I’ve found a few recommendations floating around the internet that suggest you could use baking soda to make fluffier omelets, to tenderize meat or even as an additive to beans to reduce “bean bloat”. Do you know if there might be any truth to these? If so, why would they work? I’d also love to know if you have any other ideas for unexpected ways someone could use baking soda in cooking.
Hi Jade —
Both baking soda and baking powder can be mysterious, but they’re actually pretty easy to understand once you view them with some science in mind.
First, baking soda: it’s a single compound — sodium bicarbonate — that reacts with other ingredients and produces carbon dioxide. When sodium bicarbonate gets added into your other ingredients, it dissolves into just sodium and bicarbonate. The sodium adds a salty taste (just like sodium chloride does), but it’s the bicarbonate that’s useful: it can react with other acid compounds (vinegar, lemon juice, buttermilk) to generate gas, or when heated up, will break down on its own and generate carbon dioxide.
Baking powder is like baking soda, but is made of more than one compound. It’s what I call a “self contained leaving system” — it’s got everything you need to lighten food. Baking powder is usually composed of baking soda and an acid such as cream of tartar or monocalcium phosphate. Add water, and poof! The ingredients dissolve and can react with each other. (In powder form, they don’t interact very quickly — but can, over time — so if your baking powder is a few years old, it won’t work very well.)
So now that we have the definitions out of the way, what can we do with them? Baking soda, as a single compound, can be used anywhere there the chemical reaction between the bicarbonate and another compound leads to a change. (Of course, if you add too much baking soda, it won’t completely react — there’ll be left over baking soda that then interacts with your taste buds and tastes nasty.)
You’d asked how baking soda would make an omelet fluffier. Eggs are surprisingly basic; I wouldn’t think of them as having acids that the baking soda can react with. Baking soda does decompose into carbon dioxide and water with heat, though — it looks like this begins around the boiling point of water — so it’s possible that that would be a mechanism. Honestly, though? If I wanted a light, fluffy omelet, I would separate the eggs white and the egg yolks, whisk the egg whites some, and then mix the yolks back in. “Fluffy” means air, and using baking soda is just one way of doing it (chemically). You can “add” air in mechanically, and avoid the potential change in flavor from the baking soda.
As for adding baking soda to beans: according to the US Dry Bean Council — this is a private industry group of folks who grow and sell beans — adding baking soda will make beans more tender (which you’d only want to do if your beans are coming out too tough). They don’t mention anything about baking soda and bloat; however their answer on “gas-causing properties of dry beans” looks reasonable, See: www.usdrybeans.com/nutrition/nutrition-facts/
You might skim books.google.com/books?id=yb4B-19xm-MC and books.google.com/books?id=at4WAwAAQBAJ — I don’t know how much I’d trust these, since they’re recent ebook of low quality, but it’s an interesting place to see what’s commonly believed (true or not) that you might be able to then dig into. For example, baking soda in the fridge to absorb odors is not something that I believe works — and here’s a link to “Ask a Scientist” saying as much at the Department of Energy (who I would believe): www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/chem00/chem00388.htm
Hope this helps! I’m going to wander off to my kitchen to make two different omelets — one with baking soda — to see if there’s any truth to the idea.