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Whenever I make a marinade, I take many things into consideration. Quality and freshness come first – the quality and freshness of the product I am about to marinate and the ingredients I use to create my marinade. The recipe ingredients and the type and size of meat, poultry, seafood and vegetables also affect the amount of time you marinate your product. Marinades are meant to enhance, or bring out the natural flavors of your food, not to change the taste dramatically. Remember that marinades are not really tenderizers. They are designed to moisturize and soften. If you’re hit in the arm and get bruised, you feel tender there. So it is when you hammer a piece of meat, it breaks the blood vessels and tenderizes it. Marinades are not the same. For the sake of simple explanation, I will use the term “tenderize” to describe the action of the ingredients. I will explain what a marinade does, and offer my thoughts on proper marinating procedures to enhance your meals and make them healthier and more delicious.
A marinade is meant to perform certain functions. It should be a delicate balance of acid, oil, spices and/or other flavorings. Peppers and onions may be used to add an element of flavor you may like. For example, I like fresh jalapenos. Not to add fire as much as just for the taste of the pepper itself. Not too much, not too little. Worcestershire and soy sauces flavor nicely. A lot of marinades include ginger. When using ginger, always use fresh and use sparingly. Powdered ginger imparts a much different flavor. A lady once told me she liked to marinate London broil in nothing but 7-UP or Sprite. She told me how delicious it was, and not without merit, I’m sure, but I never tried it. I kind of thought it would make the meat too sweet, but you should always be creative! When deciding how long to marinate, consider the texture of the meat or fish. Generally, fish needs less time. Meats with a denser texture, such as chicken, pork, lamb or beef, can marinate longer. Remember to take the thickness of the cut into consideration. Did I say a marinade is not meant to overpower? Keep that in mind as you add ingredients. The marinade should just give off subtle nuances of flavor.
The introduction of acid into meats and vegetables breaks down the tissue which allows more moisture to absorb, giving you a juicier end product. Wines, wine vinegars and vinegars offer this, as do citrus juices. These ingredients will also impact the flavor in the end. Depending on the type of flavor you want, you must choose what acid you want to use. You may, of course, experiment with mixing and matching so you get the taste you’re looking for. Dairy products, such as yogurt, are used in many Indian recipes. Bourbon and other hard liquors should be used conservatively, not for the high alcohol content (although if you cook your meat rare – hiccup,) but for the overpowering taste you would get and the burning of the outside of the food from the flaming it might create. Best to mix those with wines, vinegars or citrus juices to get your acid.
When cooking meats over a direct flame, heterocyclic amines (HCA)’s are created. These potentially cancer-causing agents may be reduced by as much at 99% when foods are marinated in an acidic marinade, according to the American Cancer Research Institute.
The use of wine in cooking is one of the oldest gastronomic inventions. On record are countless numbers of ancient Greek and Roman recipes utilizing various types of wines. Chinese and Japanese marinades might use wines made from rice. In any case, today’s recipes can use all different types. Reds, whites, or any combination may be used to formulate your own unique flavor. A common mistake in cooking is to buy expensive wines. When cooked, wines change, regardless of the quality, so don’t waste your money. And don’t buy cooking wines. They can be overly salty for one thing, and may contain the dregs of what’s left from the process of making drinking wines. During marinating and due to the acid content, wine sort of “pre-cooks” the product without penetrating too deeply, so the end result is a more tender and much tastier product because it allows for the concentration of flavors of your other ingredients as well. We tend to think of meat and fish, but, vegetables can also be cooked in wine or acid based marinades. An all time favorite of mine and a really big hit is asparagus. I cut the ends off, pour marinade in a plastic bag and stand the asparagus upright (sealed.) It laps up the sauce like fresh rain, pulling the flavors inside. Then I grill it, basting along the way with some of the remaining marinade from the bag. Yum. For those who don’t like asparagus, you might be amazed by the results. All types of wines may be used, depending on the flavor you are trying to produce.
