Aesthetically speaking, ground meat is not the most pleasing of animal proteins. When raw, it is all squishy and speckled, and more often than not, cooking it just transforms the pink, soft stuff into grey, nubby stuff.
This can be mitigated by leaving it alone and letting the meat develop a nice sear before breaking it up into little bits, but even that doesn’t help lessen the loss of moisture one usually sees when cooking ground beef. (If you’ve ever cooked a mass of meat for a sauce or chili, you know the pool of liquid I am referring to.)
Luckily, there is a handy little chemical that solves both of these issues. It’s called “sodium bicarbonate,” but is known to most as “baking soda,” and adding it to your ground beef helps keep it tender while also speeding up the browning process.
This is not a “new” hack or recent discovery, so I’m not sure how I missed it all these years, but I’m glad it’s finally made its way into my brain. I happened across it on the America’s Test Kitchen Instagram account (which features a graphic taken from a five-year-old chili recipe).
Last night, I finally tried it with a little over a pound of ground meat I needed to use up. I sprinkled about a third of a teaspoon of baking soda over the meat, gave it a toss, left it alone for 15 minutes, then cooked it in a pan over medium-high heat.
I am not used to being floored by ground beef, but I was just that—floored. Even after somewhat excessive fiddling and stirring, the beef bits developed a deep, brown crust, and the usual pool of liquid was reduced to a mere puddle. It was also much more tender. There was no rubbery bounce, no unpleasant chew—just beautifully browned pieces of beefy tasting meat.
Why does this work? The baking soda (which is very basic) raises the pH of the meat, preventing the proteins from bonding excessively (and thus squeezing water out); this keeps everything nice and tender, and prevents that pool of liquid from forming. The drier your pan, the faster your food will brown but, according to ATK, alkaline environments are also far more favorable for the Maillard reaction—the “chemical between amino acids and reducing sugars” that gives browned food its look and flavor.
You can add baking soda to cuts of meat as well. Ratio-wise, ATK recommends 1/4 teaspoon for every 12 ounces of ground meat, and a whole teaspoon for every 12 ounces of sliced meat. Mixing the baking soda with a tablespoon or two of water can help evenly distribute it (especially if you’re dealing with sliced stuff), but I found the “sprinkle and go” method to be quite effective with the ground stuff. Toss the raw meat with the bicarb (I just broke it up with a wooden spoon and pushed it around), wait 15 minutes (more time won’t amplify the baking soda’s effects), then cook via your normal method.
Updated 4:15 pm EST on Jan. 23, 2021 to clarify how to “toss” the baking soda with the ground meat. Updated again on June 21, 2021 to align the content with changing Lifehacker style guidelines.
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