…that is the question. The answer? It depends.
I think a lot of people believe the act of marinating something helps tenderize it. For the most part, this is an old wives tale. When you marinate something the ultimate goal is to infuse it with big flavor (for the purpose of today, ‘it’ = protein). Neutral flavored meats love marinades-they can amp up the taste and create seasonings that take your meals to another level.
The marinade itself should be bold, usually a bit salty, and somewhat acidic. The acid ingredient (vinegar, wine, lemon juice, etc.) will effect the texture of your meat to some extent. It will begin to break down the tough fibers in the meat, allowing the seasoning to penetrate from the outside in. You can over-do the acid-too much will create a mushy consistency and we all know meat that has the texture of thick oatmeal is pretty darn nasty. An overdose of acid can also begin to cook your protein. Think ceviche-it’s fish that is essentially ‘cooked’ in acid (usually lime juice). If you’re marinating a thin cut of meat or a piece of fish, don’t use too much acid and keep the marinating time to a minimum. My favorite marinade is a balsamic soy combination and it’s perfect with a flank steak that ‘s headed for the grill. Recipe is below.
Tenderizing a protein is a different story. Here the goal is to soak the meat in a liquid that will help retain juices and keep it from drying out. This is where brining comes in. A brine is not unlike a marinade in that it does season and can impart some flavors but, the basic brine ingredients are salt and water. The purpose of the brine is really two-fold: to season the meat inside and out and to help it retain moisture. Bruce Aidells, the king of brining, said (in Cooking Light) “The concentration of water and salt is greater in the brine than it is in the meat; the meat absorbs the brine until the concentration of water and salt is equal in the brine and in the meat. Once inside the meat, the salt causes the proteins to unwind, become tangled, and trap moisture. This creates a barrier to prevent moisture loss during cooking; the result is a succulent, juicy piece of meat.”
When you’re thinking proportions, I usually stick with 2 cups water for every Tablespoon of kosher salt. For a whole chicken or four large bone-in pork chops you’re probably looking at at least 8 cups water to 1/4 cup salt. Let the salt dissolve in the water then, if you like, season it up-crushed garlic cloves, sugar (I like brown sugar), bay leaves, rosemary or thyme sprigs, honey, etc…Large cuts of meat with the bones-in can brine 12-24 hours. Smaller cuts, especially boneless ones, will benefit from just 4-6 hours in the brine. Always brine your meats in the fridge and rinse them before you cook (pat them dry with paper towels after their rinse). I swear by brining when I cook whole chickens, pork of any kind, and my Thanksgiving turkey.
So, next time you’re staring at a piece of meat you’ve brought home from the market, don’t hesitate to marinate or brine it. If it’s a big lean cut, go for the brine. If it’s a smaller richer protein, give it a big marinade.
Marinated Flank Steak anyone?
I’ve been using this marinade for years and, honestly, have no idea where the original recipe came from. I think it’s morphed from its original state so hopefully I am safe calling it my own. Enjoy!
1 large flank steak (about 1 1/2 pounds)
4 large shallots, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Pat the steak dry and season it well with salt and pepper. Put the shallots in a dish large enough to hold the steak. Stir in the ginger, vinegar, brown sugar and soy sauce. Add the steak to the dish, turning it several times to coat on all sides. Cover the dish and refrigerate at least 2 hours, up to 2 days. Remove steak from the fridge at least 30 minutes before grilling and wipe any excess marinade off before cooking (or the shallots will burn). An average flank steak (about 3/4-1 inch thick) will take about 5 minutes per side to cook to medium rare. Enjoy!