Seasoning Meats
July 01, 1996 - Article
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Seasoning Meats

July 1996 -- Applications

By: Laura Brandt
Contributing Editor

  Sophisticated consumers are looking for high quality, value-added meat and poultry products. Eye appeal, good taste, and the desire for convenience and healthy eating are major factors in their selection. These products must be already prepared or very easy to prepare at home, often involving nothing more than placing the product into the microwave or oven.

  Food manufacturers have provided consumers with many varieties of flavorful seasoned meat products. But seasoning meats is more complicated than just mixing salt and pepper with some herbs and spices. Flavor is introduced through various means, such as marinades, injection solutions, seasoning rubs, and glazes that affect both taste and texture.

  Seasonings can be applied to a variety of meat products, including sausages, luncheon meat, hams and dried meats. The scope of this article is limited to the use of marinades, glazes and rubs, and flavoring solutions for injection and tumbling systems in red meat and poultry.

Mechanically Speaking

  Flavors that are often lost during processing can be added by injecting and/or tumbling meats with marinade solutions under cold conditions before cooking, and/or by applying seasonings topically either through a glaze or a rub to highlight the appearance of the outer surface.

  • Injection systems. Needle injectors are used to incorporate marinades directly into the thicker muscle pieces in meats. The brine or marinade is pumped in, then injected. Injector sizes range from smaller pilot-plant, single-needle injectors up to large multi-needle injectors, depending on the type and cut of meat being treated.

      The equipment can be adjusted for specific amounts of fluid pickup. Once this is achieved and the meat is released from the injector, the product may be cooked, tumbled or packaged, depending on the desired finished product.

  • Tumblers. After injection, the product may be tumbled to release salt-soluble proteins which migrate to the meat's surface.

      Tumblers or tumbler-massagers provide mechanical agitation for the meat and the marinade solution. The meat and a solution or dry mix are placed into a revolving canister and allowed to tumble, ideally at 33° to 35°F. Cuts of beef and poultry that have weak connective tissues are normally injected instead of tumbled because they will break apart in a tumbler.

      Tumbler design varies by type of mechanical action, from gentle motion to a more violent, cement-mixer type. Tumbler-massagers are equipped with baffles or paddles to maximize physical contact, allowing extractable salt-soluble proteins to surface further.

      Meats are tumbled until they pick up sufficient moisture; the length of time depends on the type of meat, the cut, and tumbler speed. A chicken breast may tumble for 15 to 30 minutes, while cuts of beef may tumble for 20 to 30 minutes, especially after prior needle tenderization. Large pieces such as hams may take several hours, depending on the curing ingredients.

      Pulling a vacuum on a tumbler facilitates the uptake of liquid into the meat tissues and further tenderizes the meat by expanding the meat muscle and breaking some of the muscle fibers.

      "Meat acts like a sponge in a vacuum tumbler. When you crush a dry sponge, you eliminate a lot of the air," explains Keith Blowers, senior food technologist, coating systems, McCormick Flavor Division, Hunt Valley, MD. "If you take this crushed sponge, submerse it in water and release the pressure, the water will fill in the spaces formerly taken up by the air."

      While tumblers range in size from 10-lb., pilot-plant models to 10,000-lb. commercial tumblers, most suppliers test their products in the smaller sized models.

      What does the future hold for tumbler and injection systems?

      Currently, mostly red meat is injected because of the large meat pieces, while poultry is primarily tumbled. Combinations of injection, followed by tumbling, are used to maximize flavor, especially in thicker cuts of meat. Because each method has its advantages and disadvantages, some food product designers prefer tumbling over injection for marinade distribution, while others think the trend is leaning toward injection.

      "Eventually, we will see mostly injection marinade systems, with little or no tumbling," says Ki Won Um, Ph.D., senior food technologist, Givaudan-Roure, Clifton, NJ. "This is a more efficient, continuous process that saves time, compared to tumbling systems, which are batch processes."

      Injectors offer better distribution of the marinade in the meat, according to Um. "You can put it right where you need it, in the muscle," he notes. "With injection systems, the same amount of chicken is prepared in about half the time it takes using tumbling operations. Although chicken pieces are small and are normally tumble-marinated, with the advances in smaller needle injectors, most poultry will be injected in the future."

    Seasoning Techniques

      Marinades are one of the most popular ways to flavor meats. In the culinary sense, a traditional marinade may consist of a flavorful solution of oil, sugar, salt, spices and acid used to soak beef, chicken, fish and vegetables, usually from 1 to 24 hours. An acid source such as vinegar, wine, fruit juice or yogurt is necessary to soften meat tissues. This process involves diffusion of the liquid into the meat muscles and adsorption of seasoning pieces and oil onto the exterior.

