Cooks use a number of techniques to impart flavors to their foods. Rubbing them with spices, wrapping them in herbs or simmering them in flavorful broth are all common methods. Another is marinating, or soaking the meat in a strongly flavored liquid. Large, tough cuts of game can marinate for several days, but racks of lamb and other delicate, tender cuts usually benefit from shorter marinating times.
How Marinades Work
Most marinades include an acidic ingredient, some form of oil and a variety of seasonings and flavorings. Some flavors are imparted better by fats and some by water-based liquids, so marinades usually employ both. The oil coats the meat and helps prevent oxidation, while the acidic ingredient provides a modest amount of tenderizing. Common acidic marinade ingredients include wine, vinegar, lemon juice and even dairy products such as buttermilk or yogurt.
Recipes call for varying lengths of marinating time. Fish can take as little as 30 minutes, and boneless chicken breasts need little longer. Larger cuts, such as a pork shoulder or venison roast, usually require six to 12 hours. Recipes for wild-caught venison and other game sometimes specify marinating times of three to five days, reflecting the toughness and gaminess of the meat. However, over long marinating times the marinade's acidity can become a liability. The chemical change that initially tenderizes proteins will toughen them if it goes on too long, and your meats can acquire a disconcertingly sour flavor.
Lamb racks are the rib portions of the lamb, with their surface layers of fat trimmed away and the ends of the ribs usually laid bare, or "Frenched," by the butcher. The racks can be cooked whole, or cut between the bones to make rib chops. It's one of the tenderest cuts of lamb, so toughness doesn't justify long marinating time. Lamb also has a distinctively delicate flavor that's easily overwhelmed by aggressive flavorings, a second reason to keep marinating times short. Most cooks favor marinating lamb for no longer than overnight, but marinating for three days is possible if you make a few adjustments.
Should you want or need to prepare lamb for a meal that's three days away, adjust your marinade recipe to fit that time frame. Reduce the amount of acidity in your marinade to a minimum, avoiding or minimizing the use of powerful ingredients such as vinegar. Rely instead on milder acids such as yogurt or buttermilk. Cut back as well on flavoring ingredients such as spices and fresh herbs, which can quickly become overpowering. Be especially wary of garlic, onions, fresh sage and rosemary, all of them potent flavors and commonly used with lamb.
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- Fine Cooking: Marinades Add Flavor but Don't Always Tenderize
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