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Dec 9, 2005 01:27 AM

Baking soda as meat tenderizer?

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I'd like to know more specifics of the Chinese technique of using baking soda as a meat tenderizer. It's commonly used on thinly sliced pieces of tough beef and renders them "gummably" tender.

I was eating Korean BBQ the other day, gnawing on some tough, sinewy kalbi. It occured to me that the Chinese method can be applied to thinly cross cut slices of short rib if I try making this at home.

From what I've read, there's two variations of this technique. Method #1 uses a tiny amount of baking soda in a marinade that won't leave an bitter/ salty aftertaste, and the marinade is not rinsed off prior to cooking.

Method #2 treats the meat with a coating of baking soda for a few hours, which is then rinsed off completely, followed by a marination to add flavor. If using this method, how much baking soda is appropriate?

Which method have you used? Will this treatment work on large pieces of meat (whole racks of spare ribs or a 7 bone pot roast, for example), or just thin slices?

A couple of my reference books (The Chinese Kitchen by Eileen Yin Fei Long, and On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee) didn't mention this at all. Can any of our Chinese cooks (Yimster? Gary?) help?

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  1. My preferred tenderizer for kalbi is an acidic fruit. Korean friends' mothers have suggested kiwi or fresh pinepple. Half a kiwi is enough for a few pounds of meat (one large tupperware) of marinade, and you can't let it soak any more than a day or the meat will start deteriorating. This is my usual substitute for your method #1.

    The baking soda will only work on the surface of meats, making it a bad idea for large cuts.

    It's hard to describe what baking soda makes large pieces of meat taste like because most of us are only used to tasting tiny little tender bites of that "gummably" meat you refer to. There's a reason for that--it's really best to save this method for bite sized pieces. The best comparison I can think of is something akin to a bad chicken fried steak.

    1 Reply
    1. re: nooodles

      Agreed - I have a 20 year old cookbook for my basic chinese recipes "Cooking the Chan-ese Way," by Titus Chan - very popular in Hawaii back in the day, that uses small amount of baking soda in the marinade for tenderizing small slices of beef. Another use back then was bakng soda in green vegetable (broccoli or green beans) cooking water to brighten the green color, I don't use it since I learned that it leaches the vitamins out. Hope this helps!

    2. Not sure I would call the action tenderizing. It gives the crisp surface to stir fried beef. I saw it noted as a secret on a segment of David Rosengarten's Taste on FoodTV a few years ago.

      1. Many cooks simply add a bit of bicarb to the egg whites marinating the beef, then toss in cornstarch before frying. I prefer using better cuts of beef.

        15 Replies
        1. re: Jim H.

          I fully agree. Get the right piece of meat for the type of meal you want to make.
          Beware: bicarb does not agree with everyone. A tummy ache might be hiding there.

          1. re: Lamaranthe

            I've had meats "tenderized" with baking soda and I've got to say, I think it's freakin nasty. It's just a creepy, fake texture that makes me think I'm eating food that somebody else has already chewed. The tropical fruit tenderizers aren't quite as bad but I still dislike the results. I say, if you've got a tough piece of meat, use a more appropriate (e.g., longer and wetter) cooking technique.

          2. re: Jim H.
            Professor Salt

            Thanks, everone. I appreciate the quick feedback. Thing is, I *want* to use the tougher cuts of meat. Short ribs are inherently tough, and grilling them Korean BBQ style doesn't break down the connective tissue. Nonetheless, it's the "correct" cooking technique for that cut in that context.

            I'll try the acidic fruit like nooodles suggested, and along with the bicarb in a side by side comparison.

            1. re: Professor Salt

              I look forward to your report. Many of the Kolbi recipes I encountered when I made them a while back called for pear in the marinade--wonder if that is a tenderizer. My ribs were tender.

              1. re: Professor Salt

                I could not disagree with you more.
                Where did you get that?

                1. re: Lamaranthe
                  Professor Salt

                  What do you disagree with? I'm not clear on what you mean.

                  1. re: Professor Salt

                    Just to revive a really old post... the question of baking soda is ambiguous.

                    If the meat is desired to have the same "Gummable" texture as most Chinese restaurants serve, then we must follow follow the trail that is necessary to replicate the dish.

                    All cosiderations of the Maillard browning effect are tossed out. It comes down to bringing out the moist, almost gelatinous appeal of the meat against the tooth,.

                    You don't sear meat to retain juices. Harold McGee made a clear point of that distinction.

                    The baking soda with an acid like Chinese cooking wine or a naturally occuring meat tenderizerer such as papaya can bring you closer to the Asian palate. It denatures the proteins somehow and breaks the surface to create a gelatinous darker colored meat as opposed to the white dry chicken we end up with if we follow mainstream cookbook thinking,

                    The Chinese call it "Running the meat through the oil", or something like that... also called velveting.

                    The remark made about piece sizes is right on. The smaller the better, this method fails with large cuts of meat.

                    Consider a three step program: Brown the meat for the flavour of the
                    Maillard reaction followed by a slow simmer for several hours to release the gelatin from the tendons followed by a reheat and glaze over an open flame,

                    1. re: Grist for the mill

                      I always thought velveting was coating in egg white and cornstarch, after seasoning with salt and rice wine.

                      Tenderizing with baking soda is something else entirely.

                      1. re: bushwickgirl


                        It's both.

