Most cooks and eaters understand the importance of acid in food. If a dish isn’t popping as envisioned, a squeeze of lemon or a dash of vinegar will sharpen the flavors with a bright zing. To a meat or cheese eater, a mouthful just isn’t the same without a sip of wine. A salad maker needs acid as much as oil and salt. Dessert makers use acid to help them add more sugar.
Scientifically speaking, acid lowers pH, which is a measure of how many hydrogen ions are bouncing around the scene. A base is the opposite of an acid. It raises the pH by decreasing the concentration of hydrogen ions. The many culinary acids, including citrus and vinegar, tend to get all of the attention, while their basic counterparts quietly make good things happen — sometimes by canceling out acids. Once you learn how to properly pump up the base, nothing, including breakfast, will ever be the same. So, as we head into the new year, I’ll show you how to use baking soda and baking powder, the two most common culinary bases, to improve your eggs, potatoes and even your morning coffee.
In contemporary slang, the term “based” carries many connotations, all of them flattering. They describe an attitude of independence, of not caring what others think of one’s life choices, as well as almost every synonym for “fabulous.”
Me, I’m old-fashioned. When I hear something is based, I still think, “Who raised the pH?” But once upon a time, I was that guy in the back of the truck in Bolivia, chewing coca leaves with the farmers while nibbling upon a gray, crumbly form of limestone. As a recent chemistry graduate, I knew the limestone, a base, was used to displace the cocaine, a weaker base, and make it available to enter the chewer’s bloodstream.
“Based” could have described my status that day in the back of that truck, with a year’s supply of baking soda toothpaste in my backpack. My Arm & Hammer tooth powder proved a more potent base than the lime rock — and with a minty taste, no less.
Is there anything baking soda can’t do? It’s the most based thing in the kitchen, hands down. Baking powder is more complex, with thickeners and multiple rising agents, including baking soda.
My furnace broke about three years ago, and I haven’t bothered to get it fixed because the flickering gas space heater keeps the house plenty warm. And one of the perks of heating by stove is that you can place things on top to gently cook them. It happens to be perfect for making dulce de leche.
I fill a quart jar with milk and add a teaspoon of vanilla and half a teaspoon of baking soda. The baking soda keeps the milk from becoming acidic as it condenses, which would cause it to curdle. The process is labor intensive because you don’t stop stirring, but it’s worth doing if you have too much milk on your hands, and it can be done on a stove on low heat. As it thickens, stir in up to half a cup of sugar if you think it needs it.
I use the same theory in making a beverage that I drink every day. I use about a half cup of milk to a cup of strong coffee, along with a tablespoon of cocoa powder, a dash of vanilla extract and a pinch of baking soda. I mix it all together and let it sit on the stove for at least an hour. The baking soda softens the double-acid whammy of coffee and cocoa powder while sweetening the drink with sugar from the milk. You can cheat, of course, with sweeteners. But with a nuanced light-roast coffee, to my taste, a cup of unsweetened stovetop mocha doesn’t need anything extra. Naturally sweetened from within, it goes down smooth and comfy.
A properly applied base can improve the rest of breakfast, too, including the potatoes and eggs. Add an eighth of a teaspoon of baking powder — not baking soda — to two eggs and beat for about a minute. This will cause the release of carbon dioxide bubbles, which will result in perhaps the fluffiest scrambled eggs you’ve ever had. Meanwhile, boiling potatoes in baking soda and water before baking them creates a tater-tot effect, with puffy interiors encased by delectable, golden skins. Baking soda, of course, encourages the Maillard reaction, which creates the distinctive color and flavor of browned food.
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