Unique Ways to Coax the Most Flavors into Poultry, Fish, and Meat

MARINADES HAVE always confused me. I’ve never known how to balance the various ingredients, or how long to keep something in a marinade. I worry that the chicken or fish I’m marinating will get squishy before I grill, broil, or roast it. I know I want to flavor what I’m marinating as strongly and as fully as possible, and that it’s fun rummaging around in my spice cabinet to concoct some special blend that will make my chicken or fish taste better than anyone else’s. But I don’t want to soften it the way the acid in citrus juice “cooks” raw fish in seviche–by coagulating the proteins. Then I’ll end up serving pungent mush.

In an attempt to feel more confident mixing my own marinades, I recently looked into what roles the chief components in marinades play, and I was taken aback to realize how little I had bothered to think through. I concentrated on proteins–meat, chicken, and fish –because they are the reason marinades came into being, and am the foods most people marinate. With the exception of eggplant and mushrooms, soft vegetables don’t take particularly well to being marinated before grilling or broiling: they go soggy when cooked. They do take well to being steeped in liquid afterward, but that is more the realm of dressings and sauces. Marinades are generally understood to be liquids that flavor foods before cooking. I’ve learned, however, that I don’t necessarily need liquid to do what I want a marinade to do.


Healthy Water for People

A marinade (from the Latin for “sea water,” referring to brine) is classically a way to tenderize cheap, tough cuts of meat by softening the collagen that binds the muscle. In the West this is done chiefly with an acidic ingredient such as lemon juice, wine, vinegar, or yogurt. Mango and tamarind also contain effective acids, and are used widely in Asia as tenderizers, as are papaya and pineapple, whose potent enzymes achieve the same end.

Tenderizing is still important for tough cuts of meat, such as London broil (flank steak) and lamb for kebabs. But thorough tenderization takes time, and Harold McGee, in On Food and Cooking, calls into question the ability of marinades to tenderize at all beyond the surface, which often becomes unpleasantly mealy. Marinades do benefit scallops of meat; in a few hours or overnight the marinade can significantly penetrate these thin cuts, and beef, veal, and lamb better withstand the acid of a marinade than do fish and chicken. Game, too, is classically marinated, to help break down tough fibers, reduce gaminess, and add fat where there is rarely any to speak of.


The hope is to lend needed liquid as well. In the cultures that use marinades extensively to tenderize meat–for example, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Asian–people don’t cook meat rare, and any extra juice is welcome. McGee doubts that marinades can add that much liquid to cooked meat, and he has had unimpressive results in experimenting with injection bulb basters, which some people use to squirt marinade into the center of thick cuts. In The Grilling Encyclopedia, A. Cort Sinnes, a master griller, advocates using a “demon bulb baster” to flavor poultry. McGee didn’t achieve much tenderizing or improvement in flavor when he tried injecting marinade into a thick piece of meat (he didn’t try chicken), but at least he avoided the disaster experienced by the Oxford physicist and cooking enthusiast Nicholas Kurti, who injected pineapple juice into a pork roast and managed to turn the whole thing into a sort of pate. (The title of an anthology of essays by physicists about food refers to the gallant remark made to Kurti by the chef who roasted the mess: But the Crackling Is Superb.)

Decreasing Number of People Using Big Hunks

Fewer and fewer people cook big hunks of meat regularly these days, and what people put on a grill or under a broiler isn’t likely to be something that needs tenderizing. If chicken, for instance, is tough, that’s because it was overcooked, not because it wasn’t given special treatment, and the same is true of most expensive cuts of veal and beef. Different cooking methods usually compensate for potentially tough cuts: popular and cheaper cuts of beef like brisket and shin are usually braised for a long time, breaking some of the bonds in the collagen and softening the meat. The quick way to tenderize meat is to break the fibers by pounding the meat–crude but effective and still standard practice for scalloping and other thin cuts.

Replacement of Chicken and Fish

Fish & Chicken

SINCE THE USUAL main course today is chicken or fish, the problem is more often blandness than toughness. Flavoring, not tenderizing, is the goal, and so the importance of mush-making acid diminishes. Aromatic herbs and spices come to the fore, as does the question of how much liquid to use–or whether to use any at all.