      Modern ingredients and equipment produce the same results, but with greater efficiency and enhanced juiciness. The water-holding capacity of meat is of prime importance in influencing its texture and flavor. Ions of salts, such as sodium chloride and sodium phosphates, as well as pH strongly influence the water-holding capacity of meats and are used extensively in commercial marinades.

      Actomyosin is a protein of the muscle fiber that forms during rigor. The dissociation of actomyosin into the myofibrillar proteins, actin and myosin, in the presence of salt and phosphate increases the water-holding capacity of the meat. The tissue fibers swell, resulting in decreased cooking loss and increased juiciness and tenderness.

      Alkaline phosphates such as sodium tripolyphosphate blended with sodium pyrophosphate and/or sodium metaphosphate are commonly used to take the pH of the meat away from its isoelectric point by raising the pH of the muscle tissue and increasing the ionic strength of the meat liquid. Water-binding abilitycan be increased dramatically with only relatively small pH changes in uncooked meats.

      Salt and phosphates are commonly used together for a synergistic effect on moisture and flavor retention. Salt concentration is not restricted, but the USDA limits phosphates to not more than 0.5% in finished products.

      The use of salts in acidic marinades depends upon the pH of the meat tissues. Although salts increase cooking yields on the alkaline side, they decrease yields in high-acid conditions. Below pH 5.0, the salt-soluble proteins become less soluble. For these reasons, the use of both sodium chloride and sodium phosphate should be restricted in high-acid (low pH) conditions, as with marinades that contain vinegar or citrus juices.

      When formulating acidic marinades, such as those for buffalo wings, a spray-dried vinegar flavor may be used, replacing either synthetic vinegar powder or actual vinegar in order to decrease the amount of acetic acid. Citric acid may be used at low levels to enhance marinades without significant pH reduction.

      Technically, the term "marination" depends on whether the product is red meat or poultry and on the percentage pickup. According to the USDA Standards and Labeling Policy Book, "To be labeled 'marinated,' a product must use a marinade that is a mixture in which food is either soaked, massaged, tumbled, or injected in order to improve taste, tenderness, or other sensory attributes, e.g. color or juiciness." The use of marinades is limited to 10% pickup in red meat, 8% pickup in boneless poultry, and 3% pickup in bone-in poultry, based on "green" (fresh) weight.

      "For products identified as marinated and also tenderized with enzymes, the percent marination is limited to 7%," the book states. Enzymes are not used much in marination systems because their activity is difficult to control and the meat may turn mushy. However, for added juiciness, more liquid can be added to products, as long as the label correctly states the amount and composition of the solution. For example, in a roast beef that contains over 10% added liquid, you can say, "Injected with up to 25% of a flavoring solution containing water, salt, phosphates, natural flavors, etc."

      Exceptions to the above rules apply to some cured products, as well as water-binding agents such as hydrocolloids, starches and soy proteins. Products with added binders cannot be called "marinated." For example, a label could read: "Roast beef, water, soy protein concentrate product."

      Injection/tumbling solutions. Two primary considerations with the use of injection needles are solubility and appearance. Injection solutions require very soluble, non-particulate systems to avoid clogged injection needles. Problems such as "track marks" left on chicken after injection may occur with improper formulations.

      "You may get gray or colored streaks on the meat, depending on the solution you're injecting," says Fred Mergner, senior food technologist, Pilgrim's Pride , Mt. Pleasant, TX. "For example, if you used a Cajun flavor with too much red pepper in it, you'd get a lot of red streaks throughout the meat. But if you use a soluble, colorless capsicum, it would spread out and be less readily apparent when you cut into the meat."

      For maximum solubility most suppliers recommend using water soluble oleoresins, liquid or spray-dried flavors, and extracts. Ground spices or seasoning particles are usually avoided because they tend to clog injector needles.

      Maximizing the solubility of flavoring solutions is also important in vacuum-tumbled meats. Usually a combination of coarsely and finely ground spices is blended for external appearance and internal flavor enhancement.

      Rubs are seasoning mixtures applied as exterior meat coatings. Blackened foods owe their uniqueness to rubs. While they can be as simple as salt and pepper, they usually contain a combination of spices and seasonings, as well as carriers such as oil, flour and maltodextrin. Rubs may be dry or in paste form. They can provide added visual interest, crunch and flavor. Rubs are usually applied after injection and/or vacuum tumbling when the surface is tacky. They may be added directly into the tumbler.

