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"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

I caught up with another Jamie carry on cooking program yesterday. One of the recipes was for Chicken noodle stir fry, and it was one of those recipes that had a little trick in it - like I was talking about the other day. It's really a trick that is just a step beyond what I already do when marinating meat, but it was pretty nifty. When I'm marinading anything I usually prick it all over with the tip of a knife, so that the flavour penetrates, and if it's a whole fish I slash the flesh a few times. What Jamie did was to take each chicken breast and cut around five or six long gashes into it - lengthways without cutting right through, so that the paste he was using could be rubbed right into the meat. Not a big thing but an interesting difference.

Anyway this got me to thinking about marinades.

I don't think I ever thought of marinating anything until I started cooking from recipe books - specifically with Robert Carrier and Elizabeth David. I'm pretty sure we never ever marinated anything at home. The closest I can come at the idea is soaking a rabbit in water overnight to get the flesh to whiten and the blood to soak out. Sort of the opposite of a marinade I think. Oh occasionally a roast of lamb was rubbed over with vinegar to take away the strong taste and smell I think was the reasoning. Does batter on fried fish count as a marinade? And even in France I do not remember meat, or fish - or anything - being marinated. Back then we added sauces and dressings, or just a squeeze of lemon at the end.

Initially my experience with marinades was basically from Robert Carrier and Elizabeth David and their first books which were basically French. And the marinade almost always consisted of wine and some other flavourings. Red wine for beef and lamb, white for chicken and fish sort of thing. I just did as I was told in the recipes. Here is Elizabeth David's little lesson on marinades in her section on cooking terms and processes.

"Marinages des viandes, poisson, gibier. To marinate is to steep meat, poultry or game in a mixture of wine, spices, aromatic herbs, and vegetables for anything from an hour to several days. The objects in so doing are (a) to tenderise tough meat, (b) to give moisture to dry meat - such as an old hare or venison; for these olive oil is usually added to the marinade, (c) to preserve meat or game which, although à point, it may be more convenient to keep for a day or two. You have to use your own judgement as to the length of time to marinate a given piece of meat. In warm or stuffy weather it should obviously be for a shorter time than in the winter. When instructed to marinate fish, this will usually mean for an hour or so, in oil and lemon juice, or possibly white wine." Elizabeth David

And this was basically the format that I used for quite some time. It never occurred to me back in those days to make things up for myself. I just followed the recipes. I remember the most extreme one I tried was Cuisson de porc frais en sanglier - which entailed a four day marinade so that your pork would taste like wild boar.

"This is a method of making domestic pig taste like wild boar. For those who happen to like this taste, it is remarkably successful. I don't say it is a dish which one would want to eat very often but it is interesting to try once in a way." Elizabeth David

It was indeed interesting, though I think I only tried it once. The marinade was a fairly basic wine marinade. Juniper berries were the only slightly different ingredient I seem to remember. But it was the length of time in the marinade that was crucial.

As I looked into the art of marinading I have come to realise that there is a range of opinion out there as to whether one should marinade for a long time or not.

"As with all things, a little sensitivity goes a long way – flavours can intensify with time, and you don't want to overload the meat or fish so it simply becomes a carrier for seasoning. You still want it to taste of itself, to be identifiable. For that reason, I resist all entreaties to "marinate overnight". I'm also against marinating meat in drowning quantities of wine. Alcohol pickles the meat, drawing out the juices, so if anything it'll go dry when you cook it. I might add a splash of wine to red meat, but that's it. After all, when marinating meat, the magic ingredient is oil, which lubricates and gives it a finer texture." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Indeed the modern trend does seem to be towards shorter times.

"If you marinate a meat too long, the meat will become soft and mushy from the effects of the natural acids in the marinade. If you don’t leave it on long enough, the meat won’t gain enough extra flavor." Simple dollar

So the middle way then.

My first two teachers were generally in favour of the longer the better. Partly for flavour and partly for tenderising. Most cooks will tell you that the acid components in your marinade will tenderise your meat, but then I read an article that was very definite in its opinion that the tenderising happened in the cooking not in the marinading. So go figure.

I think I am more of a middle of the way person - most probably because I don't plan long enough in advance to be able to marinate overnight. However I do know that you shouldn't leave fish in a marinade for too long, or it will 'cook'. The whole notion of ceviche is based on this.

Indeed gravlax sort of is too. Well gravlax is a brined fish - a dry brine that is. You cover the fish with a mixture of salt and sugar, dill and a bit of alcohol and leave it, weighted down, for 24 hours or so. It cooks and dries the fish, which I guess confirms the idea that a marinade will dry out your meat.

But I'm not sure whether you count brining as marinading or not. I guess it is. The Americans in particular really seem to like to brine their roasting meats before either cooking them or marinading them. Buttermilk often seems to be involved.

Then there are pastes and rubs. Are these marinades? Well I think so. The difference is that the aim for the finished dish is slightly different. Things that have a rub or a paste are more often than not, either barbecued, grilled, fried or roasted. Not stewed or braised. But then again you can roast meat that has been marinaded in liquid. In these cases you often use the marinade to concoct a sauce at the end.

I definitely never came across the concept of a paste or rub in my youth either. But then these are often used these days for barbecues and the whole notion of a barbecue was foreign to me then as well. It's so common place these days. We don't even have to make our own pastes and rubs as there are so many readymade ones on the shelves of the supermarket. Jamie used one last night. I think it was Patak's though he studiously didn't show the label.

Later in my cookbook collecting days I purchased Claudia Roden's most wonderful book Picnic, in which she too gave a 'how to' lesson.

"However fragrant the aroma provided by burning herbs, it is a fleeting one. For meats to be truly impregnated with flavours, they must be steeped in a marinade for some time. These aromatic baths, usually a mixture of oil and wine, vinegar or lemon juice, even cider and beer, with herbs and seasonings, flavour and tenderise meat and also prevent foods from drying out on the grill." Claudia Roden

She gave a whole lot of different basic marinades, but I think it was here that I first gained the notion of improvising. After all:

"Given the nearly infinite things one can use as a marinade, there’s a nearly infinite variety of flavours you can imbue your meat with." The Simple Dollar

The trick is to have something acid and something oily, and then add your flavours to this - and just about anything will do - herbs, spices, sauces lurking in the back of the cupboard, sweet things like jam and maple syrup, nuts, fruit, veggies ...

The word marinade comes from marinus meaning a sea of salt. I think. So you probably should have something salty in there too - though it doesn't have to be salt of course - could be soy sauce, fish sauce, anchovies ...

The family favourite is from Robert Carrier for beef kebabs - 6 tablespoons olive oil, 2 each of soy sauce and lemon juice, half a chopped onion (well to taste really), crushed clove of garlic and a dessertspoon of ground cumin. Absolutely delicious.


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