Season Your Ground Beef with NaHCO₃—Aka Baking Soda
Who can confidently reproduce the monumental periodic table along with all of the common chemical reactions?
If you’re still scrambling to conjure up a few, you’re not alone.
If there’s yet one truly helpful compound worth remembering — it’s baking soda. But you don’t need to memorize its scientific formula when the white powder is an absolute household superhero.
Besides a cleaning wizard — what can’t it do? — baking soda is a surprise bag of kitchen magic tricks, especially when it comes to savoury things.
And it’s got some serious beef with the beef — the ground kind.
Baking Soda Adds Browning Points
Admirably affordable and accessible — a beginner- and wallet-friendly protein—ground beef appears across numerous dishes and cuisines.
From the classic shepherd's pie to the casual burrito bowl, ground beef constitutes the main ingredient. Yet properly browning this particular product comes with a unique set of challenges.
Sigh — the swampy, grey mixture.
You know the familiar, yet unfortunate, scene that’s reminiscent of a basement flood.
Whether as little as 0.5 lbs or as much as 2 lbs of ground meat is responsible for the messy mixture, this situation comes at the expense of proper browning and caramelization — flavour.
There’s no Maillard reaction here.
With such an exorbitant amount of moisture released, your immediate response might go to the cornstarch kind — or even some drainage action with the colander.
But there has to be a better way — a browner, crispier way.
And there is — it’s your resident baking soda.
While looks are one thing, flavour is another. And greywater most certainly doesn’t satisfy either of these aspirations. To that end, flood prevention is key.
Here’s the insurance policy: Add ¼ teaspoon of baking soda per pound of ground beef, giving it a good mix around; allow the mixture to sit for at least 15 minutes prior to cooking; and then cook it in a dry — the beef renders its fat — pan on medium-high heat.
You’ll be pleasantly surprised. The bits of beef will develop a nice, brown crust — enjoy some charring action — with remarkably less water released.
The Science: How Does this Magic Work?
Basically, it’s basic: The baking soda boosts the pH of the meat, rendering the product less acidic, which gives the proteins a chance to attract more water — bingo.
Locking in more moisture, the beef then has the opportunity it rightfully deserves to adequately brown.
Cool chemistry aside, some best practices remain. If you plan to cook in large quantities, try to stick with cooking in smaller batches in the one pan to avoid overcrowding.
You don’t want to undermine the baking soda’s hard work, after all.
It’s also easy to find yourself actively breaking up the meat like there’s no tomorrow — but don’t. Quite understandably, this temptation is attributed to a fear of overcooking, burning, and flooding.
But let the meat render and cook on its own—do not disturb, and trust in the overall process. Allow the full surface area of the beef to meet with the heat of the pan. You’ll see the difference — a richer and fuller browning.
Bolognese for supper tonight? Remember to account for those extra 15 minutes for the baking soda treatment.
The extra time’s a win-win situation — because your ground beef will actually get the time to warm up from the fridge while you take care of the other recipe ingredients.
Impress your family and friends, and enjoy the juicy, tender, and caramelized goodness every time.