Dairy products such as buttermilk and yogurt may also be used to marinate. These seem to be the only type of acid that penetrates all the way through meats without damaging the texture if left in too long. This is because they are only mildly acidic. Milk is an ingredient I sometimes use to “freshen” up fish that might be ready for the garbage disposal if left too close to the expiration date before cooking. It takes the harshness and fishy flavor out. You know when fish is too far gone. Throw that stuff out. Milk also works with strong tasting fish. After soaking the fish for a couple of hours, leave some of the milk for your cat, if you have one, before throwing out the rest. Dairy products are also useful when dealing with wild game. Soaking in milk, buttermilk or yogurt really does a great job with making tough cuts of meat a lot easier to chew and reducing the strong flavor. It’s not quite clear how dairy products work, but an accepted explanation is that the calcium activates enzymes in meat that break down proteins, sort of like the way aging tenderizes meat.
If you use table salt before cooking, use it sparingly. That’s what chefs do — just a light sprinkle. When adding a lot of table salt before you cook, it has a tendency to dry foods out, particularly meats and fish. This holds true if you marinate too long in something with a high salt content. You know from experience that when you eat too much of it, you get thirsty. It can make meat thirsty, too, and once that happens, you can’t rejuvenate it; however, I’m certainly not trying to scare you away from using it. Why? Because, if used properly, it will enhance your food.
Salt can be used in rubs and other methods of preparation, such as brining, which I will explain later. Salt content should not be any higher than about .0312 (1/32) of your total marinade. Take into consideration your other ingredients. They may contain salt, too. Used the right way, salt can actually aid in moisturizing meat because it allows the water content of the marinade to seep in, acting like a sponge. About 30% of water content evaporates normally while cooking. This way you lose only about 15%. Most of your supermarket brand marinades that call for 15-30 minutes of soaking time are loaded with salt. That’s why you don’t use them for any length of time. When using soy sauce in a marinade, I always use low sodium.
Canola oil, or canola/olive oil blends are good in marinades as are safflower, corn, peanut and soy. These are generally less expensive than pure olive oils. Some oils are added in small amounts to add a flavoring affect, such as sesame, walnut and chile. If you use an olive oil, make sure you use the right type. A good extra virgin olive oil is highly monounsaturated and therefore resistant to oxidation and hydrogenation (bad word). The health benefits should outweigh anything else when considering what type of oil to use. You want to use an oil with a high burning temperature so it won’t smoke so much on you. Don’t let anyone tell you that all oils are bad for you. If you use an oil base paint, what would you clean the brush with? Water? The same holds true with your body. It needs good oils to help cleanse the body of the bad.
Oils can be very essential in the breakdown of foods when marinating. Fatty meats, for instance, are a good example of why this is true. As your acids from wine, vinegar and/or citrus change the composition of the meat, breaking down connective tissue, it opens the fatty tissue up and allows some to flow out. This animal fat is replaced with vegetable oil, generally not much more than 5%. Still, it is less animal fat you are ingesting. And this is where part of the moisturizing affect comes in. Oil helps to keep your meats and vegetables from drying out. This allows your food to retain its natural moisture.
Too much oil is not a good thing either. I recommend no more than 20-25% oil in your recipe — 21% is ideal — which means the remaining amount would be water based, from wine, citrus juice, soy or a combination of ingredients. Too much oil will coat your product and not allow for optimum penetration of the other ingredients. Remember that the heat from cooking will eliminate a lot of your oil content if you are afraid of that. Plus, you aren’t really using that much to begin with. Four to six ounces of marinade (of which only 20-25% is oil) will yield a fraction of oil in the end because only a small amount is absorbed and the rest will be cooked off. I recommend placing your food in a zippered plastic bag, squeezing out most of the air and sealing. You use a lot less marinade that way and you have less air around it, which helps retain freshness. Always marinate in the refrigerator!
