The Secrets And Myths Of Marinades And How Gashing Can Make Them Work Better
"Some marinades are as goofy as a dog in a tutu. Just what is wrong with the unadulterated taste of beef?" Meathead
Most marinades are thin liquids that foods swim in before cooking and they are bathed in myth and mystery.
Marinades usually have a number of ingredients such as salt, oil, flavorings, and acids. The molecules of each are different sizes and some are attracted to the chemicals in meats and some are repelled by them. Some can flow easily into the microscopic voids between muscle fibers, some are too large.
Let's debunk some myths about marinades. Some facts:
Myth: Marinades penetrate deep into meat. Marinades are primarily a surface treatment. Meat is a protein sponge fully saturated with liquid. About 75% of meat is water. There's no room for any more liquid in there. Think of a loaded sponge. You can soak it in the sink, but it just can't absorb more water.
Marinades, unless they are heavy with salt, in which case they more properly are called brines, do not penetrate meats very far, rarely more than 1/8", even after many hours of soaking. Many veggies are impermeable. Salt penetrates because it is a smaller molecule than water and because it reacts chemically with water, but molecules like sugar and garlic are comparitively huge. Most ingredients go no further than the surface. There are exceptions: Fish, shellfish, eggplant, and mushrooms, for example, absorb marinades more rapidly and deeply. But for most meats and veggies, the benefit of marinates is that they flavor the surface. They act like a sauce.
Try this experiment: Marinate a thick porkchop as long as you like in whatever you like, and then cut off the outer 1/4". Don't let the juices from the outsides touch the center, and taste it. Tastes like plain ol' pork. You might taste salt, but no sugar, garlic, or pepper. We think the marinade has soaked in because the flavors on the surface get on our tongue and fool us.
If you marinate thin slices of meat, say 1/4", the flavors may penetrate a significant amount, perhaps all the way through, but not thick pieces.
Myth: Marinades tenderize. Since they do not penetrate very far and therefore cannot denature the protein bonds much beyond the surface, there is little tenderizing. In fact, some ingredients. especially acids, can make the surface mushy.
Mytrh: Marinades improve everything. Marinades keep the surface wet so when they go on the grill or in a pan, the water evaporates, steaming the meat, and steam can impede browning and crisping of the surface, and crisp brown meat has more flavor, and one of the main reasons we like to grill. On the other hand, the wet surface can help prevent dehydration and the drying effect of the grill, producing moister meat.
Myth: You can use just about anything in a marinade. If marinades contain sugar, they can burn and ruin the food if cooked hot and fast, like steaks and chops. Sugar is less of a problem for low slow roasting. Too much acid, such as vinegar and fruit juice, can make the meat mushy.
Gashing helps marinades work
Think or marinades as a sauce. What marinades do best is find their way into cracks and crevices on the surface of meats making a flavorful baked on sauce. They work best on thick cuts of meat where they food roasts for a long time on the indirect side in a 2-zone system and the marinade can dry out, leave its flavor on the surface, and then brown. In general, it is best to think of marinades as a sauce, and most sauces are best applied at the end of the cook.
Help mainades by gashing the food. Since marinades don't penetrate very far into most foods, give them a hand. Gash your food. Cut slices into the surface, rough it up, give the mainade cuts, cracks, and pits to enter. You can really see an example of gashing in the pictures in the sidebar and the chicken below. The marinade gets down into the cuts and then penetrates a bit below. There is also more surface area to brown and more surface area coated with baked on marinade.
It even works on veggies like the yellow squash below.
Making a marinade
Once you understand how marinades really work, you can use them to your advantage. As you can see at the right, gashing meat is a great way to get more marinade down ito the meat.
The best marinades usually contain four working components: Salt, oil, flavoring, and acid, and if you remember the acronym SOFA, you can create your own easily.
S is for Salt. Salt is the most important ingredient because it is a flavor enhancer and it is good at penetrating meat and pulling in other flavor components. Soy sauce is a great source of salt.
O is for Oil. Oils are used in marinades because many herbs and spices are not water soluble, and oils are needed to release their aromatics and flavors. The flavors in most green herbs are oil based and therefore oil soluble. Oils on the surface of the meat aid in browning and crisping. Don't use olive oil because it solidifies at refrigerator temp during the marinade. Use corn, canola, or peanut oil. They don't have much flavor. Other oils might work but give them thought because some, such as walnut oil, are very flavorful.
