Aesthetically speaking, mince 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 chilli, 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.
Why you should add baking soda to mince meat
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 America’s Test Kitchen Instagram account (which features a graphic taken from a five-year-old chilli 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, and 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, brickish 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 squeezing water out); this keeps everything nice and tender, and prevents that pool of liquid from forming.
The dryer your pan, the faster your food will brown but, according to ATK, alkaline environments are also far more favourable for the Maillard reaction — the “chemical between amino acids and reducing sugars” that gives browned food its look and flavour.
You can add baking soda to cuts of meat as well. Ratio-wise, ATK recommends 1/4 teaspoon for every 350 grams of minced meat and a whole teaspoon for every 350 grams of sliced meat.
Mixing the baking soda with 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, wait 15 minutes (more time won’t amplify the baking soda’s effects), then cook the minced meat via your normal method.
The best way to cook ground beef
What you’ll need:
- 1 pound of beef (or any ground meat, for that matter)
- 1/3 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon Kosher salt, plus more to taste
- Toss the meat with the baking soda in a large bowl and set aside for 15 minutes. Lightly oil a large cast iron or stainless steel pan and get it hot—you want the oil to shimmer, but not smoke.
- Season the meat with salt and press it into the pan in an even layer with your spatula. Then leave it alone. Pour yourself a glass of wine, or maybe take a bong rip; just do something to busy yourself so the meat has time to cook.
- Once you see the edges start to look brown and crispy, divide the meat into quarters, and flip each portion to brown the other side. Break up into pieces, season with more salt if needed, and transfer the meat with a slotted spatula to drain on paper towels (if desired; I rarely blot mine because I’m not afraid of grease). Use your perfectly browned ground meat in tacos, meat sauces, rice dishes, or anything else that would benefit from crispy, savoury bits of beef.
If you want more mind-blowing ground beef hacks, check out this one using heavy cream next.
This article has been updated since its original publish date.