Papain is a protein-cleaving (proteolytic) enzyme derived from papaya and certain other plants that digest protein. Papaya breaks down the protein in meats. It clearly acts as a tenderizer, although I prefer softener in this case. Prune juice acts the same way and we all know what kind of a softener that is. I once went to a restaurant and ordered a porterhouse steak. It came out having the consistency of mush. I sent it back. Turns out, it had been soaking in prune juice. I kid you not. It was not edible. That’s what happens with this kind of stuff. Fine to use, but be careful if you don’t want to end up with meat pudding. Most of your commercial powdered “tenderizers” contain enzymes that will do this if used too long.
HERBS, SPICES and OTHER FLAVORINGS
This is where you really get to be creative! A marinade I once concocted had a particular spice in it. I was told “this won’t work with beef” but it did. Quite nicely, actually, so don’t be afraid to conjure up your own elixir. Throw out all the rules and mix up what you want. Always sample it first. The greatest chefs are constantly imagining new combinations and they sample their work to see how they can improve it. Experiment with whatever ingredients you think will work, but follow some rules by doing some research. For instance, I wouldn’t put a bay leaf in a marinade simply because it’s totally ineffective. The flavor isn’t released until the leaf is used in cooking. You may add a bay leaf to the remaining marinade if you wish to make (cook) a sauce from it. Cilantro and basil lose their flavor rather quickly. It would be better to use them after marinating, but there is no set rule. Perhaps, you want a light touch. Oregano, sage, rosemary and thyme work well in various combinations or by themselves. You determine the flavors by mixing your herbs and spices.
Why are tropical regions more dependent on spices in their cuisines? Many spices have what is believed to be an antibacterial effect. It seems that the higher the temperature, where more food-borne pathogens are introduced, more spices are used. This would explain why foods are hotter and spicier. Such ingredients as hot pepper, garlic, onion, anise, cinnamon, coriander, ginger, cumin, lemongrass and turmeric are daily dietary stipends. Lemon, lime and black pepper are not strong inhibitors, but used in conjunction, they all pack a big antibacterial punch. The active chemical ingredients of many spices kill or slow bacterial growth. Onion, garlic, oregano and allspice kill or inhibit almost all food-borne bacteria that have been tested. Most spices inhibit more than half of all bacterial samples. I hate to be morbid, but, there must be a reason why spices have been used to embalm people for thousands of years. Keep that in mind. You’re not marinating, you’re embalming.
I like to use jalapeno peppers in my marinades (and soups.) I’ve used habaneros in other marinades. Finely minced onions work. Some marinades call for ketchup or molasses. Don’t stop anywhere. Try mustard! I know a woman who makes a delicious spaghetti sauce made from pickle juice. Yes, I’m serious. Many people use bottled Italian dressing to marinate. I have no problem with that, but you can dress them up as well. Personally, I think bottled salad dressings contain way too much oil or, if fat free, way too much high fructose corn syrup, but I’m more of a purist. I like to make my own, depending on my creativity that day and the type of food I’m preparing.
Soy sauce belongs in both the salt and acid categories. Proteins and starches in soy sauce are broken down into amino acids, sugars and alcohols. Most Chinese soy sauces are made from soybeans, but Japanese varieties combine the soy bean with wheat to provide a more pleasant and balanced flavor. By adding soy sauce to your marinade, the amino acid content can help enhance the flavor of your product and aid in the tenderization process. I strongly recommend a naturally brewed soy sauce, such as Kikkoman, and optimally, the low sodium version. Soy sauce is always a welcome addition to marinades. Read the ingredients list. Some people have issues with wheat.
Worcestershire is a spicy sauce composed mainly of water, vinegar, molasses, corn syrup, anchovies, spices and flavorings. It can be very good for marinating meats, but should be used sparingly, because it has a very strong flavor. A good one to use is Lea & Perrins.
Rubs generally come in two forms, dry and wet.
A dry rub is a combination of ground or finely crumbled herbs and spices, such as paprika, pepper, chile and garlic, massaged firmly over and into the surface of raw food. Rosemary, thyme, basil, oregano and all sorts of flavorings may be combined and used. Many dry rubs utilize a sugar and salt base with other flavorings added. Once again, salt could readily draw out moisture if used for any length of time. Sugar could burn the outside when cooked. Rubs aren’t really marinades since the penetration is not the same and the strength of the combined flavors can be too overpowering if left on too long before cooking. Rub your food and cook. You end up with a nicely flavored crust that complements the flavor inside.
