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Why do we marinate meat?

Summer seems to have made a very rapid exit up here in Aberdeenshire! Just when we’d got in the way of setting up the barbecue, as well … luckily, the principles of marinating work just as well indoors as out in the fresh air.

We usually marinate meat for two reasons – to add flavour and to tenderize it.

No marinade will turn a tough, chewy piece of meat into a tender fillet - but hey, this is the Donald Russell blog. You’re obviously not in the habit of buying chewy meat! The fact remains, though, that some cuts have more of a bite to them than others, and these can benefit from a steep in something tasty.

Marinated Pork ShoulderMarinated Pork Shoulder

There are three main ingredients that help to tenderize meat. First, anything acidic – think citrus juice, vinegar, wine. This breaks down some of the muscle fibres, leaving the meat softer. It’s best not to leave meat in a really acidic marinade for too long, though, or it can actually have the opposite effect of drawing out moisture.

Some ingredients, like ginger, papaya and pineapple, have enzymes that help to tenderize the meat. I’m not entirely sure that the fruity flavours work too well with red meat, however, and they can also end up making the meat a bit mushy, so use these with care.

Marinated Salmon Fillet Marinated Salmon Fillet

The last tenderizing ingredient is dairy, such as yogurt or buttermilk. This works beautifully, but no-one is quite sure why! It could be that the calcium activates the meat’s own enzymes, which break down the proteins in the same way that aging does.

So – the best marinades include something acidic or some dairy, usually with some oil and some flavourings. Add whatever takes your fancy – garlic, cumin, mustard, Soy Sauce, paprika – even tomato ketchup works in small doses. Rosemary is fabulous with steak – crush it or chop it finely to release the aromatic oils. Watch the total salt content, though – it will draw out moisture, and is best added either just before or after cooking. A high sugar content can burn easily – go gently! You can also make a paste or just a dry spice rub if you prefer

Marinated Sirloin SteakMarinated Sirloin Steak

Get as much of the meat as possible in contact with your marinade, and leave it for a few hours, if you have time, in the fridge. A Ziploc bag is a good tip here – put marinade and meat inside, squeeze the excess air out and give it a wee massage – perfect.

Before cooking, allow the meat to come to room temperature and pat it dry with kitchen paper, otherwise it won’t brown very well. You can brush on a little more marinade as it cooks, but if you want to use the leftover marinade as an accompaniment, boil it up for a few minutes first – it’s been in contact with raw meat.

Here’s one of my favourite marinades for steak:

  • • Olive oil – about a cup
  • • A good glug of red wine (cheapo cooking wine is fine)
  • • 2 cloves crushed garlic
  • • A tablespoon of Mushroom Ketchup (or Worcester Sauce)
  • • A few drops of Tabasco
  • • A couple of teaspoons of smoked paprika
  • • 1 sprig of rosemary, bruised

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