Regarding marinades, dry and wet rubs

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Long long ago, it was a terrible time for meat. The quality was poor and refrigeration wasn’t invented yet. So one of the ways to preserve meat and make it taste (or mask the spoilage) better was the application of marinades or spice rubs.

These days with food spoilage is less of an issue and the use of marinades and rubs have been reduced to making the food taste better. So here’s the rub: when do you use a marinade, a dry rub or a wet rub or do you really need these at all?

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For all intents and purposes, I’m just gonna write about meat; fish and other foods are beyond the scope of this write-up.

Marinades

Marinades are usually acidic liquids (usually an oil) that’s commonly used to slow spoilage and add flavor to meats. The acid the marinade helps tenderize and the spices and herbs in the liquids help flavor the meat.

The problem with acidic marinades is that you might end up pickling the meat which gives it a sour unpleasant taste. Of course, there are exceptions to this such as Japanese Teriyaki, Greek Lemon yoghurt or American BBQ Sourish-sweet marinades where the sourish flavor is intentional.

There are enzymatic marinades made from Papayas or Pineapples which were very popular in the 80’s. I dislike using them because they tend to over-tenderize the meat. This is usually the case in Singaporean Tze Char diners where the beef is over-tenderized and gives a limp “flabby” chew much like a wet rag. I prefer my meat with a bit of chew to satisfy my inner caveman.

So if you see marinades that have a lot of acid (tablespoons of vinegar, citrus juice, etc), I would not suggest immersing the meat in it for more than 2 hours. I find complex marinades that need time for the flavors to integrate are less acidic.

In fact, distrust recipes that require you to marinate a roast in an acidic liquid like wine overnight or for 24 hours. The roast might look moist initially but after such a long soak, the acids would have penetrated the meat and displaced some of the moisture. And with heat from cooking, the volatile acids will be driven out leaving the roast drier than it was previously.

While most people recommend using a non-reactive container (e.g. food-safe plastic, glass or non-metal), my favorite way to marinade meats is to place it in a resealable plastic bag. I tend to use marinades for flavor and not so much to “tenderize” meat. But I do love a good stew which technically is marinating your meat.

Wet Rub

I cannot imagine cooking without herbs and spices but before the Crusades in the Middle East brought spices back, Europeans mainly used herbs to flavor their food.

Herbs and spices are pungent and some have antimicrobial or antioxidant properties which help to prevent food spoilage. And of course, they add color and taste nice.

Dry Rubs

A dry rub is basically coarse-ground dried herbs and spices with salt as a flavor booster and sugar to help with the caramelization. As the name implies, you basically rub the meat vigorously with the dry mixture.

The dry rub forms a protective layer that helps prevent the meat from burning. In fact, this “bark” that forms around the meat is highly valued by American South Western Barbecue aficionados for its delicious crusty flavor. Dry rubs also help to smoke the meat slightly.

Most of the time, I don’t use a dry rub for reasons I’ll explain later but I don’t see the need to let the dry-rubbed meat rest overnight in the fridge. I usually let it stand for 30-120 minutes to let the flavors mingle and meat to temper, i.e. come to room temperature.

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Sprinkling of salt on the surface of the meat to form a “brine”

While on the subject of dry rubs, I don’t subscribe to the thinking that leaving a layer of salt on the meat for 45 minutes or so is beneficial. The reasoning behind this practice is the salt draws out the moisture of the meat to the surface and dissolves in the moisture and becomes a “brine” which is finally reabsorbed into the meat will help keep the meat moist and flavored.

I believe this is flawed. The reason is that actual brining prevents meat from drying out because it adds extra moisture into the meat. The sprinkling of the salt on the meat draws out what moisture is available in the meat and, whatever moisture on the surface that’s not evaporated, gets reabsorbed into the meat. I believe there’s a net loss of moisture that will result in a drier meat.

Side note: Beef with high marbling is a very forgiving piece of meat. It is quite difficult to produce a dry Wagyu roast without considerable effort.

Furthermore, while a dry skin helps produce lovely crackling for pork or crispy-skin fish, it does not work this way for browning meat because the browning of meat such as steak is due to Maillard reaction. Dry meat does not produce crackling or facilitate browning, it’s dry meat.

Wet Rubs

Wet rubs are basically dry rubs with the addition of a fat, e.g. Olive oil. The application process is the same. And if I do use a rub, it is usually a wet rub because it adheres the rub to the meat better. You don’t need a lot of liquid, just enough to form a paste.

Of course, the addition of a fat means that for barbecues, there is a risk of flare-ups because of the dripping fat. And there’s little, if any, smoking of the meat.

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When do I use marinades, dry rubs and wet rubs?

I use marinades when I want to add flavor to meat and to have that flavor penetrate slightly into the meat. I usually use it for stir-fries, pan-fries or oven roasting. If I use it for a grill or barbecue, I would wipe the excess oil off to prevent dripping that will either put out the fire or cause a flare-up.

The only time I use a dry rub is when I make beef pastrami. However, if, for some reason, you don’t want to have that “bark” on your meat when cooked, you can rub the meat and then scrape off the excess rub leaving a fine powdery layer.

I tend to use wet rubs because it’s convenient and fast. If I just use salt and pepper with oil, I don’t let it sit there, I immediately put it in my preheated pan to sizzle. This is because I don’t want the salt to draw out the moisture from the beef.

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Do you need to use marinades and rubs at all?

To summarize, marinades are used today to “tenderize” meat and to add flavor. Pastes and dry rubs apply a coat of solid aromatics on the meat itself. It gives the meat a flavor boost and protects it from burning. Whatever crust or char (called the “bark” by some people) you get is from the layer of rub.

If your objective for all this is to allow flavor to penetrate the meat as much as possible, then these methods are inefficient because flavor molecules are mostly fat-soluble whereas meat is 75% water, given a fixed time-frame, flavor can’t penetrate very far inside. My experience is that a 48-hour marinade (garlic, black pepper, dark soy and olive oil) penetrates only a few millimeters.

A far more efficient method of getting flavor into the meat is to simply inject the marinade into the meat. Herve This once described injecting an orange marinade into a turkey and microwaving it for a few seconds to saturate the flavor of orange before roasting.

For very good beef, I usually only apply salt, black pepper and olive oil, after all the effort, time and money to produce flavorful beef, it seems a waste to overwhelm the beef flavors.

Marinades and rubs are fun to experiment, delicious and it helps cover a multitude of sins, from poor quality meat to poor cooking technique. But before you mix a marinade or a rub, look at the quality of your meat and ask yourself “Why?” If you can’t think of a good reason, then it’s best to not to.

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Posted on 9th Apr 2013 in Food and Drink, Meat, Musings

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