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Touring Regional American MarinadesTouring Regional American Marinades

Kimberly Decker

October 26, 2009

12 Min Read
Touring Regional American Marinades

To many Americans who consider flavors just outside their zip codes as unfamiliar as those found halfway around the world, marinades offer easy-to-swallow points of entry. Regional American cuisine, notes Stephen Giunta, CMC, culinary director, Cargill Meat Solutions, Wichita, KS, is a whole new way of engaging with food. I think theres a real movement right now to go back to honest, authentic, recognizable food and bring it back in a refreshed, modern approach, he says.

As Pamela Marcus, marketing specialist, FONA International Inc., Geneva, IL, says: Regional favorites with flair are popping up in a variety of restaurants, from quick-service to fine-dining.

Notes Albert Musca, corporate chef, Red Arrow Products Company, Manitowoc, WI: Most regional cuisines offer comfort to individuals. We all need some comfort these days, and a popular way is to eat foods familiar, craved and comforting.

All over the map

Predicting which regions will catch consumers attention is as hard as reading their palates. Certainly, the cuisines of California, Cajun/Creole country, Tex-Mex, Southwestern, Chicago, and Italian Americans have had the best longevity, Musca says.

Regional flavors are far from static, suggests Jordan Greenstein, brand manager, Cattlemens, Frenchs Flavor Ingredients, Springfield, MO. Regional flavors and styles are constantly evolving as people move from place to place, bringing a new set of ideas, styles and taste preferences from other regions, combining them to adapt a given regional style to be uniquely theirs. Everyone has a chicken sandwich, but calling out the traditional flavors, woods, cooking techniques and preparation techniques used in creating it, suddenly it becomes something that carries the traditional, authentic, evolved, inspired or fused flavors of a specific region with it and delivers something special to the customer.

In the South, influences from Africa, indigenous American cultures and Spain have shaped the cuisine, Giunta says, and over the years its distilled into a flavor profile that, he says, loves spice and loves sharp flavors, but that has to balance them with something sweet. Definitive Southeastern marinades and sauces will include honey and mustard, he says, and notes that you see a lot of buttermilk-soaked fried chicken in the region, too. Hed include buttermilk in a marinade since it tenderizes meat, and it actually has viscosity, so the coatings going to thicken and adhere to the product.

Another region Giuntas watching is the Southwest, where tomatillos, avocado, cilantro, lime and ingredients associated with Mexico show up. A marinade of onion purée with a little bit of garlic and cilantro is beautiful for fish, he says. Hot sauce is huge in the region, and they make a point of calling out use of varietal chiles: serrano, Anaheim or New Mexico. They do use a lot of ancho chile, as well, he says, a beautiful pepper for the traditional red sauce they use in the area.

In the Intermountain West, ranching and hunting flavor the cuisine. Wyoming, Montana and Colorado game needs its assertive flavor toned down, notes Guinta, and marinades help. You get a wild duck, and you really need a strong marinade there, he says, noting marinades with red wine and vinegar work well with mountain cuisine. For ranched lamb, garlic and herbs are the go-to marinade elements, he explains: Theyll use rosemary and sage, because those plants are hardy in the mountain region. And smoke flavor, as wellthey use liquid smoke in the mountain region, or different smoking woods, like pecan.

In California, notes Walter Zuromski, CEC, CCE, president, culinary director, Chef Services Group Inc., Lincoln, RI, because theres more grilling and more wood-oven roasting involved, the cooking medium tends to deliver more of the flavor. That calls for what he describes as a dry marinade, where theres just a blending of oil and herbs. California offers such a huge variety of produce and fresh meats that the ingredients, being the stars of California cuisine, tend to shine on their own. It really seems to be a simple, cleaner type of food.

Massaging for the mainstream

Authenticity is a moving target, shaped by constantly changing demographics layered over historic eating practices and regional agricultural patterns, says Sean Craig, senior executive chef, Gilroy Foods & Flavors, Gilroy, CA. New immigrants adapt the cuisines theyve carried from overseas to the ingredients available in their new homes. Product developers can take a similar tack, creating marinades and seasoning blends with authentic flavor profiles and using them in unexpected ways or to enhance proteins more palatable to todays consumer.

