Saturday, January 26, 2008

Quote of the Day

A Tip of the Toque to Princess Haiku.

"Everyone is a visionary if you scratch him deep enough. But a Celt is a visionary without scratching."

W.B. Yeats

Sous What?

Once again, blogging buddy Professor Chaos writes:

doubt I can word this in such a way that you can respond directly in a post (like the last one), but my new cast-iron fetish has led me to a new appreciation of marinades and how they flavor meat/fish/fowl.

So could you do a post about water, oil, vinegar, tomato, etc. based marinades and how they flavor what you cook?

I ask because for beef and pork I usually use (with great results) a half and half mix of A1 and worcestershire, and with chicken I mostly use water-based hot sauce. But tonight I used balsamic dressing on chicken and it worked amazingly well, and the other day I soaked a beef filet in ranch dressing and it came out quite tasty too.

Now I'm marinading an ahi steak in balsamic dressing and a salmon steak in A1 (because it's tomato based -- usually I poach them in a tomato-based soup). My options are many, and these are just guesses at this point as to how they'll ultimately taste.

I guess what I'm asking you to do is give us a metric about the various cuts of beef, pork, chicken, and fish and advice as to which base and herbs/spices/etc. marinades will flavor each variety and cut and how. As with my original challenge in this regard, the more simple the better.

A tall order for sure, but isn't this what you're an expert in? Not an easy post to write, so take your time, and keep it to what a normal person has in the fridge.

Actually, I think YOU worded it fairly well, and I'd be happy to tackle this one.

But first, let me address your gracious but misguided sentiment at the end. I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert. I'm a trained novice, an initiate, if you well, and while brines and cures and marinades are an integral part of two of my passions -- charcuterie and barbecue -- I still have much to learn.

Having said that, I think I can address a few of the good professor's questions:

So could you do a post about water, oil, vinegar, tomato, etc. based marinades and how they flavor what you cook?

I've partially addressed this before, and really dropped the ball on it. So let's ignore that first attempt of mine at explaining brines and marinades. Let's start with a quick course on what is a cure, what is a brine, and what is a marinade?

A cure is a form of dry rub, usually made up mostly of salt and some source of sweeness -- sugar, etc. -- that is applied directly to the meat. Originally, cures, like brines, were intended to help preserve the meat. They're still used for thast purpose in specialty applications, but nowadays their main purpose is to impart flavor.

Now, if instead of rubbing the cure onto the meat being prepared, you mix it with water, you have a brine -- a highly salty liquid in which the meat is submerged for a period of time in order to accomplish the same goals as a cure -- preservation and/or flavoring.

A marinade is closely related to a brine. The main difference is that brines rely mostly on salt and sweet to impart flavor, and marinades rely on acids. The most common acids used are citric acid (from citrus fruit, duh), acetic acid (from vinegars), and wine (the acids present in wine are varied, two of the most common being tannic and tartaric). As the professor mentions, tomato-based liquids can also be used, they have quite a bit of ascorbic acid (vitamin c).

Acids can o a lot of things to the meat when marinating. They impart... wait for it... acidity, which translates to the taste sour. They can also be useful for unlocking flavors in the other ingredients in the marinade. They do NOT, despite popular belief, do much in the way of tenderizing the meat. Maybe a little, because they will denature some of the proteins, but not enough to make tough meat tender -- slow cooking is key for that to happen. But the denaturing will alter the taste and flavor of the meat and how it reacts to cooking.

In fact, the acid can actually cook the meat -- that's what ceviche is -- and can easily overpower it. That's why it's important to regulate how acidic your marinade is. The best way to do this is to dilute it with another, preferrably neutral, liquid -- water and oil being the most common choices.

So which to use?

Well, a general rule of thumb is to use oil-based marinades with lean, easily dried-out cuts of meat, such as white fishes and lean beef like filet mignon. Be careful using them on already fatty meats such as cap-on brisket, salmon, etc., which are best with water-based marinades. Pork and chicken tend to be versatile, and can take either.

As for what flavors to use, the same rules apply to marinades as do to any other methods of flavoring, like sauces and even rubs -- it all depends on how flavorful the meat is to begin with. If it has a delicate flavor, like most fish, go with subtle flavorings. More flavorful, stronger-tasting meat like game or lanb or mutton, go with stronger, bolder-flavored herbs and spices. With beef, it depends on the cut and what your goal is. Remember that the more tender the meat, the less flavorful, and the tougher the meat, the more flavorful. If you have a filet mignon, for instance, you're not going to want to overpower it -- rub it with olive oil, salt and pepper, and grill it -- let Mallard do his stuff. Brisket? Go to town -- it's very flavorful, and it lends itself well to lots of spices. Once again, pork and chicken are your workhorses -- they lend themselves well to either approach, depending on what you want to showcase. This is especially true of chicken, which has little flavor on its own, and makes a great "blank canvas". If you want to get fancier, go find some good ethnic cookbooks, and experiment with some spices. The other day I made a great Spanish dish called Pinchitos Morunos, cubed meat marinated in paprika, cumin, coriander, lemon juice and olive oil -- simple, delicious.

I hope that was simple enough without being too vague.