To soak or sauce?

by Donna Berry
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Soaking or saucing meat is a matter of manufacturing capabilities and consumer preference.
Soaking or saucing meat is a matter of manufacturing capabilities and consumer preference. (Photo: Vogue Entertaining)

Animal proteins are rather tasteless foods until seasoned and cooked or cooked and seasoned. Processors have the ability to season uncooked proteins through the use of industrial marinades and brines or add flavor after cooking through topically applied sauces.

To soak or to sauce…that is the question. And there is no easy answer. It truly is a matter of manufacturing capabilities, product positioning and consumer preference.

Understanding the soak

The terms brine and marinade (of the industrial nature, not the bottled flavorful consumer products sold at retail) refer to a salt and water solution (the soak), with or without flavorful ingredients. With brine, uncooked animal protein is immersed in the liquid to absorb the solution. This can be a labor-intensive process and is typically not performed in an industrial setting. Marinades, on the other hand, are much more practical. Marinades are either injected into the protein or the protein is vacuum tumbled in the saltwater solution.

The primary purpose of both approaches is to get enough salt and water into the protein so that during cooking the protein remains moist, even if slightly overcooked or held before serving. Such contained moisture can improve eating quality, including firmness and juiciness.

The soak works by having the salt denature the protein molecules, causing them to unwind and form a matrix to trap water. Protein molecules also break down, allowing salt and flavoring agents to readily permeate the flesh. In addition to improving texture, soaks improve yield through increased water retention. The amount of allowed added water is regulated by the US Dept. of Agriculture, with the regulations including specific labeling language for declaring how much water has been added to the protein.

Industrial marinades often contain phosphates, which can improve the water-binding capacity of the protein. Phosphates also function as antioxidants, improving product shelf life by inhibiting lipid oxidation.

Injected marinades have limitations regarding flavorful particulates, as they can clog injection needles. This is not an issue with the vacuum tumbled process, which is conducive to particulates for flavor and visual appeal.

Vacuum tumbling typically provides the most consistent distribution of seasoned saltwater solution. Proper vacuum ensures rapid movement of the solution throughout the protein, helping eliminate air pockets and pinholes in the meat. As the protein swells in the vacuum tumbler chamber, some protein tenderness is achieved.

Industrial marinades mask inconsistencies in uncooked protein that come from breed, diet, age and physiological growth or maturity of the animal. They can also assist with improving the eating quality and flavor of lower-quality cuts of meat, adding value and warranting a higher price than than the unmarinated cut.

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