Wet rubs are very similar to dry, except for the addition of a liquid in the mixture. Soy and Worcestershire sauces and oils come to mind. A very good example of a wet rub is Jamaican Jerk in sauce or paste form. When massaged into your meat, it can give a very nice and noticeable flavor, which it is meant to do, but, once again, if left on too long before cooking, it could be way too overpowering.
In many cases, rubs are used when smoking foods. The combination of the two sources of flavoring can really produce a remarkable taste. When cooking fowl, make sure to rub inside the cavity as well as the outside and sometimes under the skin. Prime rib of beef is a perfect example of meat just dying for a good massage. In the end, the outer meat and fat crisps up just enough to offer a savory flavor to die for with every bite. The same holds true for lamb and pork. Rubs should not really be considered overall tenderizers, since the overall penetration is relatively slight.
Brining was traditionally regarded as a means of preserving meats, but since the advent of refrigeration, it has lost a lot of its oomph. It is also a method of improving the flavor, texture, and moisture content of lean cuts of meat. This is achieved by soaking the meat in a salty solution for a few hours to a few days. It can be mixed with a myriad of ingredients, such as beer, maple syrup, garlic, peppercorns, and/or many other things. The basic mix is water and salt, with the salt level never exceeding 1/32 of your total blend. A one quart mixture would have one ounce (2 tablespoons) of salt, preferably Kosher.
Brining incorporates the principles of diffusion and osmosis. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines diffusion as “the process whereby particles of liquids, gases, or solids intermingle as the result of their spontaneous movement caused by thermal agitation and in dissolved substances move from a region of higher to one of lower concentration.” Merriam-Webster defines osmosis as “movement of a solvent through a semipermeable membrane (as of a living cell) into a solution of higher solute concentration that tends to equalize the concentrations of solute on the two sides of the membrane.” The processes of diffusion and osmosis are involved in achieving a balance between the flavor brine solution and the meat. A higher concentration of salt inside meat cells causes protein strands to denature. The tightly wound proteins unwind and get tangled together. The proteins trap water molecules and hold onto them tightly during the cooking process.
If you choose to brine, only really lean cuts of meat, such as chicken, turkey and pork, benefit from the process.
If you have any suggestions, please feel free to add to the comments section.
• ALWAYS MARINATE IN THE REFRIGERATOR!…no matter what you might think, whether it’s meats or vegetables.
• NEVER MARINATE IN AN ALUMINUM CONTAINER! Have you ever seen a pitted aluminum pot or pan? Where do you think that aluminum GOES?
• NEVER USE MARINADE OVER AGAIN unless you first bring it to a boil. Fresh foods have an expiration date. This is the expiration date of used marinade unless you cook it after use. You may put the cooked marinade in an ice cube tray and freeze, covered. Whenever you want to enhance the flavor of a gravy, sauce or soup, plop a cube or two in.
• AVOID FORKING MEAT. Forking creates little escape holes for the juices to run out.
• AN EXCELLENT SOURCE FOR COOKING TIPS.
• FOR CLEANING TIPS.
If you have any suggestions, please feel free to add to the comments section.
FRENCH BEEF AU GRATIN
8 ounces Fettuccine, cooked according to package directions
1/2 cup butter or margarine
4 cups sliced white onions
1 pound sirloin steak
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
4 cups beef broth
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
In a large skillet melt butter and saute thinly sliced white onions until browned, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the onions.
To the skillet add sirloin steak cut into 1/2-inch cubes. Brown well then return the onions to the pan.
In a small bowl combine flour, salt, and pepper. Add to the skillet and stir until blended. Gradually add beef broth and cook for 10 minutes.
Pour over the cooked fettuccine and top with mozzarella cheese and Parmesan cheese. Broil until the cheese is melted and browned, about 5 minutes.
Makes 4 servings.
This is a work in progress. More to come…