The grilled cod in Quaker Steak & Lube’s fish tacos gets a flavor punch from a mango-habanero dry rub; an avocado-lime ranch dressing and pico de gallo add further depth. Manipulating the flavor and texture of proteins unlocks craveability and distinction. Certainly, chefs have long ago figured out that marinades, rubs, brines, crusts and glazes help elevate proteins. The challenge is in finding new and interesting ways to do that consistently, efficiently—and always with flavor in focus. As the global pantry becomes more readily accessible—and definitely more sought after by today’s diners—flavors like gochujang and fish sauce enter the toolbox. And beyond tenderizing and flavoring, brines, marinades and rubs can help deliver fresh, in-house and/or better-for-you cues through well-placed inclusions like citrus fruits. Modern crusts and glazes tend to surprise and delight, delivering wonderful textures and flavor combinations. Here, a handful of creative chefs share how they are upping their game on protein treatments.
Time to Brine
“When it comes to handling proteins, one thing we always try to do is brine,” says James Liles, executive chef of Publik Draft House in Atlanta. “That’s going to impart a lot of nice moisture before we cook it.” He emphasizes the importance of using different brines for different meats, always finding the right balance between salt, sugar and aromatics. “If you want to impart a particular flavor profile, you can get creative,” he says. “Instead of sugar, you might use honey or molasses, or use different herbs.”
Kimchi Chicken Wings are on the menu here—a craveable dish that Liles began offering years before Korean cuisine went big-time. The flavor key to the wings is the brine, which incorporates the central elements of kimchi: gochujang, red pepper, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce. The chicken wings are also finished with a sauce that echoes the same flavor profile.
Liles says brining also contributes to making the restaurant’s versatile chicken breast. He chose a brine of rosemary oil, lemon and salt to allow the chicken to be cross-utilized; it goes equally well on a salad or in the chicken pesto sandwich.
At Shane’s Rib Shack, a fast-casual barbecue joint based in Enterprise, Ala., founder Shane Thompson also finds brining an essential step in prepping chicken tenders. “It’s all white meat that gets a quick smoke time, so it’s important to have a moist product. We’ll soak them in a salt brine—no MSG, no chemicals—for a minimum of 12 hours.” The technique took a few years to develop, says Thompson.
Marinate with Care
Closely related to the brine is the marinade—an easy place for flavor innovation.
Sarah Scott, executive chef at El Gaucho steakhouse in Bellevue, Wash., says marinades are all about the saltiness they introduce to the protein. “You can use anything you want—I love using vinegar and puréed herbs, and I’ll marinate overnight. Or if you just use salt and oil, it will impart this delicate flavor.”
She gets more creative when marinating meats like duck. “I like to give it a lemon flavor, so I’ll purée a whole lemon with vinegar and fresh herbs. Lemon skin, pits, seeds and all.” Citrus is also the focus of a marinade dubbed “LOL” by chef Clifford Pleau, vice president of research and development for Bonefish Grill. “I gave it the name ‘LOL’ for lemon, orange and lime,” he laughs. “I love this application for fresh fish like grouper or snapper.” He zests an orange, lime and lemon, then squeezes the juice and adds seasoning, depending on the desired flavor profile. For Asian-style dishes, he adds soy, hot pepper and a neutral oil; for Latin he brings in chipotle or jalapeño—maybe using it on sea bass.
“For salmon, I might take half of the LOL marinade and put it on while frying the salmon. The citrus tends to start to cook the fish. Once you grill it, right when it comes off, the citrus marinade will soak in.”
Another marinade ingredient Pleau employs is yogurt. “In Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines, they use yogurt to break down protein.” He uses nonfat, plain yogurt and curry powder to marinate chicken thighs, reserving some marinade for dripping onto the meat during and after roasting.
At Publik Draft House in Atlanta, Kimchi Chicken Wings are always in demand. Their craveable flavor hinges on a brine infused with gochujang, red pepper, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar.
Rub It In
Rubs massage flavor right into the protein and add a pleasing crust. Shane Thompson’s signature pork sandwich gets its flavor from a spice rub that he developed over the years. “We take fresh pork butt and wrap it with spices and brown sugar. When it’s cooked on the grill, just the right amount will absorb and create the bark of the meat, while the spices get through. It seems simple, but it’s actually complicated to get the right amount of salt. And too much sugar will brown.” He is careful not to go too far with any of the spices. “You can alienate your customers. When I enter competitions, I might use cinnamon or nutmeg in the rub for an interesting flavor profile, but most of the population doesn’t go for odd or unique flavors. So for our customers, I make a spice rub that 80 percent of the population likes.”
Pleau likes how dry rubs promote nutritious cooking, bringing out maximum flavor without adding a lot of calories. He makes a variety of rubs, combining citrus, sea salt, finely chopped fresh herbs, cayenne, black pepper and other spices. “There’s no real recipe. You put it all in the blender to pulse. Because the sea salt is diluted by citrus zest and other herbs, it’s not straight salt—it’s less sodium. The increased aromatics are the first thing to touch your tongue and tease your mouth. It really makes an impression.”
Kate Malaniak is senior director of food and beverage for Quaker Steak & Lube, where their top-selling ribs and popular pulled pork get a rub of “Lube” seasoning. The same secret blend of spices flavors the chain’s burgers, steaks, salmon—even fries and onion rings. The signature blend was developed 10 years ago and has been dubbed “crack” for its addictive qualities.
Malaniak also describes the dry rub that they now use on grilled chicken, salmon and fish tacos. It’s a mango-habanero seasoning, launched this year to great reception. “Since it’s a dry seasoning, we just shake it on—you can get it onto the meat without having hands contact raw product.”
For Sarah Scott, crusting is a favorite protein treatment because of the mouthfeel and for the depth it can add to a dish. “You can add crust to any protein,” she says, citing examples like lamb with a nut crust or prime rib roast with a thyme crust. She developed a hazelnut-crusted lamb rack, sautéing the lamb in clarified butter to make a seared crust, cooking most of the way done, then adding crushed hazelnut and returning it to the oven to finish. The resulting texture is sort of a crust within a crust.
Chef Edward Leonard of Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, Ga., also enjoys the texture and flavor that nuts add to lamb. “I like pistachio and pecan; both have flavors that lend themselves to crusts—the sweetness and character, plus the benefit of the nice green color.” He might also use some prosciutto on the lamb for salt content, then top it with the nut crust. “When you slice the meat, you taste the buttery sweet of the pistachio, you get the saltiness and texture, and then the nice, rich flavor of the lamb itself—a whole combo of flavors, all married into the first bite.”
He cautions not to overdo the flavors—the food has to make sense. Less tender cuts of meat, such as the lamb shoulder or lamb leg, can handle stronger flavors, while a rack of lamb might benefit from a simple Parmesan crust.
Pleau expands the definition of a crust to paste-like toppings, such as an olive paste or sun-dried tomato purée. “For a whole piece of fish that you’ll grill or roast, you can take any purée and treat it like frosting—imagine frosting a fish with a spatula like you would a cake.” Another example would be marinated artichokes, drained and blended into a paste and spread all over the top of the fish. Roasting or broiling the fish brings out the texture of the crust. Panko crumbs and oil mixed to a wet sand-like texture can be added for extra crunch.
“Chefs get used to the way they do things and don’t stretch out,” says Pleau. “You should be constantly playing with new ideas.”