Hows and Why’s of Marinade

I know, I know..I’ve been lax in my food writing of late. And I haven’t had the time to make any lamb. Trust me, I am just as frustrated about this as you are.

So I am on this meat kick of late…not only on how to cook it, but how to flavor it. And that seems to be the tricky bit. There are as many ways to deliver flavor to meat as there are flavors.

Historically speaking flavoring meat was probably not the primary reason for marination. As the types of meat were as likely to be lower quality animals, methods were needed to help tenderize the tougher cuts of meat. Soy sauce has been around in one way or another for the past 3000 years, so it doesn’t take a huge leap in logic that the Chinese have been soaking the tougher parts of meat for that long.

So think about this. If a culture had a sauce… be it soy from China, or Garum from the Roman Empire, chances are good that they were using it on meat. And the thing to remember is why they were using it.

If you ask some cooks today why they marinade, they will tell you that it’s to add flavor. But that’s not why you should marinade. Sure, it’s a great side benefit, but why waste a marinade on a tender yet fatty piece of meat? You’ll be insulting both the piece of meat as well as the marinade that you are using.

Which leads me to this:

Kate’s Rule of Thumb #1©:You should only use a marinade on a piece of meat that is either lacking in tenderness, lacking in taste, or both.

So.. what is a marinade?

A marinade is a liquid that has been seasoned and is used to flavor and tenderize meat, fish, and vegetables. The liquid may be wine, fruit juice, vinegar, or any combination of these, along with spices, herbs, or other flavoring agents. Oil, such as olive oil, is often included as well in order to keep the meat from drying out. Marinades usually have a low pH, which means that they are acidic. It is the acidity that helps to tenderize the meat. Ingredients that are suitable for supplying acidity to marinades: wine, vinegar, soy sauce, citrus juice, buttermilk, or yogurt.

Think of a marinade as a chemical reaction. In order for this reaction to occur, there must be direct contact. But too much contact, and the meat will be tenderized to the point of being ‘mushy’. Thus, if you use a thick slice of meat in a marinade will most likely not work, as you will end up with a mushy meat on the outside of the cut, but an untouched center. Thin fillets are best for marination.

Find a marinade that you like or find interesting. Place in a no reactive pan.. glass is best, although plastic will do in a pinch. Avoid untreated metal pans, as the metal may react with the acid of the marinade, affecting the meat’s taste.

Cover the meat with the marinade, and let it sit for a period of time. Fish should not be in the marinade for longer than 30 minutes. Poultry should be done between 3 hours and overnight but not too much longer (although some folks have said that you can marinate in the refrigerator for up to two days). Pork, Beer, Lamb and goat can be done overnight to up to two days. Remember, the longer you marinate, the more intense the flavor in the meat.

A warning: Although you may be tempted to re-use leftover marinade, it would be safer for you if you didn’t without first cooking it. During the contact with raw foods, the marinade most likely had picked up harmful bacteria that could make you very ill. For the same reason, it’s wise to cook leftover marinade before using it to baste with.

And finally, never marinate at room temperature for over 30 minutes.


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