Marcus notes that it is important to keep the consumer in mind. The product should be rooted in authenticity, but with mainstream appeal to capture the largest audiencean audience that doesnt necessarily have a deep-seated sense of the cuisine. As she says, Obviously, the target market for a New England marinade is not those who live in New England.

Consider Cajun and Creole cuisines, suggests Rebecca Wagner, business unit manager, FONA. Paying close attention to the heat levels of the various peppers of the Cajun and Creole region is very important when launching this type of product to the mainstream market, since the majority of the consumers have had limited exposure to the wide range of heat levels that are signature to these cuisines, she says.

There will always be critics citing the way Mom or Grandma used to do it, or the recipes thought to contain the original, must-have ingredients, Musca says. When dealing with such adamant opinions on authenticity, the best way to gain consensus is to capture the spirit of the flavors in any given cuisines preparation. Highlight ingredients that have rooted themselves in a cuisine and that cannot be debated.

Regional from the ground up

Wagner advises developers of regional marinades to work backward. Begin with the end in mind, she says, thinking of the end application and the audience.

Take Floribbean cuisine, for example, where fish is a logical end application, notes Adam Schowalter, food technologist, FONA. Working back from there, he identifies the characterizing notes of fresh citrus, tropical fruits and spices, suggesting a key-lime and papaya-pepper marinade. Hed start with a traditional oil-and-vinegar base augmented with signature papaya, key lime and possibly mango notes, and finish it off with a hint of heat from jalapeño or other peppers, he says. The use of flavors can help drive the target profile and keep production costs in line, even when raw materials are not in season.

Fruit purées and dried-fruit granules work great in marinades, notes Andrew Hunter, consulting culinary chef, Kikkoman Sales USA, Inc., San Francisco, and they underscore two key considerations when formulating marinades: sugar and acidity. Sugar should aid in browning and caramelization, but it shouldnt burn, he says. If the sugars burn, the percentage in the formula is too high, which creates a glaze or basting sauce instead of a marinade. He calls acid the trickiest ingredient to formulate into a marinade, especially for marinades that will be on a piece of meat for an extended period, either frozen or refrigerated.

Then theres the question of marinade intensity, which Hunter says needs to be strong enough to penetrate the meat and contribute to the overall flavor profile, but should support, rather than overpower, the substrate. Its easy to make a marinade thats too intense, he says, which is why working with ingredients that are balanced in their own right is a safe bet. Pre-made components also make it easy to add flavor without risking burn, out-of-balance flavors, or acidity levels that are too high, he says.

A flavor-building approach like that used for Carolina barbecuelayering sauces and mops atop rubs and brinescan extend to flavoring systems beyond barbecue. This approach is great for a manufacturer, says Justin Young, executive chef, Kraft Food Ingredients, Memphis, TN. A brine can deliver the authentic flavor profile of any desired regional taste. The brine can also work to perfect the flavor by allowing just the right amount of time in the salty mix. A rub can further define the flavor profile to the level of a sub-region, such as North Memphis barbecue vs. South Memphis barbecue, and using the correct mix of flavors and applying the right amount of rub can determine these specific flavor profiles through a combination of heat in the chiles, the brown sugar, and either incorporating ketchup or cooking down tomato and vinegar.

One challenge developers encounter when replicating hickory-inflected barbecue profiles, Young says, is to get the flavor of hickory without using the hickory nuts to impart that smoky-sweet flavor. One option, he says, is to use authentic-tasting, wood-fired hickory flavor. Or, for the authentic flavor of Grandmas Sunday roast chicken, food manufacturers can use lemon grill flavor mixed with roast onion and garlic flavors. This combination will impart the authentic flavor of caramelized onions with a roasted garlic paste blended with lemon zest, he says.

Craig suggests product developers can easily adapt their existing formulas or develop new recipes for regional marinades by choosing easy-to-use, customizable ingredients like soft-frozen herb and vegetable purées. A purée with green chile flavors and fresh herbs can easily bring a sauce or marinade to New Mexico, while a blend with hot roasted peppers, garlic and onion, and a hint of thyme and oregano, can create a Cajun flavor base, he notes.

