Photo: from my point of view (Shutterstock)
Aesthetically, ground beef isn’t the most pleasant animal protein. Everything raw is mushy and speckled, and most of the time the pink, soft stuff just turns into gray, knobbed stuff during cooking.
This can be mitigated by leave it alone and let the meat develop a nice pungent color before cutting it into small pieces, but even that doesn’t help reduce the moisture loss that you normally see when cooking ground beef. (If you’ve ever cooked a meat mass for a sauce or chili, you know the pool of liquid I’m referring to.)
Fortunately, there is a handy little chemical that solves both of these problems. It’s called “sodium bicarbonate” but is known to most as “baking soda”. Adding it to your ground beef will keep it tender while also speeding up the browning process.
This is not a “new” hack or discovery, so I’m not sure how I’ve missed it all these years, but I’m glad it finally found its way into my brain. I came across this on the America’s Test Kitchen Instagram account (which is a graphic from a five year old chilli recipe).
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Last night I finally tried a little over a pound of ground beef that I had to use up. I sprinkled about a third of a teaspoon of baking soda over the meat, tossed it through, let it sit for 15 minutes, and then simmered it in a pan over medium heat.
I’m not used to being overwhelmed by ground beef, but I was just that – overwhelmed. Even after some excessive fiddling and stirring, the beef pieces developed a deep brown crust and the usual pool of liquid was reduced to a puddle. It was also much more delicate. There was no gummy bouncing, no uncomfortable chewing – just beautifully browned pieces of meat that taste meaty.
Why does adding baking soda to ground beef cook faster?
Why does it work? The baking powder (which is very basic) increases the pH of the meat and prevents the proteins from binding excessively (and thus squeezing out water); this keeps everything nice and tender and prevents this pool of liquid from forming. The drier your pan, the faster your food will brown, however according to ATK, alkaline environments are also favorable for the ones Maillard reaction– the “chemical between amino acids and reducing sugars” that gives browned foods their appearance and taste.
You can also add baking soda to cuts of meat. In terms of ratio, ATK recommends 1/4 teaspoon per 12 ounces of ground beef and a full teaspoon per 12 ounces of cut meat. Mixing the baking soda with a tablespoon or two of water can help evenly distribute it (especially if you’re dealing with cut stuff), but I found the “sprinkle and leave” method with the ground stuff quite effective. Toss the raw meat with the bicarb (I just cracked it open with a wooden spoon and pushed it around), wait 15 minutes (more time won’t increase the effects of the baking soda), then cook using your normal method.
Updated Jan 23, 2021 at 4:15 p.m. EST to clarify how the baking soda is “tossed” with the ground beef. Updated again on June 21, 2021 to align content with changing Lifehacker style guidelines.