      Rubs pose a challenge for food product designers. Because of their tendency to burn, they may leave a charred flavor, instead of a pleasant spiciness. To avoid this problem carbohydrates must be limited. Instead, carriers such as low-DE maltodextrin, wheat and corn flour are used for even distribution of spice mixtures. Formulations with high tomato solids, such as barbecue rubs, also tend to burn under high heat. Using encapsulated flavorings and spices help preserve the flavors.

      Rotisserie chicken is a popular item enhanced by rubs. But flavoring the chickens is not always easy. Whole chickens are usually cooked between 70 to 90 minutes at temperatures around 400° to 450°F. Many use a combination of marinades, dry rubs and glazes for maximum flavor impact and eye appeal.

      "Most of the flavor in rotisserie chicken comes from the injection marinade, not from the rub," says Um. "During cooking, the fats drip from the meat, carrying with them most of the flavor. Rubs used in rotisserie products are largely cosmetic, giving the birds a unique appearance."

      Glazes. Topically applied glazes give a characteristic flavor and appearance to meats. Although liquid glazes are used most often, dry glazes are becoming more popular. A dry system usually contains flavors, seasonings, starches and gums that form a liquid glaze once they absorb the natural juices of the meat during cooking. Maltodextrin's film-forming properties are useful in glaze formulations.

      Liquid glazes are normally applied cold. Their viscosity depends on the amount and type of hydrocolloids and starches in the formulation.

      Caution must be used in formulating glazes. The same factors that cause dry rubs to burn also affect glazes. For a fully cooked product, glazes are applied before cooking. However, some acidic glazes may be applied after cooking. If the product is steam-cooked, caution should be used because the steam can bleed the glaze off the chicken.

    Tools of the Trade

      Seasoning systems for meat applications typically include spices, flavors, autolyzed yeast extracts, salt and phosphates, and they may include sweeteners, starches, hydrocolloids, soy proteins or other ingredients. Selecting and blending these ingredients pose challenges, even to "seasoned" suppliers.

      "Flavoring meat and poultry products is still highly trial and error," says Blowers. "Very rarely will a standard seasoning system work the first time. Usually several revisions are needed to meet a customer's desired flavor profile."

      Meat flavors. Food product designers may choose from a wide variety of meat and poultry flavors: beef, pork, chicken or turkey; white meat or dark; roasted or rare; prime rib or pot roast. Suppliers customize their products for various levels of sweetness, saltiness and tartness, as well as with a variety of spices and herbs.

      Increased moisture in meat products is accompanied by increased flavor loss because the natural flavor of the meat becomes diluted. To make up for this loss, meat flavors are often added to marinades and flavoring solutions to boost meatiness. Autolyzed yeast extracts, which also enhance meatiness by providing meaty and salty notes, are often used synergistically with meat flavors.

      Oven-roasting is a slow process that gives meats and poultry a rich, "brown" flavor, but most food processors do not have the time to cook meats in this fashion.

      "The fastest way to cook chicken is by using steam or a multi-purpose oven, but this results in a very bland product with no roasted notes," says Rick Matulis, Ph.D., technical manager, processed meats, TasteMaker, Cincinnati. "Some cuts of meat, such as roast beef, are frequently water-cooked by the processor. These conditions do not permit flavors associated with oven roasting to develop. Adding prime rib or roast beef notes can further enhance these products."

      Fat carries much of the flavor in meat. "Once the fat is lowered or removed, it is necessary to boost the flavor with meaty and fatty notes," says Matulis. "Spices and flavors need to be rebalanced for low-fat applications. Generally, we will start with the original flavor system used in the full-fat application, test it on the low-fat product, then rebalance it. Some spices may stick out and need to be lowered; others may need to be increased."

      Meat flavors are available in several forms, such as liquid water soluble, oil soluble, dry (spray-dried and vacuum-dried), and paste. Dry seems to be the most convenient form, according to most meat processors.

      Meat flavors can meet the needs of food processors who require "clean" and "super clean" labels -- i.e., without added MSG, HVP or nucleotides.

      Non-meat flavors. Getting certain flavors to come through in meat and poultry applications can be challenging. For example, "coming up with a good honey flavor in chicken has been particularly difficult," says Mergner. "The flavor components of honey tend to volatilize during cooking. If you put real honey on the outside, the product tends to caramelize and burn. With honey's delicate flavor, you want the flavor inside the meat, as far away from the heat source as possible."

