I’ve been writing culinary articles for a while now, and it occurred to me, that while I do my best to put all the steps into simple language that almost anyone could understand, I’m still making a few assumptions about the skill level of the reader.
I’ve been jotting down notes while at work and while cooking at home for some time now and hopefully this series will help out those who aren’t as skilled in the kitchen.
While basic mastery of sauces to help you turn bland boring meat into something edible is good, its best to start with a base of delicious and well seasoned meat so that the sauce is an augmentation of the flavor, not all of the flavor. Now we’re wading deeper into the meat (pun somewhat intended) of what it means to cook. The first step to a delicious piece of animal is to infuse it with flavor through one of three major methods, Marinading, Brining, and Rubbing.
Use the anchors to go to the respective point:
- What It’s All About
When talking about marinades, brines and rubs you’re talking about flavor. Any meat thats treated by one of those three methods can be cooked in basically any way you can imagine. There is no functional discussion which makes deciding what goes into your rub or marinade much simpler.
- Macro and Micro
When dealing with flavors there are two schools that must be taken into consideration.
Macro flavors and micro flavors. Macro flavors are the over all taste, the pungent and upfront flavors that define a dish. Micro flavors are the subtle background players that support the macro flavors.
To put it in a disgustingly simple analogy, macro flavors are the leader singer, micro flavors are the bass player. Macro is what you came see, but if the micro wasn’t there it wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is.
Consider a bowl of very American chili. Ground beef and kidney beans kinda of chili. We’ve all had it at one point or another, we all know exactly what to expect when taking a bite of it. Think about the flavors you experience when you take a bite. Chili powder and cumin are usually the first things you get, those are the macro flavors. They define the dish and without them it wouldn’t be what it is. Everything else in that chili is a micro flavor. The onions, peppers, tomatoes, beans, beef, garlic, and anything else.
Now think about Cincinnati Chili. Its ostensibly the same thing as the chili described above, but the usage of cinnamon and cloves completely change the taste. Why? Cinnamon and cloves are very pungent and will forcibly become macro flavors in most applications because little can stand up to them.
So how do you know what to use when? How do you keep from Cincinatti-ing yourself with improper usage of certain flavors? Either you dont, and you follow a recipe and let someone else wisdom guide you, or you play around in the kitchen, make some good and some bad food, and learn. What goes with what is a learned skills that can only be attained from hands-on experience. There is nothing I can write that can give that inherent ability.
- Dont Min/Max
In the video gaming world min/maxxing is a term that describes a very methodical, sometimes over the top dedication to making sure you perfect your character. You want to perfectly balance them, putting as little as possible in the stats you don’t want and as much as possible in the stats you do want. Do not do this shit in the kitchen. Every time you see someone painstakingly leveling off tablespoons, making sure its perfect and not to compacted, they’re a shitty cook. Yes that includes your grandma.
Cooking is art, don’t restrain it. There is a very good reason I dont give accurate measurements in any of my recipes. If you need a book and numbers to prepare dinner you’re making food, not cooking food.
- Whats the Difference
So whats the difference between a brine and a marinade? A brine adds micro flavors to your meat. You can put fistfuls of cloves into a brine and it wont taste that clove-y when all is said and done. This is why I love brines. They add subtle flavor to the meat, flavor that can be built upon. Marinades impart macro flavors. Marinades have much more flavor per ounce then brines by nature. Brines are mostly water, where a good marinade is mostly flavor.
The third wheel of the group, dry rubs, do both. Dry rubs have a tone of complexity if done properly and will impart both macro and micro flavor to a piece of meat.
- When To Use What
So now you might ask, when do I use each application? When should I brine rather then marinade, or rub rather then brine? The answer? Stop thinking so small, you could do all three! You could brine a meat for a few days, then marinade it over night, then dry rube it the next day and roast it. Dont limit yourself. Now not all meats will take to each application, but again you learn that through experimentation.
- The Basics
As I said earlier the major function of a marinade is to impart macro flavors. This gets dangerous because if you want a Tex-Mex dish and haphazardly add an Asian flavor to the marinade its not going to taste right in the end. Marinades are so potent because, if made properly, they’re composed entirely of flavor. What does that mean? A marinade should not have excessive amount of oil or water, which will thin it out and dilute the flavor.
A good marinade will have four things. Flavor, Acid, Sweetness, and Balance. Flavor is whatever you want the meat to taste like. Acid is for tenderization and flavor. Don’t forget about citrus juices when it comes to making a mariande. Sweetness is for flavor and caramelization. Keep in mind how you’re cooking an item before you get heavy handed with the honey or brown sugar. Finally Balance is keeping all of the other three in check. To much acid and the meat will be sour and unpleasant, to much sugar it’ll get charred and burnt, not enough flavor and you’re wasting your time.
