• Hal Decker

Marinate vs brine

Marinade vs brine

This will be a 2-part series on Marinades vs Brines. As both add flavor to proteins, they are vastly different not only in their application, but in the science of how they work. First, we will talk about marinades. Marinades serve two different functions: as a tenderizer and flavor enhancer. You probably already know that some tough cuts of meat benefit from the tenderizing effects of marination, but how does it work? This is the science of marination.

Marinade tenderizing science: The cooking process itself turns connective tissues into gelatin to varying degrees. Depending on the cut and type of meat, it may need a little assistance to bring it to a palatable range of tenderness. Certain plant and fungi enzymes and acids can break down muscle and connective proteins in meats. As far back as pre-Columbian Mexico, cooks found that wrapping meats in papaya leaves before cooking made for more tender results. The active enzyme in the papaya leaves is papain, now refined from papayas and commercially available. Connective tissue that comes in direct contact with the protein-digesting enzymes gets broken down. These tenderizing enzymes also reduce the capability of the meat to hold its juices, resulting in greater fluid loss and thus drier meat. Enzymes are heat activated at levels between 140- and 175-degrees F. and deactivated at the boiling point, so it really serves no purpose other than flavoring to let meat sit in a marinade at room temperature. In fact, refrigeration is recommended to avoid the growth of harmful bacteria. Let meat come to room temperature before cooking.

Marination requires contact Direct contact is the important point, since it is necessary for the chemical reaction to occur. This means that soaking a piece of meat in a marinade will only penetrate just so far into the surface of the meat. If you marinate a large cut of meat in a tenderizing marinade, you end up with a mushy exterior and an unaffected center. Puncturing the meat for the marinade to penetrate gives an uneven result, with the further undesirable side effect of allowing the meat to lose even more juices while cooking. Thus, flat cuts of meat benefit most from tenderizing marinades. Place meat in a heavy zip-top bag with the air squeezed out and turn it often to be sure all surfaces benefit from the marinade. 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.

SOFA: S is for Salt. Salt is important because it is a flavor enhancer, and it is good at penetrating meat and pulling the other flavor components in the marinade by osmosis.

O is for Oil. Oils are used in marinades because many flavorings are not water soluble, and oils are needed to release their aromatics. Most green herbs are 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. Use a corn, canola, or peanut oil. Other oils might work but give them thought because some, such as walnut, 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 meaty flavor from glutamates found in meat stocks, soy sauce, and mushrooms.

A is for Acid. Acid can break down protein slightly. Typical acids are fruit juice (lemon juice, apple juice, white grape juice, pineapple juice, and orange juice work well), vinegar (cider vinegar, distilled vinegar, sherry vinegar, balsamic vinegar, raspberry vinegar, or any old vinegar), and even sugar free soft drinks.

Tips 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. 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. Now here's a neat trick. Fresh pineapple has an enzyme called bromelain that tenderizes meat. The enzyme works fast. Within 30-60 minutes the meat is ready for the grill. Surprisingly, the pineapple adds little flavor to the meat in such a short time. Some people like the softer meat, others feel it is mushy. You decide. The enzyme is destroyed by the canning and bottling process, so be sure to use fresh pineapple. Likewise, papain is an enzyme in papaya and the main tenderizing ingredient in Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer. You can liquefy papaya or add smashed papaya to your marinade to tenderize.

Next, we will talk about Brining

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