If you've had chop suey, royal beef or pepper steak from a Chinese carryout, you've probably tasted baking soda's effect on meat. A 15-minute soak in a baking-soda solution causes a discernible change in meat's tenderness and, less desirably, its taste and color. This technique works best with sliced meat—more surface area equals more contact with the baking soda, which equals more tenderization. Baking soda increases the alkalinity of meat, making the protein strands resistant to the coiling and tightening that occur during cooking. The tenderizing action takes about 15 minutes at most. After 15 minutes, the advantages of baking soda level off, and you see no further improvement.
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- Baking soda imparts a grayish cast and alkaline taste to meat. Also, the baking soda solution only affects the portion of the meat it contacts, so this technique doesn't work for whole cuts like steaks, chicken breasts or pork chops. You have to slice the meat into 1/4-inch-thick slices to effectively tenderize it with baking soda.
- A thorough sear obscures the gray color, and an application of lemon juice or an acidic marinade alleviates the alkaline taste. Acid corrects the alkalinity by converting sodium bicarbonate to carbonic acid, which breaks down into carbon dioxide and water. Remember the vinegar and baking soda volcano from elementary school? That's what is happening here. After the carbon dioxide dissipates, you then rinse away the residual water from the meat, which contains the acid from the lemon juice.
Portion 1 teaspoon of baking soda for every pound of meat. Mix the baking soda with just enough water to cover the meat. Pour the mixture over the meat and turn the pieces to coat. Let the meat stand for 15 minutes. Mix the juice from 1 lemon (for every pound of meat) with just enough water to cover the meat. Coat the meat on all sides with the acidulated water. Let the beef stand for 1 to 2 minutes. Rinse the meat under cool water for 1 to 2 minutes and drain it on a paper towel. Run the water slowly to prevent splashing. Pat the meat dry before cooking it.