The role of oil is a matter of dispute. Certainly it is the best flavor carrier, besides having flavor of its own, and it tenderizes meat or fish and helps to keep it from sticking to a grill. (The surest way to avoid sticking is not oil but patience: pieces of food on a grill will generally move freely once they are well seared.) Oil also seems to be important for the absorption of flavors. Shirley Corriher, who for six years has been at work on a book about the scientific rules of the kitchen, to be published next year, points out how fast oil soaks into leaves and vegetables, which have naturally water- but not oil-repellent surfaces: a salad dressed in advance gets soggy because of the oil, not the vinegar. Harold McGee told me, “My guess is that oil will insinuate itself between the fibers of both meat and vegetables in a way that water won’t.”

Some marinades rely on liquid for the desired taste. Satay and soy-based marinades are indispensable for teriyaki (look in Barbara Kafka’s Party Food for recipes), and I can’t imagine London broil without such a marinade. I was recently drawn to a sweet-and-sour marinade I found in Evan Kleiman’s Cucina Del Mare, a book of Italian-inspired fish recipes. This marinade plays Sicilian flavors against a strong fish like swordfish or mackerel: Soak a pinch of saffron threads in a quarter cup of hot water for half an hour, and combine the saffron and its liquid with a half cup each of red-wine vinegar and chopped raisins, a tablespoon of minced fresh rosemary leaves, and a cup of olive oil. Marinate the fish for just a half hour to an hour, to avoid vinegar corrosion, before grilling or broiling.

On the increasingly rare occasions when I eat meat, I choose lamb, in particular Julie Sahni’s “mint-scented” lamb, from Classic Indian Cooking, marinated in a liquid paste consisting of two tablespoons of minced fresh mint leaves, one tablespoon each of minced garlic and grated or finely chopped gingerroot, two teaspoons each of paprika and ground cumin, a half teaspoon each of coarse salt and powdered red pepper, and a quarter teaspoon of ground cloves, all mixed into a half cup of light vegetable oil and two tablespoons of lemon juice. Smear this over a boned, butterflied leg of lamb to be grilled or broiled, let it sit in a sealed plastic bag overnight, and, as a friend says, “even with only two people you won’t have leftovers.”

Marinade Soak for Fascinating People

HOW KEEN ARE you to have a marinade soak in? This might seem a simple question to answer. Isn’t the point to make that flavorful liquid penetrate as thoroughly as possible? Otherwise, why not just make a sauce? Chris Schlesinger has a different solution: dry rubs, which he discovered on Texas barbecue while growing up in the South. Schlesinger has had plenty of time to think about marinades. He has spent nearly a decade in front of a fire at the East Coast Grill, a restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and, with John Willoughby, has written two good books, The Thrill of the Grill and the new Salas, Sambals, Chutneys & Chowchows, a small book of recipes for sauces and condiments. In his travels throughout the Caribbean and, recently, Asia and India, Schlesinger has realized that he prefers “raw, loud, vibrant flavors thrown together rather than intricate blending.” For this reason he scorns marinades. All you get when you cut into a perfectly good chunk of meat, he says, is a “quarter inch of Italian dressing.”

As an example of a dry rub that does, more intensely, what a conventional marinade is meant to do, Schlesinger devised for me an all-American barbecue rub, drawing on his years of observing barbecue throughout the South and Southwest. Mix together a quarter cup each of powdered chili peppers, paprika, ground cumin, brown sugar, salt, and freshly cracked black pepper, two tablespoons of ground cayenne, and a teaspoon of ground cloves. This provides most of the flavors people crave in a barbecue sauce without the overdoses of sugar and tomato which inevitably cause it to burn. Although the rub does contain sugar and will provide a crust, it won’t provide the sticky, gooey dribs and drabs and the high charcoal content that many people love. What interests Schlesinger is a “super-crispy, crunchy crust and juicy meat.”

Suitable Temperature for Heating Water

Indian Home Cooks

Schlesinger often toasts aromatic seeds in a dry pan at medium heat for three to five minutes, until they begin to smoke–a step most Indian cooks insist on to get the most from spices like cumin, coriander, and peppercorns. This technique is used in making a spicy rub he gave me for oily fish like tuna, mackerel, and bluefish: In a pan toast two tablespoons each of mustard seed, fennel seed, coriander seed, and white peppercorns. Let them cool, whir them in a spice grinder (you can use a coffee grinder for this purpose if you first whir granulated sugar in it and wipe it clean), and stir the freshly ground spices with a quarter cup of coarse salt and one teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, turmeric, and cayenne.

