Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Acidic Marination

Michael Ruhlman's recent post on marinades and why those containing some form of acid are largely undesirable,  got me thinking about why I don't like acidic marinades and why over the last couple of decades I have used them for experimental and didactic purposes only. 

One of the reasons I don't like to soak meat in acidic liquid is that over the years my taste in food has become very narrowly focused on flavor profiles from the north of Italy and France, and what is probably best described as traditional foods from the East Coast and Southern (from Louisiana eastward) Untied States. And the flavor profile of meat soaked in lemon juice or vinegar really does not play much of a role in the cuisines of any of these areas. Of course, saying that I don't like meat soaked in acidic liquids because it does not conform to what I have grown to like is about as revealing as saying that I don't like it because   because I don't like it. But not to worry. I'm not going to cop out on this. There are scientifically verifiable reasons why I chose not to use acidic marinades. 

With the exception of marinades that contain protein digesting enzymes, acidic marinades are not usually strong enough to tenderize meat. In fact, they usually have the opposite effect and directly and indirectly cause the meat to toughen. Here's how.

  • Whenever you lower the pH of muscle (make it acidic) it lessens its ability to hold water and interfere with the bonding of the protein molecules that make up the muscle fibers. So an acidic marinade will tend to dry out the outer layers of the meat making it tough and stringy as the muscle fibers lose water and fall apart.

  • Lowering the pH of protein retards Maillard browning. So meat that has been marinated in an acidic marinade takes longer to brown thus causing the meat to take longer to look "cooked" Because it takes longer to look cooked (browned) it cooks too long, dries out and becomes tough.
In my investigations of how marinades behave, I have dropped the pH of meat so low that it turns to "leather" before it browns. 

If there is sugar and or salt in an acidic marinade, these two substances will tend to ameliorate the negative effects of low pH because
  1. sugar promotes browning 
  2. sugar and salt both enhance water retention
However, unless there is a lot of sugar and salt, they are not usually sufficient to compensate for the damage done by lowering the  pH. 

Now, I am very much aware that my dislike of acidic marinades is a direct result of my preference for the kinds of foods that come out of the cultures that exist in the geographic regions that I mentioned above. As a matter of experience,  I know that there are cultures that love cooked meat that has been soaked in acidic liquids. I used to work with Haitian cooks who, when they were cooking for themselves, soaked thin cuts of meat in lime juice before dousing it with Tabasco (also acidic) and cooking it until it curled up like the east witch's feet.  So I do not believe that it is "wrong" to use acidic marinades unless you are trying to cook like I do. 

 

7 comments:

seriousdarious said...

Since (if I remember correctly), a basic solution promotes Maillard browning, is there any common use of basic ingredients in marinades?

Bob del Grosso said...

Seriousdarius
With the possible exception of egg white (pH ~9) I'm not aware of any basic ingredient that is commonly added to marinades to promote browning. Really, there are very few common ingredients that are more alkaline than egg whites which are themselves very weakly basic and so not great sources of hydroxide ions.
The most common way to enhance browning via a marinade or dry rub is to add a source of reducing sugar (e.g. honey/ molasses) or amino acids.

Ed Bruske said...

This is why I was never crazy about marinades. I only use dry rubs.

tyronebcookin said...

Hey Bob, a lot of guys in the south use beer to marinate, what are the effects of beer when you use it in place of water?

Ive used it before (long time ago) with different meats but was not satisfied that it enhanced the flavor better than brines...and got a couple of 'nasty' results when using it with chicken.

Is it more for a 'BBQ braggin' point than anything else? I am from the South and scoff at their beer marinades because I can't fine that they taste any better than my BBQ/Grill results.

A little science on it if you please oh Jedi Master (or is it still Rock Star?)

(I read McGee, but can not remember if he covered this - that was a long time ago too)

Scotty said...

This is just another rant to show your rampant uncontrollable antisemitism. There is absolutely nothing wrong with hasidic marinades. Hasidic marinades have been used by my people for generations to great success.

Oh, acidic marinades.

Never mind. ;-)

Bob del Grosso said...

Tyrone
I don't like marinades that contain alcohol for much the same reason I stay away from acidic marinades. The alcohol denatures the proteins and makes them stringy when they cook> It also interferes with the protein's ability to hold water especially if the alcoholic beverage is acid. For example, beer is typically pH 4-3.5 making it not quite as acidic as vinegar or lemon juice but acidic enough to cause problems.
Whenever I want the flavor of some type of alcoholic beverage in a marinade (e.g. Madeira or Cognac) I remove the alcohol via evaporation before adding it in.
You could do this with beer but it would still be acidic.

tyronebcookin said...

Thanks Bob! I think of wines as being acidic, hadn't really thought that much about beer. I guess I should know better since I worked for a Budweiser distributor for five years when I got tired of cooking! LOL!