Kitchen Hacks

To Supercharge the Power of Your Baking Soda, Bake It!

September 20, 2016

We clean with baking soda, we cook with baking soda, and we bake with baking soda. But baking baking soda? That seems almost counterintuitive.

But if you love the flavor of old-fashioned pretzels and find yourself without (or hesitant to use) lye, which is corrosive and somewhat frightening, bake baking soda you should!

By spreading baking soda out on an aluminum-lined baking sheet and putting it in a 250° F oven for one hour, you'll turn a weak alkali into a stronger one—or, as Harold McGee put it in his 2010 New York Times article outlining the tip, you'll get a "a more muscular and versatile alkali" that's closer in chemical make-up and effect to its hulky cousin, lye (but without as much scariness).

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All of this means that, by using baked baking soda, you can get pretzels that are more similar in flavor, color, and chew to the kind that would require you to wear goggles and plastic gloves. (Yes you can make pretzels with straight-from-the-carton baking soda, but McGee says these imposters are actually more like twisted breadsticks. McGee also points out that you should be careful with baked baking soda, too—don't spread it over your forearms.)

Photo by Alpha Smoot

To test the tip, I baked Erin McDowell's pretzels using baked baking soda instead of lye. I boiled 10 cups of water with 2/3 cup of baked baking soda, per Alton Brown's ratio, then dipped each proofed pretzel in the bubbling pot, one at a time, for about 30 seconds each. After an egg wash and a salt sprinkle, they were baked as usual.

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Top Comment:
“I have used Harold's baked baking soda in homemade ramen twice, to make the noodles alkaline and spongy. The first time it came out really pungent chemically tasting almost ammonia-like. I couldn't eat the noodles. The second time I made noodles, I used half the amount and it was still ammonia-like. I followed the directions from Harold exactly and I followed the noodle recipe exactly. Any insight? I have been a chef for 13 years and went to culinary school, to explain the care I used preparing my recipes. Any help is appreciated!”
— jmacie
Comment

While my pretzels made with the super-charged baking soda didn't come out quite as dark as Erin's lye-dipped pretzels (see the photos below for a comparison), they did have the distinct, slightly bitter taste of a real live pretzel. And I didn't have to order lye from the internet to make them!

Pretzels made with baked baking soda.
Pretzels made with lye (and also by a professional pretzel twirler). Photo by Bobbi Lin

You'll wonder what to do with baked baking soda. You can keep it in a sealed container in the pantry (McGee says indefinitely) to make pretzels to your heart's content, and you can also use it in homemade alkaline noodles—which are chewy, yellow-tinged, and often found in a bowl of ramen.

"One also might detect a vague pretzel-like funkiness in the flavor," writes Michael Laiskonis in Lucky Peach. For both the pretzel maker and the noodle maker, Laiskonis continues, "'baked soda' offers a perfect compromise between weak baking soda and hazardous sodium hydroxide, or lye."

Safety and taste? That's a compromise we can get behind.

15 Comments

S L. July 30, 2017
Since baking Baking Soda is simply turning Sodium Bicarbonate into Sodium Carbonate, how about buying Sodium Carbonate and not going to the trouble. Sodium Carbonate is commonly available at most big box stores in the US as Washing Soda. If you live somewhere Washing Soda is not easily available, I see a point to forming it yourself by converting Baking Soda.
 
Sadassa_Ulna December 24, 2016
Whoa, this is great! Thank you!<br />
 
Jana September 26, 2016
Why on an aluminum pan? I avoid that at all costs since it HAS been proven to increase amyloid plaques in human brains. No thanks to the aluminum!<br />
 
Jeff P. September 29, 2016
Hi Jana,<br /><br />A glass pan would work too—the reaction at hand (sodium bicarbonate->sodium carbonate + carbon dioxide + water) doesn't involve anything other than the baking soda itself.<br /><br />A metal cookie sheet (aluminum or otherwise) would simply be faster than a glass pan at heating up the baking soda, given the thermal characteristics of glass vs those metals.<br />
 
Matt H. July 29, 2017
There isn't any link between Al and alzheimers disease. There are people with the disease who upon autopsy have been found to have no aluminium in their plaques just at there have been people who do have aluminium in their plaques. If we one day find that Al is somehow linked with alzheimer's disease, then baking utensils wouldn't even be the most concerning source in our diet. Our food and water is loaded with aluminium and has been for a long time, considering the Al is the third most abundant element in the Earth
 
Matt H. July 29, 2017
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-there-any-proof-that-a/<br /><br />If you want to do some research, all you have to do is use Google. The most common source of aluminium in these plaques is due to contamination in lab environments anyway.
 
Laura415 September 25, 2016
More cooking science articles:)
 
Fred R. September 25, 2016
I don't get why folks are making their own potassium carbonate. For about 15 bucks, which includes shipping, from Amazon, you can get a large bottle of Koon Chun potassium carbonate solution. I use 2 teaspoons per batch of noodles which should last about a lifetime.
 
jmacie September 23, 2016
I have used Harold's baked baking soda in homemade ramen twice, to make the noodles alkaline and spongy. The first time it came out really pungent chemically tasting almost ammonia-like. I couldn't eat the noodles. The second time I made noodles, I used half the amount and it was still ammonia-like. I followed the directions from Harold exactly and I followed the noodle recipe exactly. Any insight?<br />I have been a chef for 13 years and went to culinary school, to explain the care I used preparing my recipes. Any help is appreciated!
 
Jeff P. September 29, 2016
Hi J,<br /><br />Puzzling! I love a good culinary mystery, and ammonia-like results from baked baking soda... well, the reaction doesn't produce any ammonia-like compounds. (I'm assuming you're using fresh sodium bicarbonate, and that there's no contamination, given your culinary expertise.)<br /><br />I'd be curious what you would taste if you bought sodium carbonate directly. If you're wanting to experiment, search online for "sodium carbonate" or "washing soda" (make sure it's food grade) -- and try using that instead. Do you get the same ammonia-like hit?
 
Dan T. September 23, 2016
Would it be possible to replace the lye used in the nixtamalization of corn with this baking soda?
 
jpriddy September 21, 2016
Does the baking soda pick up aluminum?
 
VeganWithaYoYo September 21, 2016
As far as I understand, the reaction that takes place is the loss of a hydrogen atom on the bicarbonate molecule, forming sodium carbonate. Sodium carbonate is a stronger base than sodium bicarbonate, and thus it's more potent in chemical reactions.<br /><br />I admit I've forgotten most of the organic chemistry that I took in college, so I can't go into a more intense description of what's happening, but aluminum isn't part of the reaction and won't end up in your "Baked Soda"
 
Jeff P. September 29, 2016
Yes to what VeganWithaYoYo said (what a great picture with a username like that)!<br /><br />The aluminum isn't going to interact with the sodium bicarbonate. When heated, bicarbonate gives off a hydrogen ion that another bicarbonate picks up (ah, amphoteric compounds...), kicking off a carbon dioxide and water molecule in the process.
 
VeganWithaYoYo September 20, 2016
I've yet to try this, but it definitely looks like a good compromise. I'm crazy enough to try lye, but my wife probably isn't, and I'd rather not have lye in a house with toddlers!<br /><br />In Alton's pretzel episode, he said that baking soda didn't work well enough on its own, so he used the egg wash to make up the difference. I've been wondering if baked baking soda works so much better than unbaked that the egg wash isn't necessary. Any chance you tried it without the eggs?