Baking Soda: Secret Pal or Two-Faced Bitch?

In the decade before he died, after 80 years of eating other people’s good food, my grandfather became a great cook in his own right. One of his tricks, when cooking a tomato-based soup he called beef borscht, was to toss in a spoonful of baking soda. It would bubble like lava and emit the most noxious ammonia smell at first, but after stirring it a while, it turned the pinkish red of new tomato into a deep rouge of a long-simmered sauce.

I have used this rapid-aging trick many times, mostly in chili and in 5-minute pasta sauces, and I still don’t know, is it a deal with the devil or is it a handy trick that every expert cook knows? Is it a surefire way to get quick results, or something you think is working for you but totally isn’t, like a Member of Congress? The fear comes from the fact that if you overdo it, you get something funky basic, something lacking any kind of acidic zing. Sure your tomatoes are sweeter, but at what cost???

I just feel like I would have heard more about this trick if it was actually respected–at least seen it once in a cookbook or a cooking show–but as far as I know, this is just me, my granddad and that old orange box of Arm & Hammer.

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2 responses to “Baking Soda: Secret Pal or Two-Faced Bitch?

  1. Gentleman from Tel Aviv

    At the risk of overdosing on hummus comments (I swear, there are other foods I like, even cook!) check this out: many hummus joints add a dash of baking soda to the chickpeas during the soaking process…it considerably hastens it and has no negative side effects…none, that is, unless you buy into the conspiracy theory claiming the IDF spikes meals served during basic training with baking soda to lower the young recruits’ sex drive (hey, can you say “sex” on this blog? I mean, the physical act of love)

  2. My mother and her sisters always added a pinch of baking soda to their long-simmering tomato sauces late in the process to lessen the acidic jolt to those family members with heartburn/acid reflux.

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