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"They are little kitchen lifesavers." Nigel Slater

I'm not really quite sure where the inspiration for this post came from. Well I did earmark a page in Nigel Slater's A Cook's Book which had a few words and a couple of marinades (more later) but so far I had not really thought of a way to talk about it. It seemed so trivial.

And perhaps it is. I'm sure that these days we all marinate stuff all the time. Whether we buy it ready marinated from the supermarket (I hope not), from an actual recipe or whether we make it up from what we have available. I mean you can't barbecue anything without a marinade can you? Even sausages these days. But did we always? We think it adds flavour and tenderises the meat. But does it? And who did it first anyway? So these are some of the things I shall attempt to cover.

By the way I chose the photo at the top as my lead photo because it is so representative of what I am talking about here, (why you should marinade) and so beautiful. Simple, tasty ... I don't usually like to use the big stock photo library pictures but Getty are remarkably restrained with their logo, and besides they deserve the credit. Though I'm probably breaking copyright rules. Hopefully they'll let me keep it. I'm not trying to make money from it after all.

But back to the topic in hand. The Egyptians seem to be the first ancient civilisation credited with marinading and then the Romans, but one does wonder whether prehistoric man had a go too. How did the first bit of marinading happen? Did some meat accidentally fall in some sea water, or some gone off milk?

The origin of the word after all is 'mare' - the Latin for sea because the first marinading it seems was simply to soak in sea water. It's obvious really, but I had never made the connection. Brining is a tenderising process after all. Mind you if you lived nowhere near the sea, how would you have known that? Yes there is rock salt, but first you have to realise it is salt, and they you have to realise that if you mix it with water it will act as a preservative. Although, of course, just rubbing it with salt will do that too. And these days, particularly in America it seems to me, brining, especially chicken, in buttermilk seems to be a real thing. Some say you should never roast a chicken without brining it in buttermilk first.

And you can understand why the ancients would have wanted to tenderise the tough meat that they had to deal with. And preserve it too. Salt is a great preservative. Did anybody think to dunk it in milk I wonder, or yoghurt? Or fruit juice. It seems that in Asian and Mexican cultures at least, fruit such as pineapple, papaya and kiwi fruit have been used for centuries to tenderise meats.

As an aside there is never much food history on what was going on in places other than Europe in ancient times really, so I have no idea when the Chinese, the Venezuelans, the Nigerians, the Tahitians, the American Indians, the Aborigines and so on, started marinating meat, if indeed they did. But surely they did. These days:

"There are two reasons to marinate (well, three if you count sloth): to tenderise texture and enhance flavour." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

And I would suspect that it's really only one (today) - to flavour the food - as most meat sold in the western world is pretty tender anyway - even the so-called tough cuts. Besides you can also tenderise them by just giving them a good bash.

The French were marinading meat by the 13th century and everyone else just a little later - in Europe that is, but the British don't seem to have done much of it. I can't think of a single 'classic' English dish that involves marinating the meat. or fish either come to that, unless you count soused herrings, but that's a sort of pickle. A sort of British ceviche. Pickling yes - lots of pickles but that's a different kind of 'cooking' and is fundamentally a way of preserving gluts. Although, that said, flavour, is of course of huge importance. That's why they add all those spices and herbs to the pickles.

Anyway I was unaware of marinating as a cooking process until I started cooking from Elizabeth David and Robert Carrier. And then it was mostly in wine and for longish periods. I remember once making Elizabeth David's Pork to taste like wild boar which involved marinading it for days. And yes it did taste gamey. And when I think of it I don't even remember any of my French hostesses marinating anything either. A little later Claudia Roden stepped in to widen my repertoire to more Middle-Eastern things, and then, of course, the Indians. Today, inspiration is all around.

So - tenderising. Well this is interesting. I have now read quite a few articles on the science of marinading. Some are a bit dry, but try Felicity Cloake who did an experiment with some tough skirt steak and various methods/timings of marinating. Her conclusion? Best to marinate in yoghurt as your base, and not for that long.