Working with seasoning blends is another time-saving strategy. Weve done some work, for example, with a Southwestern seasoning blend that we developed called Sweet Cascabel Java seasoning, Craig says. The flavors make a stellar addition to a marinade for skirt steaks and poultry, but also work really well in salad dressings, or even in béarnaise on a breakfast dish.

Other regions dont quite announce their identity in one bite. Subtle regional cuisines are often defined not necessarily by a specific flavor profile as by a cuisine style, Craig says. Freshness and healthfulness are often associated with California cuisine, so a marinade that capitalizes on that region needs to evoke those feelings. Fresh cilantro and citrus in a light oil-and-vinegar-based marinade may be more effective than a smoky or heavy flavor base.

Hunter points out the role of ingredients themselves in some regional cuisines, such as those of the Pacific Northwest. In this type of cuisine, I would use marinades as background flavors and allow the natural flavor of the salmon, for example, to shine, he says. Its important to note that marinades, at least by my definition, ought to lend a subtle, delicious flavor and enhance the moistness of the meat. The rule is to taste the meat or vegetable first and the marinade second.

Scaling up and out

Updating regional themes is more about evolution than stasis. Marinating steak with garlic, onion and red pepper for use in a Philly cheesesteak sandwich keeps it true to the original flavor profile, Craig says, but makes it a bit more dynamic for the sophisticated consumer. Similarly, a Texas barbecue sauce that stays true to the basic flavors, but with the addition of a hint of red wine, adds upscale appeal without changing what makes barbecue sauce so appealing.

Updates can come by way of new marinade-substrate pairings, too. A classic Southern Californian meat-and-marinade combo is carne asada marinated in an oil-and-vinegar base with cumin, pepper and chili powder, Craig says. We can work with customers to take this basic formula in a new direction and to new substrates with customized seasonings for a marinade that is authentic, yet proprietary. Similarly, we often think of Hawaiian-style teriyaki in terms of poultry, seafood or beef, but it also adds deep flavor to vegetarian proteins like tofu and tempeh, as well as veggie burgers, he says.

Giuntas noticed chefs deconstructing the elements of iconic regional dishes and reconstructing them in marinade form. In New Englands seafood cuisine, a lot of people use salt cod, often braised in tomato sauce, he says. In the Mid-Atlantic States, Old Bay seasoning is the spice blend of choice, mainly for seafood: a lot of cumin, interestingly enough, paprika, dry mustard, he says.

Regional traditions of pickling and preserving translate to marinades, where that whole balance between acid, salt and sweet definitely works well, Giunta continues. And chefs are reverse-engineering a version of cioppino, the Italian-American seafood stew, into a base for a beautiful marinade, he says. So people who dont want to make a stew that cooks for two or three hours might marinade seafood in those flavors and then do a quick cook and serve it over pasta or in risotto.

Could these and other ideas point the way toward a greater rediscovery of regional cuisines? That assumes the cuisines need rediscovery in the first place. As Musca muses, If you ask a Pennsylvania Dutch or Low Country resident if they think their local cuisine will be rediscovered, more than likely, the response will be, Was it ever lost?

Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a B.S. in consumer food science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she enjoys eating and writing about food. You can reach her at [email protected].


 Authentic American Cuisine

 According to the 2008 Mintel report Cooking Sauces and MarinadesU.S., authenticity is an important consumer consideration that tends to be linked with a specific region or country. The report cites Lamonts Authentic Southern Food Products Southern marinade, which is said to be made from a 150-year-old recipe.

Again, continues the report, the claim of authenticity, this time with a traceable pedigree, supports the fact that consumers are interested in sauces and marinades that are more sophisticated or unusual than generic or typical mass-produced varieties.

The report notes U.S. marinade and cooking sauce sales totaled $3.3 million in 2007, and the category is projected to grow 2.9% in 2008 and 3.3% in 2009.

According to Mintels online survey: 8 in 10 who prepare half or more of their meals eaten at home report using marinades; barbecuing households average 2.2 bottles of the sauce per month; and most survey respondents cited regionality as the top attribute in making a marinade choice.



About the Author(s)

Kimberly Decker

Contributing Editor

Kimberly J. Decker is a Bay Area food writer that has worked in product development for the frozen sector and written about food, nutrition and the culinary arts. Reach her at [email protected]

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