The Secret Ingredient You Should Be Using In Your Chili

Chili is one dish for which it seems like everybody and their dog has their very own recipe, and that recipe, of course, owes its success to a super-secret ingredient that makes all the difference. Most of them sound pretty decent — beer, sriracha, or ghost peppers — while others are more kind of "hmm, maybe," like coffee, Coke, or whiskey. Still others are a bit questionable... if you really want to put cauliflower or cranberries in your chili, well, you do you.

There is one secret ingredient, though, that is so secret no one will ever guess it's in your chili. You're probably not going to want to brag about adding it, either, but it really will work wonders to make sure the meat in that chili stays moist and tender. It's plain, ordinary baking soda. Not baking powder, but baking soda. The stuff in the yellow box. 

Baking soda helps meat hang on to its moisture. It works especially well when used in conjunction with salt, another ingredient with the same moisture-enhancing properties as baking soda but which is a lot less, well, secret. What recipe doesn't use salt? Together, though, these two secret (or not-so-secret) ingredients work meat-enhancing magic, and the result is a thick pot of chili instead of a watery, weepy mess.

Want the science-y stuff as to exactly how baking soda does what it does? Basically, it increases the pH of the meat, which has an effect on its protein strands. The heat from the cooking process makes these strands tighten up, but the increased alkalinity causes the strands to relax, making the meat more tender.

Using baking soda to tenderize ground beef for chili is quite simple. America's Test Kitchen (via AP News) recommends using 3/4 teaspoon baking soda and 1-1/2 teaspoons salt to treat 2 pounds. The beef is mixed with these dry ingredients, plus 2 tablespoons of water, before being used in your chili recipe. Allow the mixture to sit for about 20 minutes before proceeding. This hack should work for any chili recipe, as long as you adjust for proportion.

If you're using chunks of beef for your chili, baking soda will also work to tenderize not-ground meat, a trick well-known to Chinese carryout restaurants who use this technique for meat in stir-fries. Soak your meat in a baking soda solution for 15 minutes, using 1 teaspoon of baking soda for each pound of meat, dissolving it in enough water to cover. The meat should be sliced before soaking, and LeafTV suggests that for optimal results the slices be no more than 1/4-inch thick. While a longer soaking time won't make the meat any more tender, neither will it really harm it. Cook's Illustrated tried this out, reporting back that a batch of meat treated with a 45-minute baking soda soak was nearly identical to one soaked for 15 minutes.

Once you're done soaking the meat, you need to rinse it off, so as not to run the risk of any "off" flavor spoiling the chili, since whole pieces of meat are less able to absorb the taste of the baking soda than ground meat. LeafTV actually recommends you take an additional step before rinsing the meat, counteracting the baking soda's alkaline flavor by giving it a quick lemon juice bath. They suggest using the juice of one lemon per pound of meat, with enough water to cover. Let the meat sit in the lemon juice for a minute or two, then rinse for another one or two minutes under cold running water. Pat the meat dry before proceeding with your chili preparation.

Baking soda can even help out if your chili is meatless. Serious Eats reports that increased alkalinity helps to tenderize dried beans as well as it does meat. To use the baking soda hack for beans, add 1 teaspoon to each 6 cups of soaking water. Soak the beans overnight, drain them, and then cook them in a pot of fresh water to which you've added the same proportion of baking soda. Once your beans are cooked, they'll be ready to use in a tasty pot of veggie chili.

And if your chili pot is a mess after you're done cooking, relax. Baking soda can fix that, too. What more could you ask for in a secret ingredient?