F is for Flavoring. Typical flavorings include herbs and spices such as oregano, thyme, cumin, paprika, garlic, onion powder, and even vegetables such as onion and jalapeño. It's a good idea to add some umami. That's the savory meaty flavor from glutamates found in meat stocks, soy sauce, and mushrooms. It is also a good idea to dd some sugar. It aids in browning the surface, but go easy. Too much will burn the surface.
A is for Acid. Acid can break down protein, a process called denaturing. Typical acids are fruit juice (lemon juice, apple juice, white grape juice, pineapple juice, orange juice, and wine work well), vinegar (cider vinegar, distilled vinegar, sherry vinegar, balsamic vinegar, raspberry vinegar, or any old vinegar), and even sugar free soft drinks. But acids can make the surface of the meat mushy so use them judiciously, no more than 1/8 of the blend, and only for their flavor.
Refrigerate. Keep marinating meats in the fridge.
No alcohol. A lot of folks like to use wine, beer, and spirits in their marinades, but this may not be a good idea. Here's what the great Chef Thomas Keller says in his award winning The French Laundry Cookbook: "If your marinating anything with alcohol, cook the alcohol off first. Alcohol doesn't tenderize; cooking tenderizes. Alcohol in a marinade in effect cooks the exterior of the meat, preventing the meat from fully absorbing the flavors in the marinade. Raw alcohol itself doesn't do anything good to meat. So put your wine or spirit in a pan, add your aromatics, cook off the alcohol, let it cool, and then pour it over your meat. This way you have the richness of the fruit of the wine or Cognac or whatever you're using, but you don't have the chemical reaction of 'burning' the meat with alcohol or it's harsh raw flavor."
Use a nonreactive container. The acids in a marinate can react with aluminum, copper, and cast iron, and give the food an off flavor. So do your soaking in plastic, stainless steel, porcelain, or best of all, zipper bags. Pour the marinade and meat in the bag and squeeze out all the air possible and the meat will be in contact on most surfaces. Put it in the fridge and flip it over frequently.
What to marinate. Thin cuts are best for marinating.
Now here's a neat trick. Fresh pineapple, papaya, and ginger have enzymes that tenderize meat. Papain, the enzyme in papaya, is an enzyme in papaya and the main tenderizing ingredient in Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer. These enzymes work fast. Within 30 to 60 minutes the meat is ready for the grill. Alas, pineapple and papaya add very little flavor to the meat in such a short time. Some people like the softer meat, others feel it is mushy. You decide. The enzymes are destroyed by the canning and bottling process, so be sure to use fresh pineapple, papaya, and ginger if you want the tenderizing.
Go nekkid first. Chicken and turkey skin are very fatty and they are a partial barrier to marinades. If soaked, they only get soggy and won't crisp properly. So if the skin won't get crispy, what's the point? Get rid of it. Skinless chicken will drink up more flavor. And it's healthier. And yes, you can get skinless meat crisp. If you must have the skin, cut it into 1/2" squares and brown it in a pan over medium heat like bacon, and use it as a garnish.
Save money. Some recipes call for marinating in barbecue sauce. Don't do it. It's just a waste of expensive sauce because it is too thick to penetrate very far and most barbecue sauces are sweet. They can burn.
Warning. Remember, all uncooked meat has microbes and spores. If your marinade recipe calls for heating it, let it cool thoroughly before using it to discourage microbial growth. Used marinades are contaminated with raw meat juices so if you plan to use it as a sauce, it must be boiled for a few minutes. Better idea: Discard it.
A shortcut. If you don't want to make a marinade from scratch, just buy a bottle of your favorite oil and vinegar salad dressing. The thinner the better. Salad dressings usually have all the necessary ingredients, although they tend to be too acidic, so diluting it 3:1 with water is a good idea. Just make sure you don't get the Caesar. It has cheese and anchovies in it. We don't need no cheese or no stinkin' dead fish in our pork or steak. And watch out. Some salad dressings have a lot of gums (emulsifiers) and other additives that could burn or make the meat taste funny after they are heated.
Recipe for a good basic marinade: Mrs. Meathead's Italian Marinade
This is my standard marinade based on a wonderful, herby oil and vinegar salad dressing. I have added more salt to the dressing because it helps create the flavor-enhancing effect of a brine (read my article The Zen of Brines). Best of all, it allows the flavor or meats and veggies to come through without burying them under fruit or other flavors. I use it on pork, chicken, and even zucchini and eggplant. You can use bottled Italian dressing, but most of them have gums and thickeners added and they keep the marinade from penetrating. Some also contain cheese, and that can really taste bad when cooked. Click here to see how to use it to make wonderful Tuscan ribs. Elegant.
This page was revised 7/11/2012
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