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I will admit that I am definitely a food science nerd. I enjoy learning the how and why ingredients react the way that they do when cooking. I have been seeing many article headings in my news feed and social media feeds claiming the discovery of the best methods to brown ground meat. Those bold claims get me thinking, “Am I doing something wrong?”, “Is there really a better way to be doing this?”, and “Can this work with wild game?” As I dug a little deeper I realized there is a new trend where people are adding baking soda to their ground meat. So I set out to answer, “does adding baking soda make ground game meat better? Let’s start with some basics and then we will move into the tests.
Browning Meat Basics
A memory comes to mind that I have seen over and over in the kitchen. A pan of grey, cooked ground meat partially submerged in a bath of grease and an opaque liquid which came from the meat. I reflect, “where does that liquid come from and why is there so much in the pan?” I ran across a couple of concepts that usually result in soggy ground meat.
- Avoid adding cold meat to a hot pan. Adding cold meat to the hot pan will cause the pan to cool and will result the meat releasing liquid into the pan. You should let the meat come up to room temperature before cooking. This will help with browning and even cooking. 15-20 mins should do.
- Don’t heat your pan with the meat in it. There is a reason why most recipes start off with “heat a pan over medium-high heat”. When you place food in a cold pan and apply heat, the meat gets heated slower, resulting in uneven cooking, food sticking to the pan, and often soggy meat. Bring the pan to temp, add your oil, and then the meat.
- Don’t pile the meat into to pan. You should not overcrowd the pan when pan frying, searing, or sautéing meat. When the meat is added to the pan, it begins to release moisture, which is normally cooked off. If the pan is overcrowded then the moisture has nowhere to go and accumulates, creating a steaming or boiling effect. If you are cooking over 1 lbs of ground meat then use a really large pan or cook in batches for better browning.
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Cooking with Baking Soda
The headline that stood out most to me was a claim that adding baking soda to your ground meat would result in a tenderer, juicier product, and more easily browned product. I was intrigued so I dug deeper into the science.
Let’s start with defining baking soda, aka sodium bicarbonate, which is very common in most kitchen for its many uses from baking to teeth whitening. The theory is that baking soda raises the pH of the outside of the meat. The result is that a higher alkalinity makes it more difficult for the meat to expel water during cooking.
Protein molecules in raw meat are tightly wound coils that unravel when cooked. The heating of the muscle fibers after they unwind squeeze out water which can dry out the meat if overcooked. The addition of the baking soda makes it more difficult for the protein molecules to unravel, thus reducing the amount of water cooked out of the meat.
Game meat is leaner than most domestically raised meat, and arguably contains less moisture, so I thought this would be the perfect test to the baking soda theory. I thawed 1 pound of straight ground antelope meat and divided the meat equally. I conducted the test by adding ¼ tsp of baking soda to ½ tbsp of water and the mixing with half of the ground meat. I mixed the meat well and let it sit for 15 minutes.
The Test and Result:
Conducted two tests with the meat. The first I made small hamburger patties and cooked them equally. The second test I broke up the ground meat like you would for ground meat tacos or spaghetti. I was equally surprised with the results.
The first tasted the patty without the baking soda. The meat was as expected, delicious and juicy. The second patty, with the baking soda, was noticeably different. The patty itself was springier. When I put the two together and squeezed there was no apparent difference in the moisture squeezed from each. Both were juicy. I bit into the baking soda patty and it was more of a mild flavor than the standard patty, which carried the sharp antelope flavor I love.
Next up was the broke up ground meat. Both groups were equally brown and left the same amount of meat on the plate. I tasted both and neither was noticeably juicier than the other. They both help moisture well. The only difference was the mildness of the flavor of the baking soda added meat. It tasted just like the patty. It was fluffy and mellow on the mouth, whereas the natural antelope ground was sharper and more flavorful.
Honestly, I am not certain I would repeat the step of adding baking soda to the ground antelope, especially if making tacos or spaghetti. I did notice enough of a difference in the broken-up ground meat. If I did add it in again, I would add baking soda to the burger patties because I did enjoy the springiness it gave that meat patty. I will try it with deer and maybe another type of meat in the future to see if it changes anything major. If you are feeling curious one day then I would recommend you give this method a try to see if the flavor or texture changes any more to your liking.