      Mergner notes that other flavors may boost honey notes: "Molasses or other sweet flavors give you the impression of honey flavor."

      Sweeteners/bulking agents. Because of its high degree of sweetness and browning effect, the use of sucrose in meat products is somewhat self-limiting. Maltodextrins and corn syrup solids are bland, water soluble products that offer reduced sweetness and browning while providing solids and improved texture.

      "In a marinade, a low-DE maltodextrin will provide a slight increase in viscosity, which helps the (marinade) stay in the meat product," says Dan Putnam, senior applications scientist, Grain Processing Corp., Muscatine, IA. "Because maltodextrins are water soluble, they are better able to permeate the piece of meat while retaining more of the marinade."

      Although dextrose is used in meat formulations, too much dextrose in a formulation can cause excessive browning and sweetness. These problems can be controlled through the use of corn syrup solids which modify texture, viscosity and sweetness, depending on the DE.

      "Besides adding water to a product for higher yields, you can add soluble carbohydrates to increase your solids for injection systems and marinades. Adding water only increases your chances of having problems with package purge," says Putnam.

      Water-binding agents. If you've ever opened a packaged meat product that has a lot of "juice" running out of it, you can appreciate ingredients that bind and hold water. Moisture loss results in flavor loss and undesirable texture.

      Water-binding agents such as starches, hydrocolloids and soy proteins are used alone or more often in combination to help minimize package purge. Some products, such as turkey breasts, can be pumped with 50% to 75% added ingredients. To obtain these high yields, additives are necessary to help hold the water.

      "Carrageenan is used mostly for injection systems and chunked and formed products where you have small pieces of meat that you're restructuring in a brine," says Ron Foster, technical services/meat applications, Systems Bio-Industries, Waukesha, WI. "It gives deli items a firmer, less mushy bite and provides a more attractive appearance."

      Starches are chosen primarily on the basis of their gelatinization (hydration) temperature for a specific meat application. "A low gelatinization temperature is the key to selecting a modified starch for use in most meat applications," says Putnam.

      Soy protein concentrates (SPC) are added to injection solutions to improve product yield, increase tenderness and add succulence. SPCs have a significant effect on the pH of meat systems because of their buffering capacity. "Suppose you have a meat system where the pH is 6.0, as in poultry," explains Stephen Campano, manager, technical services-proteins, Central Soya, Ft. Wayne, IN. "Even an increase of 0.1 to 0.2 pH units due to the addition of SPC could mean a significant increase in the muscle's capacity to bind additional solutions and increase the water-holding capacity, allowing the muscles to retain more moisture."

    Flavor Trends

      "Over the last few years, there has been an explosion in the types of flavors that meat processors are prepared to look at and consumers are willing to accept," notes Blowers. "This industry has gone from simple to very complex flavor systems."

      Ethnic foods are definitely in, and the meat industry is no exception. Authenticity is the key to ethnicity today. For example, although there is still a market for Tex-Mex food, consumers now want to see true Mexican cuisine, rather than the Americanized version.

      Ethnic flavor trends noted by flavor/seasoning suppliers include Thai, Caribbean, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Greek, and even Egyptian. Other popular flavors include teriyaki, honey, tropical orange, lime salsa, coconut ginger, garlic, and specific chili pepper flavors.

      Even with this flavor explosion, Mergner notes that "although our customers will look at the wide variety of flavors available, most of them seem fairly conservative in what they actually roll out. The foodservice area seems to be the most trendy in terms of the flavors and seasonings with which they work. Generally, national distributors will be more conservative in selecting flavors because their items have to appeal to a broader range of consumers, while regional distributors will gear flavors for the particular area they are in. Regional fast food chains, for example, can afford to be more adventurous in the flavors they offer, especially on the West Coast.

      "I have been seeing more limited-time-offer items with fast food chains," he continues. "For example, Wendy's spicy sandwich was temporarily offered, but due to its overwhelming success, it is now a permanent item.

      "In spite of the trend toward flavored marinades, we still have customers who just want a salt, water, phosphate marinade," says Mergner. "We may add various chicken profiles to these marinades, but the restaurants will customize their products by adding topical seasonings and/or glazes to suit their particular customers. This saves them money and reduces their freezer inventory."

      So, whether you're enjoying a juicy piece of cranberry-flavored turkey, rotisserie chicken, or barbecued chicken wings, savor the experience and appreciate the modern food technology that makes it all a flavorful reality. Then reach for your napkin...


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