Why Baking Soda Is The Key To Better Hamburgers

No pantry item might be as versatile and useful as baking soda. While many people use this handy ingredient as a natural kitchen cleaner, the chemical salt compound (also known as sodium bicarbonate) can be used to elevate the flavors of many dishes, including stir-fry and a variety of baked goods. In fact, mixing ground meat with baking soda can actually result in a juicier, more tender hamburger — and it all has to do with how sodium bicarbonate reacts with the protein molecules.

Alkaline substances like sodium bicarbonate work by raising the pH level of the ingredients they come into contact with. In the context of ground meat, that means baking soda lowers the acidity of the protein molecules. This hinders their ability to form connections with each other, and therefore keeps them from wringing out moisture when cooked. That means that your burgers won't release a ton of juice as they sear in the skillet or grill, and keep them intact inside. Since the protein molecules will also not be tightly packed together, the texture of the meat will be considerably softer.

After adding the baking soda, let ground meat rest

Baking soda doesn't immediately tenderize hamburger meat on contact. While sodium bicarbonate typically activates as soon as it comes in contact with an acid, it still needs a little bit of time to work its way into ground meat. Therefore, you'll want to rest your patties for about 15 minutes after mixing the meat with baking soda. 

After that time, there's no need to leave the burgers out in the open any longer; sodium bicarbonate will not tenderize the protein molecules further after that brief wait period. Besides, you never want to keep raw ground meat outside of the fridge for longer than two hours, as it could compromise the safety of your food due to the growth of harmful microbes.

When you're ready to tenderize your burgers, sprinkle baking soda directly into the ground meat. Some cooks recommend making a slurry with some water before adding the ingredient, but really, bypassing this step will yield you the same results. If you want to get exact with your measurements, you'll need about 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda for every 12 ounces of ground meat. Otherwise, a generous sprinkle with your fingertips typically does the trick as well.

Other tips to keep your burger patties tender

As you begin to incorporate the baking soda into your burgers, be wary of overmixing. Jostling the ground meat for too long will cause the protein molecules to contract, creating tougher meat as a result. No amount of extra baking soda will save your burgers from this predicament, so try to mix in as few folds as possible. Don't add any extra ingredients into your patties while you work the sodium bicarbonate into the meat either, since they will distract from the actual flavor of your burger.

Once you've formed your patties and let them rest for the 15-minute wait period, sprinkle on any desired seasonings and then cook on the grill or stovetop. Doing this step right before you cook will keep the salt from drawing the moisture out of the meat and undoing all the tenderizing work of the baking soda. If you're worried that your seasonings won't stick to the burger's surface, coat the patties with some oil before they go on the grill or skillet. 

Lastly, let your burgers cool for a few minutes once they come off the heat source. This allows the meat molecules to reabsorb and evenly distribute some of the moisture lost during the cooking process. Then, use this extra time to assemble your burgers or finalize any accompanying dishes.