When I first started cooking dried chickpeas from scratch, I saw lots of advice online about adding baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) to the chickpeas, either while they’re soaking, or while they’re cooking. But is this really necessary? What effect does baking soda have on dried chickpeas?
I decided to look into whether or not there’s actually any point in adding baking soda to chickpeas. Here’s what I found out!
Adding baking soda to chickpeas can help them to soften and cook more quickly, and gives an extra creamy end result. This is especially useful when using old, stale chickpeas, or when blending into hummus. However, there’s no real harm in skipping the baking soda if you don’t have any.
All the theory makes sense, and it seems that lots of people swear by baking soda in their chickpeas. However, I also found lots of people saying that they didn’t ever bother using baking soda at all. So how much difference does the baking soda really make?
I’m not much of a baker, so most of the time, I don’t have baking soda in my kitchen cupboards – and if I do, it’s usually a few years out of date! So, since I planned to start cooking dried chickpeas on a fairly regular basis, I wanted to know whether it was really worth adding baking soda to my regular shopping list. Why do some people swear by baking soda, whereas others don’t bother?
What is baking soda?
First up, let’s understand what we’re actually talking about here: what actually is baking soda?
Well, if you live in the UK, Australia or New Zealand, you might know baking soda as ‘bicarbonate of soda’. The terms are interchangeable. ‘Baking soda’ is the US word for the same product – sodium bicarbonate.
Baking soda is usually used as a chemical leavening agent in baked goods. It’s an alkaline substance, and is used in recipes in which an acidic element is provided by another ingredients (e.g. honey, molasses, lemon juice, vinegar, buttermilk, etc.). When the baking soda combines with the acid and a liquid, it begins to produce carbon dioxide. These bubbles of gas help the baked goods to rise, becoming light and fluffy.
If you use too much baking soda in your cooking, it can give a tangy, metallic flavour, which isn’t all that pleasant. Therefore, it’s not something I wanted to start adding to my dried chickpeas unless I was sure it was going to have a positive effect.
Is baking soda the same as baking powder?
A quick side note: Baking soda may be the same thing as bicarbonate of soda, but it is not the same as baking powder. As well as the sodium bicarbonate, baking powder contains additional ingredients, such as cream of tartar. It is 3-4 times less strong than baking soda.
When we’re talking about cooking chickpeas, we’re specifically thinking of baking soda, not baking powder.
Why add baking soda to chickpeas?
So, if baking soda is usually used to help baked goods rise, why on earth would you want to add it to dried chickpeas? It’s not like you need your chickpeas to puff up with carbon dioxide (right?!).
Well, it’s all to do with softening the chickpeas. As I found when I was researching splitting bean skins, cooking beans and chickpeas is a real art. It’s all about rehydrating your pulses to the perfect softness.
Chickpeas have a tough skin around them, and even with long cooking times, they can be difficult to soften. Sometimes, chickpeas can end up feeling a little crunchier than perhaps you hoped they would be.
This is especially apparent if you’re blending your chickpeas into hummus. If your chickpeas are not perfectly soft, your hummus may end up slightly grainy or lumpy.
How acidic liquid affects chickpeas
Adding baking soda to the water while the chickpeas soak or cook raises the pH of the water (i.e. makes the water more alkaline / less acidic).
It’s long been known that cooking chickpeas in an acidic environment can prevent them from softening completely, even with long cooking times. This is why it’s recommended to wait until after your chickpeas have cooked to add acidic ingredients like tomatoes, vinegar or lemon.
Alkaline environments (such as water with baking soda!), on the other hand, are brilliant for softening legumes. It makes the skins of the chickpeas more soluble, allowing the liquid to enter the cells more easily, and helping them to soften.
Chickpeas that have been soaked in water with baking soda will generally go on to cook in less time than chickpeas soaked without baking soda. Depending on how much baking powder you use, and several other variables, the difference in cooking time could only save you a few minutes, or it could cut your cooking time in half. You really need to just experiment to see whether you find any noticeable difference.
You may also find the baking soda chickpeas become softer and more creamy than those cooked without baking soda.
When should you add baking soda to chickpeas?
Most recipes recommend adding baking soda to the water while soaking your dried chickpeas, as opposed to while they’re cooking. There are two common methods for soaking chickpeas:
- Soak your chickpeas overnight in plenty of cold water. Baking soda should be added at the beginning of the soaking time.
- Cover chickpeas with water, bring to the boil, then remove from the heat and leave to soak for 1 hour. Baking soda should be added when the pan is removed from the heat.
Obviously the second method is quicker, but requires slightly more hands-on effort, so it totally depends which method suits you best.
Adding the baking soda while the chickpeas are soaking means you can then rinse them thoroughly before cooking with any other ingredients (just remember to wait until the chickpeas are cooked before adding anything acidic!). Baking soda doesn’t have a particularly pleasant taste, so rinsing is helpful.
You can then proceed to boil your chickpeas as usual, until they are completely soft. Adding the baking soda while the chickpeas are cooking (as opposed to while they’re soaking) can lead to mushy chickpeas.
How much baking soda should you add to chickpeas?
Adding baking soda to chickpeas is not an exact science. However, popular British chef Nigella Lawson recommends trying 1 teaspoon of baking soda for every 1 litre of water you use to soak your chickpeas – so that seems as good a place to start as any.
Does baking soda have any other effects on the chickpeas?
Baking soda can make chickpeas easier to digest
Some people say that adding baking soda to your chickpeas can also help to reduce any stomach discomfort that may be caused by eating pulses.
For a lot of people, it’s a type of sugar called oligosaccharides, found in chickpeas, which can cause uncomfortable gas and stomach pains. Soaking the chickpeas thoroughly helps to reduce the quantity of this sugar in the chickpeas by up to 40% (Njoumi, Amiot, Rochette, Bellagha & Mouquet-Rivier, 2019). It seems reasonable that if baking soda helps the soaking process, it could also help to reduce the oligosaccharides in the chickpeas.
Baking soda could possibly alter the chickpeas’ nutrition
There’s also some evidence that adding baking soda to chickpeas can alter their nutritional content. Specifically, it can reduce the B vitamins in the chickpeas. As long as you eat an otherwise balanced diet, this small reduction in vitamins shouldn’t be a huge concern. However, if you do struggle to eat enough B vitamins anyway (for example, if you eat a vegan diet), you may prefer to skip the baking soda, and keep the B vitamins instead.
Conclusion: Do you really need to add baking soda to chickpeas?
So, after all that… do you really need to bother adding baking soda to your chickpeas?
Adding baking soda can definitely help to soften chickpeas more effectively, and more quickly. However, for most purposes, the effect is so small that I don’t generally bother adding the baking soda.
The only occasions that I do bother adding baking soda are:
- If my dried chickpeas are particularly old and stale.
- If I’m blitzing the chickpeas into hummus, and therefore want them to be particularly soft.
I find this is a nice balance. When I really need to, I can get creamy beans by adding a spoonful of baking soda. But most of the time, skipping the baking soda is usually still fine, and I can find comfort in the knowledge that I’m getting all the nutrients the chickpeas wanted to give me. Best of both worlds.