It’s almost Memorial Day – the day Americans honor all soldiers that died during the American Civil War. On a less patriotic (and somber) note, this day is also the unofficial start of summer which means the official start of BBQ season. In honor of the American tradition of grilling meats here is a review of how to make the most (AKA delicious) of our animal products this summer.
Basic of all basic approaches to enhancing the natural flavor of meat is seasoning and what I mean by seasoning is salting – whether this be beef, wild game or poultry – and it is imperative to give the salt time to work its magic. Use a thick kosher or sea salt and generously cover the entire surface area of the meat (don’t worry quite yet about all the salt!). The magic of salt is that it pulls moisture out of the meat, consolidating proteins and flavor while also supporting the development of a beautiful crust which can really only happen at grill temperatures. Take the thickness of your salted meat and allow it to sit in the fridge uncovered for that amount of time. For example, if you have a 1.5 inch ribeye, have it sit for 1.5 hrs. Once that timer has gone off, use a clean cloth or paper towel to absorb all of the moisture that has come to the surface and with it a good amount of the salt will be removed. Add a pinch of pepper and get grilling!
Looking for a juicy, tender bite, coupled with the straightforward flavor of the poultry or pork you are preparing? A simple water and salt solution or brine will do the trick. The salt weakens muscle tissue, allowing the water to enter and be retained. This technique is for use on lean proteins, such as poultry and pork products which can be easily overcooked and dry out in the process. An hour at most will be sufficient and if the meat is filleted, butterflied or otherwise made into thinner and smaller pieces, less time is necessary. Even when you do remove excess moisture with a cloth or paper towel before cooking, the meat can seem a bit too salty if left in the brine bath for more than an hour. How is this different than seasoning you ask? A brine will give a good lean protein both improved texture or bite and intensify flavor while seasoning enhances the already amazing flavor and mouthfeel of a great cut of meat.
This technique is used to both flavor and moisten meats and historically was used as a method of preserving, primarily with vinegar. Thanks to the beauty of modern convenience (particularly refrigeration) and a supply chain that provides a constant inventory of amazing animal products, today’s marinades are not intended to be used as a preservative (though I could chew your ear off on pre marinated meats at the market – which I have found to be a cover up for old meat, ick!), but as a way to incorporate flavor. Modern marinades can include a wide variety of ingredients, such as yogurt, buttermilk, wine, citrus and other fruit juices. Best used on tougher cuts of meat – so maybe hold back on marinating your wagyu tenderloin! A flavorful marinade can also be used very briefly (5-10 minutes) on a nice cut of meat as well – but typically a bit of seasoning is a better option!
The prime objective with using a marinade is flavoring the exterior of meats and minimally about tenderizing, so starting with a quality product or serving it in an appropriate way is invaluable, ie cut against the grain for some tougher beef cuts as one example. A marinade is not going to magically transform that leg of lamb or stew meat (topic saved for another article). And adding flavor doesn’t always mean needing to use an expensive bottle of store bought marinade – your favorite homemade salad dressing can work really well! If a very acidic product – lemon, lime, orange juice, vinegars, etc. – makes up a large portion of the marinade, do not – I repeat: DO NOT allow it to sit on your meat for longer than a couple of hours because it will start to cook the meat, making for a mushy, not so appetizing final product. The internet is literally and figuratively swimming in marinade recipes but many ingredients work well and is where you can get creative; use fresh and dried herbs and spices, flavored oils, chili peppers, condiments like hot sauce, dijon mustard, Worcestershire, onion, garlic, beer, coffee, etc. to get a flavor you like.
- Basic Brine
- ¼ c sea salt
- 4 c water
- Summertime Marinade
- ½ c olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves
- 2 Tbsp sea salt
- 1 lemon, zest and juice
- 1 orange, zest and juice
- ½ tsp red chili flakes
- 4 sprigs rosemary
- 4 sprigs thyme
- 1 Tbsp sugar
- Basic Brine
- Ratio is 1 c water to 1 Tbsp sea salt
- Combine and dissolve water and salt in large bowl or freezer bag. Add poultry or pork and ensure the meat is completely covered. Place in fridge.
- For larger pieces, leave in brine for an hour and for pre cut fillets or smaller pieces, leave in for 30 minutes.
- Remove from brine, and and place on plate or tray and allow to sit at room temperature for 30-45 minutes. Either pat dry with a clean paper towel or lightly rinse brine solution off and pat dry.
- Season with pepper or any other spice of your liking. Grill, roast, sear or saute & enjoy!
- Summertime Marinade
- Combine all ingredients in a large bowl or freezer bag. Put chicken or beef in bowl or bag, seal tight and place in fridge.
- Marinade for 1-2 hrs (depending on how much time you have!)
- Remove meat from marinade and place on plate or tray and allow to sit at room temperature for 30-45 minutes.
- Pat partially dry with a paper towel. Grill, roast, sear or saute & enjoy!
Combo: Brine & Marinade
And finally, a combination of techniques works nicely to add a subtle flavor, while also reaping the tenderizing benefits of the salt and water solution. This technique takes advantage of how a brine works – so as the salt reduces the power of the muscle tissue to keep foreign things out, increasing the meats ability to retain water, the flavor components from sprigs of fresh herbs, crushed garlic, fruit juice or even a touch of sugar will be drawn into the meat, allowing for a final product that can be a bit more balanced with the rest of the meal. Any type of sugar will also contribute to a crunchier crust.
If you are looking for a deeper dive into the topic of brines, marinades and combining those two techniques, The Secrets And Myths Of Marinades, Brinerades, And How Gashing Can Make Them Work Better by AmazingRibs. Our top line info is the same but he provides more detail on the science of how it all works.
Here are some basic tips for prepping meat to grill:
- Season, brine or marinade meats in the fridge, otherwise the meat is prime for excessive bacterial growth and an upset stomach (or worse) post meal.
- Remove excess moisture from seasoned or brined and moisture, herbs, etc. from marinated items with a clean cloth or paper towel. This will also help prevent flare ups on the grill.
- Before cooking the meat, place it in a room temperature spot for 30-45 minutes – not in direct sunlight but also not directly under an AC vent!. This allows the meat fibers to relax and cook through without needing to overcook the exterior.
Have I forgotten something?
Maybe. So if you will be including fish or vegetables on your grill menu, briefly use a marinade to add flavor, as seasoning and brining will not be effective. Again, anything extremely acidic will cook fish products (ceviche, yum!!!!….just be certain you bought fresh, good quality seafood!) and cooking that after a long standing acidic marinade will turn it into mush (yuck!)
Do you have a favorite recipe or technique for tenderizing and adding flavor to meat? I’ve shared two basic recipes: one for a simple brine and another for a summertime marinade. Enjoy and happy summer!!