Baking soda: from household staple to culinary hero

The acid test

BakingSoda image

One of the most versatile products in your home is also probably the most forgotten. That ubiquitous orange box hiding in the back of your fridge, or ripped open and stuffed into your baking supply cabinet, is a multipurpose workhorse for cooking, baking, and cleaning.  

As many parents of fifth graders have experienced, you can make a volcanic eruption by mixing baking soda and vinegar. And with spring cleaning (Passover cleaning!) just around the corner, baking soda is a natural stain remover, gentle abrasive cleaning agent, and all-round home freshener-upper. But, that orange box has many, if not hundreds (according to the claims on the box) of uses--including some really great culinary science tricks.

Sodium bicarbonate is a naturally occurring mineral that is formed from evaporated salt lakes. If you are a baker, you are familiar with using baking soda as a chemical leavener. When sodium bicarbonate is combined with an acid in a recipe--such as buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt, lemon juice, or cocoa powder--it produces a gas (carbon dioxide, CO2, the same gas we exhale when we're breathing) that lifts cakes, cookies, or other baked goodies while they're in the oven. As CO2 is produced, the batter expands and rises, and the heat in the oven causes the protein in the batter (often eggs) to become rigid, so that it holds the baked good after it cools.  

Baking soda is the basis of baking powder, as they both contain sodium bicarbonate. Baking powder, marketed as "double acting" baking powder, has cream of tartare and cornstarch added to it. "Double acting" means chemically reacting to both acid and heat. While both products are similar, they cannot be used interchangeably without some recipe tweaking.

We know that baking soda is an essential ingredient in baking, but baking soda can completely change the way you cook and the flavor of your food. Baking soda is an alkaline product. One difference between alkalinity and acidity--in cooking--is browning. Acid makes browning difficult. Sourdough bread is a perfect example of this. The texture and flavor of sourdough bread is delicious, but getting a brown crust is nearly impossible without adding a small amount of baking soda.

Pretzels and bagels are great examples of using alkalinity to achieve browning. By changing the chemical environment--the boiling water bath, in the case of bagels and pretzels--you change the way the flour acts. When cooking pretzels and bagels, which both have a short baking time, you want a dough that will brown quickly.  

Here are some clever ways to use baking soda in your everyday cooking:  

- Adding baking soda to tomato soup and tomato sauces helps balance the acidity of the tomatoes. Tomato flavors really shine, and your sauce or soup will not curdle if you add milk.  

- Adding ¼ teaspoon of baking soda to 1 cup of tomato sauce or soup will make flavors sparkle and become less acidic.  

- Turn regular pasta into ramen noodles--add 2 tablespoons of baking soda to 2 quarts of salted boiling water. Cook pasta according to package directions. Your "presto-chango" noodles will be yellow (like ramen noodles) and have a stretchy/bouncy ramen texture.  

- Adding ½ teaspoon baking soda to 1 lb. of thinly sliced lean meat--like a chuck roast--will soften it and help it get a nice char.  

- Adding ½ teaspoon baking soda to 1 lb. of ground beef before browning will yield browned beef with crispy edges and very juicy beef.  

- Add 1 teaspoon baking soda to 1 quart of boiling water with cut up potatoes. Cook potatoes until almost cooked through. Drain potatoes and toss with extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh or dried herbs. Roast at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes or until browned and extremely crispy.  

Cook legumes faster, and with creamier beans, by adding 1 teaspoon to 1 cup of beans and 3 cups of soaking water. After soaking for several hours or overnight, rinse and change water. Enjoy the creamiest beans, hummus, lentils, chili, and more. 

Creamy Tomato Soup  

Tomato soup season has been extended this year due to this delicious and easy recipe. Lots of veggies that require only an occasional stir ensure a flavorful and aromatic base for tomatoes, which are made sparkly and deeply "tomato-y" with a sprinkle of baking soda to counteract their acidity.  

Many sauces and soup recipes have added sugar to balance the acid from tomatoes. In this recipe, I change the pH of the soup with just a touch of alkalinity. 

Yields 2 quarts of soup

Extra virgin olive oil  

3 medium carrots, scrubbed and coarsely chopped  

2 celery ribs, coarsely chopped  

2 leeks (white and light green parts only), sliced thinly  

4 cloves garlic  

Pinch of dried thyme or several sprigs of fresh thyme  

1 tablespoon sea salt  

2 teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper  

1 quart chopped tomatoes (jarred or canned works here)  

1 quart unsalted tomato puree  

2 teaspoons baking soda  

Garnishes: grated cheese, herbed croutons, fresh herbs, drizzle of great extra virgin olive oil, chopped sun-dried tomatoes, your favorite grilled cheese!  

1. Heat a large soup pot, lightly coated with extra virgin olive oil, over medium-low heat. Add carrots, celery, leeks, garlic, thyme, salt, and pepper. Stir occasionally until veggies are lightly browned, very soft, and aromatic (about 20 minutes).  

2. Add chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, and baking soda. The mixture will foam up a bit. Stir to combine. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Puree the soup with an immersion blender or food processor and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.  

3. Serve with favorite garnishes. Leftover soup can be stored, covered, in the fridge for up to 3 days or frozen for 2 months.  

Laura Frankel is a noted kosher chef, a cookbook author, and Culinary Director for a media company. Currently, she serves as Director of Catering at Circle of Life catering at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El. 


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