Or you can try anise, ginger, Szechuan peppercorns, and other Chinese spices to give a different “flavor footprint” (Schlesinger’s phrase) to a dry rub. In Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco, Paula Wolfert gives recipes for rats el hanout, a strong Moroccan spice blend, and the Moroccan chili-based harass; in Authentic Mexican, Rick and Deann Bayless give several Yucatan seasoning pastes for pork, chicken, and fish which call for lots of garlic and spices like cumin, coriander, allspice, and cloves.

Eliminating acid from a marinade doesn’t mean that you can’t have the flavor of citrus. In A Fresh Look at Saucing Foods, Deirdre Davis proposes a dry rub consisting of just equal parts of grated lemon zest (the colored part of the rind) and coarsely ground black and white pepper, to be left for a half hour on chicken or turkey breast, pork cutlets, or veal chops. Despite the comprehensive and instructive overview of sauces she gives in her book, Davis told me that she often favors a dry rub over any marinade: “I think it penetrates more, and it stays there, because you don’t wipe it off,” as you usually do a marinade.

For a knockout punch of both citrus and hot pepper, consult Barbara Tropp’s China Moon Cookbook, a delightful and original book of recipes and ideas from an authority and a scholar who has relaxed considerably since writing the encyclopedic Modern Art of Chinese Cooking. Tropp gives zingy recipes for several flavored oils that can stand alone as marinades. Making them requires a deep non-aluminum pot and a deep-fat-frying thermometer, but the powerful results reward the effort.

Easiest Cooking Methods with Light Liquid Detergent

The simplest and perhaps most versatile recipe is for chili-orange oil, which can flavor meat, chicken, or fish. Wash three large, unblemished oranges in warm water in a light liquid detergent, using an abrasive sponge; peel off and mince a thin layer of zest, leaving the white pith. In a heavy two- or two-and-a-half-quart saucepan combine the zest with half a cup of “shockingly pungent” dried red chili flakes; three tablespoons of unrinsed Chinese black beans, coarsely chopped; one or two large cloves of garlic, smashed and peeled; two cups of corn or peanut oil (Troop suggests Mazola corn oil or Planter’s peanut oil); and a quarter cup of Japanese sesame oil (she suggests the Kadoya brand). Over low heat bring the mixture to 225 [degrees]-250 [degrees] and simmer, stirring occasionally, for fifteen minutes. Remove the oil from the heat and let it cool; scrape it into a jar, cover, and store in a cool place or a refrigerator. Troop told me that besides drizzle the oil over pasta, she mixes it with mushroom soy sauce (her preferred brand is Pearl River Bridge) for a marinade.

Troop sells bottles of chili-orange oil at her restaurant in San Francisco, the China Moon Cafe, and hopes soon to market it more widely. For other quick doses of spicy heat you can use any of dozens of pepper sauces and oils available by mail order from Mo Hotta–Mo Betta (800-462-3220), which publishes a catalogue as diverting as its name.

The Types of Best Marinade

THE BEST MARINADE or dry rub is, of course, the one you come up with yourself. Soy and hoisin sauces are invaluable standbys, as are mustard powder and various oils and spices. Marinades forgive inexperience and enthusiasm much more readily than, say, salad dressings, because going overboard with heat or acidity won’t necessarily overwhelm the food you’ve marinated. Good rules to keep in mind are to seal marinated foods in plastic bags and to marinate meats at room temperature, allowing flavors to seep in faster. Marinating at room temperature can be dangerous with fish and chicken, which quickly develop many kinds of bacteria and might not be cooked long enough to be made safe. Cookbooks always recommend marinating fish and chicken in the refrigerator. I have found, though, that the authors themselves usually leave them on the counter. Also, bear in mind how quickly acids, including those in wine, eat into the outer layers of fish (shrimp is particularly susceptible) and, to a lesser extent, chicken. Dry rubs can stay on virtually as long as you like without damaging flesh. It is nearly impossible for any kind of marinade to penetrate chicken skin: if you can’t do without the skin, poke your fingers beneath it to spread on a dry rub or a paste.

You need to slather any marinade or rub on every bit of the surface of the meat, chicken, or fish you’re flavoring, inside and out. Dry rubs can be harder to make adhere everywhere, but generally they will mix with the liquid from the flesh, making a kind of paste, and pressure and persistence will result in a thorough coat. Fancy brushes and namby-pamby applicators won’t do: bare hands are best. Many cooks think that you haven’t even entered the kitchen until your hands are dirty. Marinades and dry rubs tell you very clearly that you’re cooking.

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