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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Sauced with flavor

Adding sauce is a must when it comes to some types of meats, like barbecue.
Adding sauce is a must when it comes to some types of meats, like barbecue. (Photo: Lucky Devils)

Pre-cooked proteins typically can benefit from a topically applied sauce:.think slabs of ribs and heat-and-eat entrées.

Often, the proteins used in these products have been soaked for improved quality and yield. These proteins are also often cooked at a lower temperature and higher humidity to reduce yield losses and manage costs. Unfortunately, these conditions do not allow desirable flavors to develop in the protein, such as from grilling or roasting, as well as the brown flavors from the Maillard reaction.

Topically applied sauces are an easy way to deliver these flavors and more. Sauces allow a single base protein to be offered with numerous flavor profiles. For example, the same fully cooked beef tips can be vacuum packaged with a teriyaki sauce, a pepper sauce or a tomato sauce, allowing the manufacturer to easily offer a global heat-and-eat entrée line.

Sauces can also be enhanced with authentic cooking method flavors, such as fire roasted, grilled and smoked. Again, some type of base protein, for example steamed chicken breast, gets sauced and packaged, and is described by the cooking method flavor in the sauce.

All types of flavors can be layered into sauce, adding value and creating a point of differentiation in the crowded marketplace. Probably the most activity is with ethnic flavors, as well as heat, both of which are becoming commonplace in sauces, alone or together.

Jean Shieh, marketing manager at Sensient Flavors in Turlock, Calif., cites the example of barbecue sauce with gochujang flavor. “Something so simple can be the savory update that keeps today’s consumers interested,” she says.

In regard to ethnic flavors, Shieh says formulators must keep in mind that today those flavors have become so much more than simply “Asian” and “Mexican.” “Get inspiration from specific regions,” she says. “For example, fully cooked pork roast can be sold in an Oaxacan mole poblano sauce with guajillo chili pepper.”

Nestor Ramirez, division chef with Sensient Natural Ingredients, says: “Every culture has a trademark type of sauce that can be modified and used as a glaze for chicken wings. And every culture has a sub culture that loves the burn of chili heat. So why not use regional chilies to create those types of regionally authentic wing sauces? For example, use teja chilis for Indian wings and a blend of ancho and guajillo for al pastor style.”

Sometimes flavors are best subtle while others are characterizing. “Using the right combination of spices and herbs in a sauce plays a key role in achieving the perfect flavor notes,” says Gary Augustine, executive director for market development for Kalamazoo, Mich.-based Kalsec. “Consumers are moving away from just straight heat flavor to more complex flavor profiles. Many ethnic cuisines include toasted spices, fresh herbs and specific chili varietals. Adding these ingredients to sauces used in heat-and-eat meals gives the protein new life.”

In response to consumer demand for more specialized heat, particularly with certain chili pepper varieties, Kalsec is growing its specialty pepper product line with new varieties including cayenne, pasilla and ghost pepper extract. These join ancho, guajillo, habanero, jalapeno and Szechuan.

Recently, Bell Flavors and Fragrances in Northbrook, Ill., launched a new line of hand-crafted beer flavors that can be used to add an unexpected twist of flavor to sauces and even industrial marinades. The line ranges from subtle to major hops and from smooth to rich with flavor.

“These flavors can be used in marinades to infuse the flavor inside the protein,” says Sheila Harte, senior beverage applications manager. “For example, hard cider is a fermented beverage made from the unfiltered juice of apples. When the flavor is used in a marinade for pork loin, it delivers a sweet-tart taste that is fresh and crisp.”

Beer can chicken on the grill is a summertime favorite for many consumers. Now those distinctive and varied beer tastes can be delivered through a marinade.

“The Hefeweizen (wheat beer) flavor has notes of banana, cloves and apple with distinctive hints of sweet and spicy,” Harte says. “We offer a stout flavor that balances mildly hoppy with silky, velvety notes of cocoa with a bold roasted flavor.”

Sauces for heat-and-eat roasts can benefit from the addition of IPA flavor, which has a strong herbal note and a medium malty note.

“Ale flavors work well with barbecue,” Harte says. “Belgian-style ale flavor is slightly sweet and spicy with toasted malty overtones, while the amber ale flavor has toasted malt characters with a light fruitiness to its flavor.”

Soak or sauce? With either, the opportunities to innovate are infinite.