The temps are creeping skyward. Flip-flops are parting the toes of feet across Southern Alabama. It’s that perfect time of year when the sunroof is open and a cold drink (or perhaps a snow cone) is in hand as Mobilians find their way to more aquatic environs by the weekend.
Sure, this is the month where it isn’t a rarity to feel the need to crank the air conditioner in the peak of the day and expect the heater to kick in sometime before sunrise. However, on any given day when the sky is clear you could walk through the neighborhood of your choice and take in the scent of someone grilling out.
I would hate for this to come across as sexist. I do know there are women out there who enjoy grilling, but in my limited experience with the fairer sex, once the fire is lit the man gets the apron. It is still a bit of a boy’s club from where I sit, with names like Brinkmann, Weber and Big Green Egg as masculine as NASCAR, Browning and mustache wax. With this in mind, I’d like to tear down that caveman wall and get in touch with the more gender-neutral side of fire cooking in the great outdoors as we explore the marinade.
When it comes to meat, a marinade serves more than one purpose. The first is to impart a certain type of flavor to the flesh. But, more importantly, a marinade in various ways tenderizes the meat and renders it more palatable. You have your favorite flavors, but let’s look at some of the ways our meat reaches that fork-tender state of being.
Prior to the liquid
Before you get your feathers ruffled, understand that I believe great pieces of meat are best left alone with little more than salt (perhaps a dash of pepper) as a seasoning enhancement. But salt is the most common ingredient in a marinade or pre-marinade treatment. Not only does this most important ancient seasoning flavor a gorgeous ribeye, it also breaks down some of the protein as the steak draws it in, altering the texture of the meat and thus tenderizing it. For salt, I prefer coarse-ground sea salt but many swear kosher is the way to go.
If you are running with someone who is a little salt sensitive, an alternative would be baking soda. It works on the same principle as salt and can either be applied directly to the meat or in a paste.
Hold your nose, here comes the vinegar
Vinegar-based marinades are very common. This could be anything from an apple cider to a balsamic vinegar. White vinegar may do in a pinch but can be overpowering. Use it sparingly. I most commonly use red wine vinegar or the apple cider variety. I find vinegar and a little oil (such as olive oil) is good for a hunter’s bounty, such as a venison roast or wild pig.
A simple concoction of Worcestershire sauce (which contains vinegar) along with a healthy dose of Italian dressing (which contains oil) and lemon pepper (which usually contains salt) is a magnificent start to flavor and tenderize a shoulder or even a back strap. The wild pig will need all the help it can get.
With vinegar marinades, the tenderness comes from the acid in the liquid breaking down the muscle fibers.
Lemon juice will work in the same way and is exceptional on normally dry chicken. Anything from a full marinade with lemon juice, salt and water to lemon slices under the skin brings out a robust flavor that will knock your socks off.
My favorite chicken marinade by far is simply pickle juice. The MacDonald boys love pickles so much we have quarts of leftover juice every month or two. Our favorite is Wickle juice. Cover the chicken, whole pieces or fillets, for 30 minutes to four hours and you have a showstopper of a dish. I sometimes add Worcestershire and cloves of garlic to the mix. There is no need for salt with this method. Roast, broil or grill the chicken but be sure to have enough for seconds.
One drink, two drink, hard drink, soft drink
Some drinks are acidic, others have tannins and some have both. All of these things make for a good tenderizing marinade. Buttermilk is a good natural choice for some chicken and seafood. Wine will find its way into the mix from time to time. Beer is one of my favorite marinades for beef when I’m making fajitas.
But an important and oft-overlooked marinade from the soft drink world is the almighty Coca-Cola. This powerhouse turns a $2 steak into a $7 steak. The real power comes in cooking chicken. Google Coca-Cola chicken recipes and you’ll get the phone book, but it can be as simple as marinating it for an hour or two.
Fresh and fruity
I am no stranger to fruit juices as marinades. With fruit juices, it’s usually the enzymes that break down and tenderize the meat, but I use them mostly for flavor. I’ve even tasted crawfish boiled in juice that blew my mind. My favorite juice marinade is pineapple.
Pineapple juice with a little bit of cayenne and a squirt or two of soy sauce can turn a humdrum ham into something otherworldly. Forget the cloves, glaze or rings. The juice is where it’s at. I’ve gone so far as to inject a ham with this stuff. Pork and pineapple go together like Martin and Lewis, Bo and Hope, Tango and Cash. You’d be hard pressed to find a better combination.
These are but a few of the things I use from time to time, and when possible I do them on the charcoal grill. Use a marinade to your advantage but avoid rookie mistakes. Don’t overmarinate anything. Always discard the marinade as soon as you remove the meat. Never add it to the dish or use tainted marinade for basting. Stay safe out there.