Sometimes I’m amazed at the flavor of food someone else has cooked. I’m convinced the difference is in the little things—the secret touches that they don’t think twice about. Like marinating meat. Just this one simple step takes an otherwise unpalatable piece of meat and makes it tender and succulent. And by diverting your attention from the usual oil and vinegar mixture, and marinating meat with ferments, you create flavors you never imagined.
The basic ingredients of a marinade include an acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice, to help break down the proteins in the meat and make the meat more tender; an oil to add richness and coat the meat before cooking; and salt and seasonings for flavor.
Many cultures have used the enzymatic activity and probiotic nature of ferments to marinate their meat for centuries. Only in the past century have scientists discovered why these fermented marinades are so successful at tenderizing a tough cut of meat, leaving it succulent and flavorful.
As with most foods, fermentation helps pre-digest the meat to make its nutrients more bio-available, but it can also have other benefits. The Weston A. Price foundation notes that eating pork causes chemical changes in the blood that can result in fatigue, but pork that has undergone lacto-fermentation in traditional curing practices, or through marination, avoids these pitfalls.
While salt curing a whole ham may be a bit more than you want to take on in the kitchen, a quick probiotic marinade with any one of these ferments can give you many of the same results without a hefty time investment.
Marinating Meat with Ferments
Marinating Meat with Yogurt
A traditional marinade in Indian cooking, yogurt contains enzymes that help to tenderize meat. This fermented dairy-based marinade breaks down collagen in the muscle tissue, creating small pockets for moisture and flavor to be drawn in. The result is a tender, moist and flavorful meat. As an added bonus, yogurt-marinated meat takes about 1/3 less time to cook.
Marinating Meat with Buttermilk
Southern fried chicken is traditionally marinated overnight in buttermilk and spices before coating it in flour and frying. The remaining moisture in the buttermilk after the marinade has been drained helps the flour stick to the chicken, and results in a crispy outer coating. Some recipes recommend pulling the chicken out of the marinade, dipping in flour and then dipping back in the marinade and re-dipping in flour for an extra crispy texture.
Marinating Meat with Raw Vinegar
Though vinegar is in a lot of marinade recipes, making a conscious choice to use a raw vinegar will mean that the marination time is tenderizing the meat with more than just the power of acid. The additional probiotic nature of raw vinegar means that the marinade is working double duty, tenderizing the meat with cultures as well.
Marinating Meat with Kombucha
When your homemade kombucha starts getting a bit “long in the tooth” and it’s past its prime drinking stage, it’s just right for use as a marinade. The extra acidic zip from the over fermentation which makes it less appealing to drink straight is actually ideal for use tenderizing and flavoring meats.
Marinating Meat with Sauerkraut Juice
The combination of salt, acid and natural enzymes in sauerkraut juice help to tenderize and flavor meat as a marinade. It’s especially tasty on pork, where the flavors in the kraut compliment the pork and add complexity to the dish. Try marinating pork chops in sauerkraut juice, and then serving the chops with fresh sauerkraut so that you get both the flavor from the marinade and the probiotics from the raw kraut.
Fermenting lids for Mason jars are available in the Fermentools store. In fact, our lid, made from surgical steel, is the signature piece in all of our kits. Made to last a lifetime, these lids turn your everyday Mason jar into a handy fermentation vessel.
Ashley is an off-grid homesteader in central Vermont. She is passionate about fermentation, charcuterie, and foraging. Read more about her adventures at PracticalSelfReliance.com.