Traditional Aids: Soda and Metals

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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There are two chemical tricks that can help keep green vegetables bright, and cooks have known about them for hundreds and even thousands of years. One is to cook them in alkaline water, which has very few hydrogen ions that are free to displace the magnesium in chlorophyll. The great 19th-century French chef Antonin Carême de-acidified his cooking water with wood ash; today baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is the easiest. The other chemical trick is to add to the cooking water other metals— copper and zinc—that can replace magnesium in the chlorophyll molecule, and resist displacement by hydrogen. However, both tricks have disadvantages. Copper and zinc are essential trace nutrients, but in doses of more than a few milligrams they can be toxic. And while there’s nothing toxic about sodium bicarbonate, excessively alkaline conditions can turn vegetable texture to mush, speed the destruction of vitamins, and leave a soapy off-taste.