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PARADE OF MARINADES KEEPS FLAVORS STEPPING LIVELY

The flavor explosion now permeating American cuisine probably started on the outdoor grill.

For years, backyard chefs have known a steak that spent a couple of hours in a complex marinade tastes a lot better than one that leaves the refrigerator with just a sprinkling of salt and pepper.Jim Tarantino, author of "Marinades," said marinades and other flavorings are especially good for grilled or barbecued foods because they counteract the acrid flavor of the smoke.

"That's why the sweetness of ketchup is so welcome on a charcoal-grilled hamburger," he said in a telephone interview.

Getting inspiration from barbecuers - the marathoners of the outdoor cooking world - grillers started eyeing the complex mixes of spices rubbed into pork shoulders and ribs before cooking. They found they could add even more flavor to foods for the grill with rubs and without the wait for the marinade to do its job.

From the dry rubs evolved pastes. They have a little oil or other liquid worked into the dry spices and herbs.

Although rubs and pastes can be used just prior to cooking, flavors intensify when they are in contact with the meat, fish or fowl for several hours.

Outdoor cooks may be disappointed if they expect their marinades to turn tough cuts of meat into fork tender morsels.

Marinades, which contain acids such as vinegar, lemon juice or wine, will soften surface meat tissues. To soften interior muscles, big pieces of meat like roasts would have to marinate for several days. And by that time, the outside would be too mushy to be palatable.

The softening action of the outside tissues of the meat, most experts say, falls short of true tenderization.

Some foods, such as fish and chicken, should not be marinated too long because their tissues absorb liquid more readily than beef or lamb. Fish turns opaque when left too long in acid solutions and chicken breasts turn white.

While Tarantino recommends marinating fish from 2 to 4 hours, other sources say 30 minutes to 1 hour is sufficient, and some researchers say chicken gets all the flavor improvement it will ever have in the first 10 minutes of marination.

Typically, marinades are made of three components: aromatics or flavorings such as garlic and other herbs, spices, liqueurs and onions; an acid such as wine or vinegar which softens the meat. As it softens, though, moisture is lost. That's why most cooks also include an oil, the third component.

But for those who don't want to add fat to their foods, oil can be either optional or used in only small amounts. A tablespoon or two is enough to carry fat-soluable flavors and to prevent sticking on the grill.

"Oil is there to counteract the moisture lost by the acid," Tarantino said. "You are really just putting it on the surface of the meat."

In her book, "Low Fat Grilling", Melanie Barnard often uses broths - beef, chicken or vegetable - in her marinades in place of oil.

"The broth is used to increase the liquid for marinating," she said. "There's no real need to add fat these days."

Charlie Knote, meat scientist and author of "Barbecuing & Sausage-Making Secrets," said the oil helps develop grill marks and browning.

Sugars - such as honey or molasses - also contribute to browning, Knote said.

"You won't get browning or smoke coloring in meat that is wet," said Knote, who lives in Cape Girardeau, Mo. "It has to be dry to get that reaction."

That's why he always dries the meat before grilling. He blots the moisture from marinated meat with a paper towel or, if there is time, places the meat on a rack over a pan and puts it in the refrigerator for several hours. Because of their acid content, all marinades should be blended in nonreactive bowls such as glass, ceramic or stainless steel - not aluminum or cast iron.

In general, Knote prefers a dry rub to a wet marinade.

"You can sprinkle on a dry rub 10 minutes before you're ready to grill," he said.

Ingredients in dry rubs basically stay on the surface except for salt. "Salt is the only substance that penetrates meat," he said. But when it does, it also pulls out moisture which holds back browning.

So, Knote suggests leaving the salt out of the rub and sprinkling it on at the end of cooking. He also likes to "refresh" grilled meat or poultry with another sprinkle of the dry rub just before serving.

Chris Schlesinger, Boston restaurateur and co-author of "The Thrill of the Grill," said he prefers rubs to marinades, too, because he thinks they deliver the individual flavors of the ingredients better than marinades.

"When you marinate lamb in something like Italian dressing, you only taste one flavor," he said. "I try to be a flavor-driven cook, using assertive and unique flavors. I don't think marinades are an effective way to carry flavors."

Schlesinger said he also likes the crusting effect he can get with dry rubs or pastes.

"If I make a paste out of fresh herbs, garlic and lemon juice and pack it on a meat like lamb, the flavor is concentrated in a crust on the outside of the meat," he said.

Tarantino, whose book covers marinades, dry rubs and pastes, said a Washington chef taught him a trick about using pastes.

"After rubbing fish or meat with a paste, tightly wrap it with lightly oiled plastic wrap before you cook it. The liquids and seasonings will be absorbed into the food's surface," he suggests in his book. Don't forget to take the plastic wrap off before cooking.

The accompanying recipes are from Tarantino's "Marinades."

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Recipes

BASIC CHICKEN MARINADE

1/2 cup fresh orange juice

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Kosher salt and cracked black pepper, to taste

Combine orange juice, lemon juice, mustard and Worcestershire in a nonreactive mixing bowl. Whisk in the oil a little at a time. Add the garlic, parsley, oregano, salt and pepper. Makes 11/2 cups. Marinate chicken breasts 3 to 4 hours; chicken wings, 4 to 6 hours.

MARINADE FOR GRILLED VEGETABLES

2/3 cup olive oil

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

Combine all marinade ingredients in a nonreactive bowl. Marinate vegetables such as bell peppers, zucchini, yellow squash and pearl onions for about 1 hour before skewering and grilling.

ROSEMARY SEASONING RUB

4 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon fresh cracked pepper

1/2 tablespoon fresh cracked white peppercorns

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon dry oregano

1 teaspoon dry garlic

Combine ingredients in a spice mill or blender and grind to a coarse powder. Stored in an airtight jar, this will keep in the freezer for 3 to 4 months. Makes 1/2 cup. This is an all-purpose rub good on lamb, chicken and even fish such as swordfish. Rub on chicken breasts 4 to 6 hours before serving; on lamb, 3 to 6 hours; on swordfish 2 to 4 hours.

HERB PESTO RUB

1/4 cup fresh thyme

1/4 cup fresh rosemary

1/2 cup fresh oregano

1 cup fresh parsley

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 cup olive oil

Strip the thyme and rosemary leaves from the stems and remove the leafy parts from the oregano and parsley. You should have about 3 cups of loose herbs after cleaning.

Place the herbs, salt and pepper in a food processor. With the motor running, slowly add the olive oil and process until the pesto is blended. The mix will keep for one week in the refrigerator. Makes 2 cups.

- Tarantino notes this rub is sublime when placed under the skin of chicken breasts (4 to 6 hours before cooking) or on a leg of lamb (overnight is best).