The photo shows the braised pork spare ribs we had for dinner on Sunday evening. To braise means to cook in very little liquid. It is my ideal alternative to marinating and grilling or roasting. When I don’t have to time to marinate meat overnight in the fridge, I prefer to simmer it in marinade. With a few tricks, the texture of the cooked dish can be comparable to roasted meat.
But the most important thing to remember when braising meat is to use the most flavorful ingredients so that everything is absorbed by the meat while cooking. What does that mean?
Think barbecue marinade. You can use bottled marinade, powdered marinade or, if you like more control, you can make your own.
What is a perfect barbecue marinade? Well, I suppose the answer will vary from one person to the next. For me, that means a delightful balance between saltiness, spiciness, sweetness and tanginess.
Let’s dissect all that.
To achieve saltiness, we can use salt, soy sauce or even patis. To make the marinade spicy, we can use chopped chilies, pepper flakes, whole peppercorns or freshly cracked peppercorns, or ground pepper. We add sugar to make it sweet and we add a sour ingredient like lemon juice, kalamansi juice or vinegar to add a tangy flavor.
The trouble with salt is that it does not add any color to the marinade. Patis, on the other hand, will give it a pungent odor. When I make barbecue marinade, I always go for soy sauce.
Chopped chilies, chili flakes, peppercorns or ground pepper? While pepper is aromatic, it does not have the bite of chilies. Pieces of peppercorn in the sauce is not something I find attractive either. I’d go for chopped chilies, four to five pieces per kilo of meat are usually enough or, if unavailable, chili flakes.
What about sugar? Is it sugar or bust? Actually, if you substitute honey or even pancake syrup, you’ll come up with a thicker and shinier sauce. A thick shiny sauce coating the meat really looks fantastic.
Lemon or kalamansi juice, or vinegar? My first choice is always lemon juice. I even grate the rind and add it to the marinade. Kalamansi juice is great too but squeezing a dozen or more kalamansi can be tiresome. Vinegar is always a last resort because it doesn’t smell good. And if the vinegar you have a permanent stock of is native vinegar, well…
Now, if you intend to braise the meat in the marinade, or if you want to simmer the remaining marinade after grilling the meat so you can have a dipping sauce on the side, there are ways to “extend” the marinade. To “extend” simply means adding more liquid. The most popular extender is soda — 7-Up, in particular. Many swear that soda is a great meat tenderizer. Whether or not that’s true doesn’t make all that much difference to me because I choose my meat well. If you use good meat, there’s really no need for a tenderizer.
Another popular extender is pineapple juice. I prefer pineapple juice over soda because it gives meat that nice cured flavor. Like ham.
So, if you mix all the ingredients that will give you saltiness, spiciness, sweetness and tanginess, is it enough to make a great barbecue sauce or marinade? Nope, it will still taste flat. You want to add body to the sauce or marinade. How do you do that? Herbs help. But it can also be something as simple as adding lots of chopped onions and finely minced garlic. Finely grated ginger will add a piquant and very Oriental flavor to your barbecue sauce or marinade.
If you want to add herbs, try rosemary. If you want an even more complex explosion of flavors, try ground coriander seeds. The possible combinations are endless.
If you’re experimenting, try using less rather than more. You can always add but you cannot subtract. Remember too that, often, the most satisfying barbecue relies, first and foremost, on the quality of the meat. No matter how good your sauce or your marinade is, you cannot hide bad meat.
I hope all that encourages you to ditch bottled marinades in favor of concocting your very own. :)