Ask Peter: Marinating times
I notice recipes containing marinades usually give a minimum and maximum time that the meat or fish can be marinated. I guess the maximum is to ensure that the meat or fish won’t break down too much. Is that correct? I would find a guide to marinating times very helpful, if you could possibly give one, for those occasions when I am not using a recipe. Being able to marinate meat, chicken, fish and squid etc the day before really helps save time in the kitchen later but how far in advance can you do this without detriment to the finished dish?
Marinades have two jobs to do. The first is to tenderise more “chewy’’ proteins — think leg of mutton rather than lamb tenderloin. The second job is purely to add flavour. So that means it is really what you are using the marinade for that determines how long something should be left to rest in it.
If you were cooking a leg of mutton, then a few days in advance you could marinate it in a mixture of yoghurt, dried spices such as cumin and cinnamon, and fresh spices like chilli and ginger. You could butterfly the leg open and rub the mixture over it, leaving it to marinate in the fridge for a few days before cooking. You’d notice quite a difference in tenderness compared to a leg that hadn’t been marinated. Obviously it would also taste different due to the spices used. Enzymes in the yoghurt help to break down muscle tissue and cause the meat to relax a little, so when it’s cooked it has less chew to it. Doing this to a lamb fillet for a few days wouldn’t be a good idea as the meat would lose some of its texture and the lamb flavour would be overpowered. You’d only want to marinate it for 4-5 hours maximum. Using this sort of marinade is also really good when preparing diced beef or lamb for kebabs, chicken legs or drumsticks.
Another tenderising marinade would be to chop a few whole lemons, skin and all, and mix them with chopped chipotle chillies (buy them dried and soak in warm water for 30 minutes before discarding the stalk), plus garlic, red onion and coriander — use the stalk, root and leaves for maximum flavour. This also works well rubbed on a boneless pork belly. Leave the meat to marinate for at least 24 hours, or just for six hours for whole chicken legs.
If you used this particular marinade on fish fillets you’d find the acid present in the lemon would soon cure the fish and “chemically cook it’’ as it does in a ceviche, so you would avoid long marinating periods for fish and squid in acidic mixtures. Having said that, frozen thick squid tubes, which you often see for sale, benefit from such a marinade as they can be quite chewy otherwise. Though oddly enough, the act of freezing squid tenderises it without any other additives as the cell walls of the protein break down when the water in the cells expand and contract — causing an internal massage, as it were! Paua can also benefit from freezing for the same reason.
A non-tenderising marinade that has the primary aim of flavouring something usually has a lot of aromatics in it, both spices and herbs (fresh and dried), oil, and often salt, soy sauce or something like hoisin sauce . The food being marinated will only be in it for a short period of time — six hours maximum for meat, and as little as 30 minutes for fish. It may contain citrus peel or something like shredded lemongrass or lime leaves, and it may contain citrus juice — but if left in the marinade too long, as described above, fish will be “overcooked’’.
To marinate a side of salmon, puree ginger, garlic, lemongrass and ground star anise with sesame and olive oils and a little soy sauce or miso paste. Rub it over the flesh side of the salmon (keeping the skin on) and leave for a few hours in a covered dish before wiping (not washing) the marinade off. Cut the fillet into individual portions, brush with a little more oil then roast, grill or barbecue. The flavour will be very tasty but the fish won’t be over-cured.
What’s important is that you shouldn’t add salt to anything that will be marinated for more than a few hours as the salt draws moisture from the protein and that causes it to firm up. Add salt to the food just before cooking.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.