All About Marinades

Marinades give grilled foods an ethnic identity. They also help tenderize meat fibers and keep foods moist during cooking. The latter is particularly important for grilling.

Most marinades have three components: acid, fat and aromatics. The acids help break down muscle fibers, tenderizing poultry and meats. The fat, usually oil, coats the exterior of the meat, keeping it from drying out during cooking.

The aromatics -- which can include chopped vegetables, herbs, spices and intensely flavorful condiments such as Tabasco or Worcestershire sauces -- add cannon blasts of flavor. Put them together and there isn't a food in creation that can resist their transformational powers.

The acids include vinegars, fruit juices and cultured milk products, such as yogurt or buttermilk. Lemon juice is a popular souring agent in the Mediterranean basin and central Asia, lime juice in Latin America and the Far East, pomegranate juice in the Near East.

Acids in dairy-based marinades range from the yogurt and yogurt cheese mixtures of India, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan to the buttermilk used in the American South.

The fats in a marinade seal in flavor. Olive oil is the preferred oil in California and the Mediterranean. (Use a good fruity olive oil for marinating.) Sesame oil imparts a pleasing nutty flavor to the marinades of the Far East. (Be sure you buy a dark, fragrant sesame oil made from roasted sesame seeds.)

If you want the moisturizing benefits of oil without a distinct flavor, use a bland oil, such as canola or peanut.

The aromatics are the soul of a marinade. Classical French marinades start with a mirepoix, a fragrant dice of onion, celery and carrot. The Chinese use ginger, green onions and garlic. Dried, fresh and roasted chiles lie at the heart of Mexican marinades. Herbs and spices are the soloists, adding high notes of character and flavor. As for condiments, they can be as commonplace as soy sauce or hot sauce, or as exotic as fish sauce or rose water.

Marinades are generally liquidy, but some can be as thick as paste. The latter include wet rubs, such as Jamaica's jerk seasoning or the fiery Berber spice paste of North Africa. Incidentally, Italy's pesto makes a memorable marinade for poultry and seafood.

The flavorings for a marinade are limited only to your imagination. But over the course of time, certain flavorings have come to be associated with specific foods. Seafood is well-served by the fragrant tartness of lemon juice, olive oil and fresh herbs. Lamb positively shines in a marinade of lemon juice, onion and yogurt. Beef is is wonderful in an Asian blend of soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine, ginger, garlic and green onions.

Most marinades are used in their raw state, but in some instances they can be cooked. The French marinate game in a mixture of boiled red wine and juniper berries. Besides increasing flavor, boiling eliminates the raw alcohol taste and reduces the overall marinating time. Mexicans often roast the onions and garlic to give their spice pastes a rich smoky flavor. If you cook a marinade, be sure to let it cool to room temperature before using.

Food should be marinated in a nonreactive container, one made of glass, porcelain, clay or stainless steel. Zip-top plastic food bags make great vessels for marinating. Avoid aluminum and cast iron, which tend to react with the acids in the marinade. It is not necessary for the food to be completely submerged in liquid, but it should be turned several times. Cover the pan or bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate the food while it's marinating. Drain meats well before placing them on the grill: Wet meat tends to stew rather than grill. If you want to use the marinade for basting, bring it to a rapid boil in a saucepan first to kill any bacteria. Marinades should not be reused.

Be careful not to marinate foods for too long. Meats can become mushy when marinated for longer than 24 hours. In some cases, the acids in a marinade will "cook" the food, particularly a delicate food such as fish.

Source: Steven Raichlen


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