5 Surprising Ways Baking Soda Can Improve Your Cooking

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

For most of my life, I assumed that baking soda was good for two things: baking (duh) and absorbing odors. Bakers have good reason to love the stuff; when the chemical leavening agent gained popularity in the mid-19th century, it basically revolutionized the American dessert scene. But I'm not much of a baker—in my household, the oven is used for braises, roasts, and pizzas, not cookies and cakes. Which is why, until recently, my primary relationship with baking soda was limited to shoving an orange box of Arm & Hammer into the back of my fridge when things started to smell a little funky.

But in the last few years, I've learned a thing or two. For one, there are better ways to neutralize refrigerator odors. And, much to my delight, there are some pretty surprising culinary uses for baking soda that have nothing to do with baking. Let's take a look.

Snappier Shrimp

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

When we make shrimp cocktail, shrimp skewers, shrimp scampi, or shrimp wontons, we've found that a quick brine of salt and baking soda works wonders. The salt helps keep the shrimp moist and juicy as they cook, while baking soda gives them a crisper, snappier texture. You'll notice this improvement in virtually any recipe, whether you're poaching or searing, but you'll get a bonus boost if you're applying direct heat to the shrimp. Because baking soda is alkaline (meaning it raises pH levels), it also speeds along the Maillard reaction—the chemical process responsible for the complex flavors of cooked, browned foods. Across the board, you're looking for about one teaspoon of kosher salt and a quarter teaspoon of baking soda for every pound of shrimp; give it all a quick toss, and rest the shrimp in the fridge for anywhere from 15 minutes to about an hour.

Faster-Browning Onions

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

If you're impressed by baking soda's ability to help shrimp brown faster and more efficiently, you'll love what it does to onions. Just a quarter teaspoon for every pound of sliced onions will yield in a matter of minutes the kind of browning you'd expect from onions that have caramelized for hours. Unfortunately, it can also negatively impact the onions' flavor and texture, so we don't recommend using this method for a batch of French Onion Soup or for onions to top your next burger. But if you need to brown onions quickly and plan to combine them with a range of other ingredients (as in this French Onion Dip), baking soda can drastically cut down on your cooking time.

Balancing the Acidity of Canned Tomatoes

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Canned tomatoes are a great many wondrous things, but "consistent" is, sadly, not one of them—particularly when it comes to acidity, which can vary markedly from brand to brand. Happily, just a quarter teaspoon of baking soda can functionally neutralize excess acidity without impacting their texture or overall flavor. This tip is key to smoothing out the flavors of our thick and hearty Nordstrom-style tomato soup, but the same principle applies to any sauce or purée made from an unusually aggressive batch of canned tomatoes.

Turning Spaghetti Into Ramen Noodles

Real ramen noodles, like the ones above, aren't always easy to find. [Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Sure, turning water into wine is a pretty neat trick. But what if I told you I could turn angel hair pasta into ramen noodles? You can read all about the science right here, but suffice it to say that ramen dough includes an alkaline mineral component called kansui, which gives the noodles their yellow hue and springy texture. What's remarkable is that you can get pretty similar results by adding some baking soda to a boiling pot of spaghetti. Is it going to be identical to fresh ramen noodles? No, not quite. But it'll certainly round out a bowl of ramen if you find yourself in an Asian-grocery desert.

There are just a couple of things to keep in mind. First, don't be alarmed when you add the baking soda—it'll cause fine, foamy bubbles to form, so you'll want to make sure the pot isn't filled to the very top. Second, the more baking soda you add, the more ramen-like the pasta's texture will become, but go too far and it can develop a bitter, mineral flavor. Our rule of thumb? If you're adding the noodles to a mild or delicate broth, stick with just two teaspoons of baking soda for every quart of water. But if you're serving them in a bold, full-flavored broth, like tonkotsu, you can go all-in and add a full tablespoon of baking soda for each quart.

Softer Beans for Smoother Hummus

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

"Soft beans" sounds more like the world's saddest boy band than the key to smoother-than-store-bought hummus, but, well, that's exactly what they are. And the fastest, most efficient route to soft beans is baking soda, which raises the pH of the cooking liquid, helping the chickpeas break down and tenderize more easily. To cook one cup of dried beans, we dissolve one teaspoon of baking soda in six cups of cold water, refreshing both water and baking soda after an overnight soak. After that, just a few simple steps lie between you and an extra-flavorful, extra-silky bowl of Israeli-style hummus.