- The Basics
I’ve talked about brines before but I’d like to rehash some of that while expanding on it as well. Brines are simple. Its a combination of salt, water, and sugar. Now I’m going to, yet again, rewrite the definition and include vinegar. I find the inclusion of a small amount of acid greatly helps tenderize the meat, while also adding additional flavor.
- Golden Numbers
The basic brine I use consists of two ounces of salt, 4 ounces of sugar, and one ounce of vinegar for every pint of water. Now a pint is roughly a pound, so you could say its 16 parts water, 4 parts sugar, 2 parts salt, and 1 part vinegar and then you could measure your ingredients with a shoe and get an appropriate brine.
- Limey Bastards
For my friends and readers in the UK and the EU (and pretty much the rest of the world) thats 56 grams of salt, 112 grams of sugar, and 29 milliliters of vinegar for 474 milliliters water.
The fun thing about brines is that they add such subtle flavor that you can get away with adding basically anything you want to them, just make sure it fits the intended flavor profile of the final dish. For example, if I was brining a pork loin to cut up later to make stir-fry with I wouldn’t add rosemary or apple cider vinegar. What I would add is rice wine vinegar, fish sauce, star anise, and ginger. You get the idea
When making a brine you dont have to get your salt and sugar from the simplistic raw sources. In the above mentioned Asian brine I would sub out half the salt for an equal sodium amount in soy sauce and substitute all the sugar for honey. The same goes for vinegar. You don’t cook with white vinegar, ever. If you ever read a recipe and it includes white vinegar, stop reading that recipe. Apple cider vinegar should be your go-to but feel free to change the type of vinegar to fit the dish. It doesn’t sound like a big deal but it will layer subtle flavors in, and thats half of what brining is all about. And to reiterate, dont forget about citrus juices.
- Fire and Ice
Once you know what you’re putting into your brine the method for combining it is fairly simple. Add half the amount of water you’ll need, by weight, to a adequately sized pot and bring it to a boil. Dump in all your ingredients, make sure the salt and sugar dissolve entirely. Once everything is dissolved dump the brine into the final vessel that it and your meat will be going to go into. Now add in the other amount of water in the form of ice. This will rapidly cool down the brine allowing you to add your meat straight to it.
- Size Matters
How long you brine your meat depends on the size of the meat. A large roast like a pork loin or a whole turkey could sit in a brine for days, while something like chicken drumsticks or salmon steaks would be best to only leave in over night. If you go even smaller, like say diced pork for the aforementioned stir-fry either dilute the brine with extra water, or only brine it for an hour or two.
- Out of Season
I’ll say this once. DO NOT SALT MEAT THAT YOU HAVE BRINED. I dont care what the situation is. Be careful of what else you sprinkle on it as well, seasonings like Old Bay have salt in them.
I’ve talked about rubs before and just like with brines there’s more to know then just a list of ingredients. What a rub is is a blend of spices and with salt and/or sugar. The most famous rubs are BBQ rubs which are used to not only help tenderize tough pieces of meat, like ribs, but also to infuse them with flavor.
- I’m All Verklempt
I’m normally not a Nazi about using kosher salt but when it comes to rubs, however, I will insist you use it
What sets BBQ rubs apart from the rest (or the rest apart from BBQ I should say) is the inclusion of lots of sugar. Its no secret BBQ sweet but this sugar must be managed else you’ll end up with candied and charred meat, rather then succulent BBQ. This is done with salt. Salt, for lack of a better term, dilutes the sugar, and in turn the sugar tones down the salt. To much of either will take the end product in a direction you dont want.
I prefer a 2:1 ratio of sugar to salt. This is enough to heavily, but properly, season the meat and add in that sweet flavor without over doing it.
- Flavor Management
When it comes to rubs you must keep in mind that all the ingredients in a rub are very potent by nature. Dry spices are powerful juju. You can experiment with different rubs but I highly recommend you build off of an already known and trusted recipe. It can be very easy to overpower a rub with the inclusion of just one ingredient. The reason BBQ style rubs dominate is because the sugar and salt act as a buffer. They prevent one flavor from easily overtaking. Should your experimental rub get to potent adding some brown sugar can help.
How long to let a rub sit, like brining, its a matter of what kind of meat you’re using. The logic is the same as brining as well. The larger and heartier the meat, the long it can sit. Something like flank steak or pork shoulders wouldn’t be hurt by sitting for a week, while lighter faire like fish might only need an hour. The flavors involved will also play a part. With BBQ rubs the hydroscopic nature of both the salt and sugar will take time to do their thing, while a rub composed mostly of spices and flavors, like a Cajun rub needs nothing more then the time it takes to cook.
- Breath Man! Breath!
Do not enclose your rubbed meat and never wrap it up. The meat needs to breath. Lay it on a flat surface and let it sit in the fridge uncovered. If you must cover it put it in a container at least twice as large as the meat itself and do not completely seal the lid.
If you have any questions, feel I missed something, or want to know more about a specific topic I covered leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you. If I get a lot of comments I’ll post a Q&A response.