just ¼ teaspoon for every pound of sliced onions is recommended.
Polenta is a dish that should be creamy but starts with gritty cornmeal. Water must enter the cells causing the starch granules to swell and burst. Baking soda breaks down the pectin in those cell walls allowing the water to enter in a much shorter time.
Potatoes are wonderful when roasted. To do this, check out this recipe from Serious Eats, where the potatoes are par-boiled in water along with salt and baking soda. As J. Kenji López-Alt explains, “the alkaline water helps the exteriors of the potatoes break down more, creating much more of the starchy slurry that leads to an extra-crisp exterior. About a half teaspoon of baking soda for two quarts of water was the right amount.”
Although this recipe is highly recommended, not all find it lives up to the hype. When TheKitchn.com put it to the test, they were not able to duplicate the promised result of dark and very crispy potatoes.
Baking soda has long been used to tone down the acidity of a dish such as tomato soup or even coffee. Different brands of canned tomatoes vary when it comes to acidity, but just ¼ teaspoon of baking soda can help to neutralize this excess acidity without impacting their texture or overall flavor.
Turning Spaghetti Into Ramen Noodles
Here is one last unusual use of baking soda, given to us by Serious Eats. That is turning angel hair pasta into ramen noodles. Ramen dough is said to include an alkaline mineral component called kansui, which gives the noodles their yellow hue and springy texture. According to Serious Eats, you can get somewhat similar results by adding baking soda to a boiling pot of angel hair. If you care to know more, see this post.
Did you know that baking soda could do all these things in your kitchen? And, that doesn’t even address non-culinary uses such as cleaning. Just make sure the baking soda you wish to use in your food, especially for leavening purposes, is fresh. Leave the older box for other purposes.