Or you could also try Cooks Illustrated who bust a few marinading myths, including the one that says that marinading for a long time tenderises the meat. Not so it seems as acidic things like wine, vinegar, lemon juice, actually have a tendency to toughen the meat, especially if you do it for a long time. And salt dries it out. You would know that if you have ever made gravlax for example because the dry salt you start with becomes slushy and wet after a bit of time, and the only place the moisture could have come from is the fish - which does indeed harden. Although it does stay succulent as well.

So maybe, rather than marinading you should be using a rub - no acid I assume. I confess I don't do this very often but it does seem to be an increasingly common thing. Jamie Oliver, I think is keen on this, and I have also seen that coffee is the in thing for rubbing into various meats. Perhaps a rub gives more flavour and ignores the tenderising bit.

On the whole, although there are exceptions, most chefs these days seem to think that a couple of hours at most is sufficient for marinading meat. Fish - much shorter as the marinade sort of cooks it. Again - think ceviche.

The other associated myth is that the flavour goes right through the meat you are marinating. Not so. Apparently it only goes a few millimetres beneath the surface, although I guess slashing it or pricking with a fork, or cutting into small pieces will improve the penetration. If that's what you want, because the trick is not to end up with no taste from the original meat.

On the other hand marinating with those fruits will make your meat mushy if you leave it in the marinade for too long. As I say, some chefs disagree with all of this and do say you should marinate overnight, but I still think most of them go for the couple of hours. Which makes me happy because I'm not generally well enough organised to marinate for longer.

A final thing I learnt is that you really shouldn't baste your meat with the leftover marinade in spite of what the recipes might say. That way lies death from salmonella - well if you believe them. I have to say I have done exactly this many, many times - particularly with our favourite kebabs, but I'm now a bit nervous. What you should do is make more marinade than you need then set a third of it aside. Epicurious favours a Triple dip method devised by chef Paul Kahan, whereby you put your marinaded meat on the barbecue or under the grill, heat up the leftover marinade, and then dunk the meat into it when it has been cooking for a bit. And just before the end you dunk it again, this time in the reserved marinade.

It looks great, but it's a bit of a performance isn't it?

So what should you put in your marinade? Well just about anything really. Fundamentally though there should be a mix of acid, fat and seasoning. Let your imagination run wild or search the internet for ideas - there are thousands. But:

"A proper marinade should have focus and clean flavor—this is not the time to combine Sriracha, mustard, soy sauce, hot sauce, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, onion jam, and whatever other random jars are lurking in the shelf of your fridge. Choose a simple theme or defining ingredient, and don't stray too far from the course." Brad Leone - Bon Appétit

I fear I am a bit like that if I'm making something up, although at other times I just go for the tried and true olive oil, lemon juice and garlic with a herb of some kind, or wine, onions, garlic and a few herbs. Both of which are very 60s/70s things aren't they?

So what did my original inspiration - Nigel Slater - have to offer for:

"A quick, no-messing way to transform your dinner into something really rather wonderful."

Well he claims he has two basic marinades - and you will see how times have changed -

  1. The miso marinade - 135ml mirin, 4 tbsp white miso paste, 4 tbsp honey and a splash of vegetable or peanut oil. Now how trendy is that? I should try it. I now have some miso, but I don't have any mirin.

  2. The za'atar marinade - 50ml olive oil, the juice of a large lemon, 2 large cloves of garlic and a tablespoon of za'atar. - It's the za'atar that makes it modern.

And he only suggests a 30 minute marinade, so yes, quick and easy. He has lots more marinades of course, as does every chef these days.

"There are few better allies for the laid-back cook than marinades. Take a minute or two of sloshing things together, add a bit of waiting and you're good to go." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Maybe that's what I'll do for my Saturday lunch party. Fish might well be a good thing for a change as well. Maybe that recipe with barberries that I mentioned the other day. They're different.


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