                        Velveting generally refers to the process of coating meat with a marinade to seal in moisture and to ensure the meat stays soft during the cooking process, which can be accomplished with a combo of corn starch and cooking wine or with egg white.

                        So, velveting refers to both types of techniques.


                        1. re: ipsedixit

                          The video doesn't mention using baking soda for tenderizing. So I'm still confused...Are you saying that the baking soda tenderizing is a form of velveting? Do you tenderize first, then velvetize? Or skip the baking soda step completely? I've never used baking soda to tenderize.

                          I just want to get this straight.

                            1. re: ipsedixit

                              The acid in the rice wine in velveting, and the use of baking soda both tenderize, got it.

                              1. re: ipsedixit


                                I am not sure. I have tried to marinate my meat with corn starch, but I never feel it has the same tenderizing effort as the baking soda.

                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                  I can't let that one stand, ipsedixit.

                                  Cornstarch is nothing more than the endosperm of corn, as flour is of wheat. There are no chemically reactive compounds within to tenderize meat.

                                  Baking soda has a chemical reaction that is alkaline and thereby slightly caustic, causing changes in the exposed surface.

                                  Papaya and pineapple perform enzymatic reactions. They are classed as a protease. Look for derived enzymes of papain and bromelaine in capsules at health food stores. If you add some of them to your cornstarch, then it will function as a tenderizer.

                                  Caroline1 has pointed out that Adolph's contains these enzymes. Her objection to the MSG is followed by my objection to the preponderance of salt.

                                  1. re: FoodFuser

                                    No, you are absolutely correct. I misspoke upthread. I should have said that baking soda tenderizes (not corn starch).

                2. Just for the record, *tenderizing* meats with baking soda and "velvetizing" meats with a mixture of egg white, corn starch, rice wine and a little oil (other ingredients can be added, but these are the core elements) are not the same thing, though both are sometimes done consecutively to meats in Chinese restaurants before cooking. A prime difference is that the baking soda is left on the meat (chicken, beef, lamb, whatever) for a period of time, then washed off with cold running water, the meat is patted dry, and cooking OR velveting and then cooking follows.

                  Velveting can ONLY be used successfully with meat that has been cut into bite sized pieces. Well, in some velvet chicken recipes, the chicken is pureed and velveted in that form. Tenderizing with baking soda can be done with larger pieces, which requires a longer tenderizing period before rinsing and cooking. If your recipe calls for bite sized pieces, cut the meat and then tenderize as trying to cut up the tenderized meat may be " mushy."

                  In the mid twentieth century, papaya extract became a very popular meat tenderizer and baking soda sort of fell by the wayside. As I recall, Adolph's Meat Tenderizer was the most popular brand. Sprinkle the meat with water, sprinkle liberally with Adolph's, pierce with a cooking fork, then cook. I wasn't a great fan of Adolph's because the orignal formula was heavily laden with MSG, and I didn't like what it did to the flavor of beef. But you can get the same tenderizing effect by just marinating meat in fresh papaya for a while, but be careful you don't marinate long enough to turn the meat into a bowl of enzymes. It's fairly powerful stuff. Unlike baking soda, the papaya pulp does not have to be washed off if you like the flavor, but it can be. Baking soda, however, is not a condiment and should be wahsed off in all cases. Oh, and the enzyme in fresh pineapple is also an effective meat tenderizer.

                  3 Replies
                    1. re: Caroline1


                      I agree pretty much everything you wrote. I have a question for you: Why "papaya extract became a very popular meat tenderizer and baking soda sort of fell by the wayside"? Given that baking soda is cheaper than papaya powder by a good margin. Is it simply the taste of baking soda?

                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                        It wasn't a matter of cheaper or more expensive, but more a matter of a well promoted commercial product (Adolph's) versus a "folk method" that I'm not sure everyone was aware of. Tenderizing with baking soda was akin to Granny's secret recipe for watermelon pickles, or whatever. More a family tradition than a national tradition, unless you were Chinese.

                        Prior to Adolph's Meat Tenderizer, Papaya was used for tenderizing where papaya was native, but was pretty much unheard of everywhere else. Adolph's concentrated and granulated the papaya enzymes and advertised it, VOILA! A hit! Early television advertising history. But I am not positive the public knew what the great secret of Adolph's was simply because labeling laws, as we know them today, were not as stringent back then. But even if Adolph's was labeled (in the fine print) "papaya extract, MSG, salt and seasonings," it was so much easier to buy Adaolph's than it was to make your own papaya marinade. The use of papaya or pineapple as tenderizers are fairly common knowledge today, but how many people do you know who actually tenderize their meat that way?

                    2. Soak meat in water and baking soda to avoid that "weird taste" baking soda leaves behind..(you know that taste when you brush with it and sometimes that grimey flavor in you toothpaste. I would say about 1 tsp per lb. of meat and add water, then rub..soak for 20 minutes then do some good rubbing and rinsing off..marinate as usual..this texture will work well for mongolian beef or beef pieces for stir fry..I wouldn't use this on any good cuts like ribs, filets, rib-eye..this is more for london broil, flank, beef stews..

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: harmony888

                        harmony, you are right! It works well if you (1) cut the meat into small enough pieces (2) do not use too much baking soda & (3) most importantly - rinse the baking soda off really well. After rinsing I marinate the meat.