Picture this moment: You are standing in the grass on a perfect, sunny day. Maybe it’s your yard, or a park somewhere. You tilt your head back and bite into a big, juicy wedge of Valencia orange. The sweet, sticky nectar drips down your chin and wrists as the sun gently warms your face. It’s a snapshot of summer (or post-soccer practice), right? Can you practically smell the pungent citrus fruit? Does your mouth water at the thought of it?
There is something about citrus that instantly transports you somewhere bright, happy, and warm. The fresh lemon juice in your lemon drop martini; the sweet and slightly bitter bite of ripe pink grapefruit; a spritz of lime on your carnitas taco; a tall glass of freshly pressed orange juice with your Saturday morning breakfast. As with butter and bacon, so many things are better with a squeeze of citrus.
Except marinades. Enter: Citrus juice’s more elegant and mysterious sibling, citrus zest. While we are used to using citrus zest in cooking, baking and, of course, cocktails, many recipes for marinades still call for citrus juice.
Unless you’re whipping up a batch of ceviche, we urge you to ditch the juicer, and reach for your rasp when it comes to preparing the best marinades for your protein. Here’s why:
Grab yourself a chunk of peel off of any citrus fruit and give it a quick squeeze while holding it close to your face so you can get a good look at it. You can actually see a little spritz come off of the surface of the peel when you squeeze it. This is the essential oil from the skin of the citrus fruit, and it’s packed with tons of citrusy aroma and flavor (Smell your hands! You’re at a spa now!). This is what will work its way into whatever protein you are marinating, infusing it with those intoxicating lemon, lime, orange, or grapefruit notes.
Citrus juice provides flavor, but it also provides a tartness that you may or may not be looking for. “While citrus juice provides lots of acidity, the citrus zest will last longer in marinades and provide a deeper flavor profile in the final dish,” says Chicago-based Chef Morgan Berrington, founder of Fork My Life. Citrus juice is also made up of water, which dilutes some of that pungent citrusy flavor, whereas the zest only contains those powerful essential oils. “Citrus zest can be bright, fruity, tangy and savory,” she adds, which makes it much more versatile when it comes to creating different flavor profiles for your marinades.
There’s a reason citrus juice actually “cooks” the fish in your ceviche — it’s packed with acid. This acid “denatures” the protein in the fish, changing its three-dimensional shape, ultimately changing the texture and appearance of the food. While this makes for a killer ceviche, this acid isn’t a great friend to the protein you are trying to tenderize by marinating it. Meat toughness comes from connective tissues like muscle fiber and collagen. Acid only manages to impact the surface of the protein, breaking it down and making it soggy rather than tenderizing the whole cut all the way through.
Says Berrington, “Citrus juice will eventually break down the proteins in the marinade, making them almost mushy. The citrus zest will bring the flavor while keeping the protein intact, meaning you can marinate your proteins for a longer time period when using citrus zest.”
So for a blast of intense flavor without the acid or the premature protein breakdown, grab that Microplane or box grater (just watch the knuckles). Oh, and stay away from the pithy white part, just below the surface of the citrus rind, as it is generally the cause of the unpleasant bitterness in citrus fruit.
For a quick and easy marinade for fish, poultry, pork, and beef, whisk together a chopped handful of your favorite fresh herbs (dried herbs work too, just add less), the zest of a few limes, oranges, lemons, or a combination of citrus fruits, a healthy glug of olive oil, and some salt and pepper and pour it over your protein. Save that squeeze of citrus for when your fish or meat are fresh off the grill — or for the cocktail you pair with it all.