The nicest thing happened to me one day as I rifled through the mail. I got a letter from Dr. C. Eugene Allen, a professor and food scientist at the University of Minnesota who just happened to be a fan of this column.
He was responding to a teriyaki marinade recipe for venison I’d offered to a reader who asked about how to prepare that particular cut of meat that can be tough but delicious.
Bottom line, Allen said, is that ground ginger will add flavor to the meat, but it’s not going to do much to tenderize that venison. Fresh ginger, on the other hand, not only adds flavor but is also a very effective meat tenderizer.
Ginger breaks down the collagen connective tissue.
“This is because it contains a proteolytic enzyme named ‘zingibain,’ which was discovered in my laboratory in the early 1970s,” Allen wrote. He went on to say that when exposed to heat, fresh ginger loses its ability to tenderize (ground ginger goes through a heating process), but in the refrigerator as part of a marinade, fresh ginger is very effective at tenderizing even the toughest meat—more effective than pineapple, papaya, and figs, all of which do contain enzymes that tenderize meat. The secret is that only fresh ginger contains zingibain, which is more effective than even Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer.
I was happy to learn such specific information about the tenderizing properties of fresh ginger. I see it in the market, but have to admit I’ve never known exactly what to do with it.
Fresh ginger, sold in the produce section of most supermarkets, looks like fat, stubby hands the color of pale potatoes. When making a selection, you want to choose a small, young piece with smooth skin; wrinkles indicate that the root is dry and past its prime. It should have a fresh, spicy fragrance.
Ginger’s oil is highly volatile, meaning it vaporizes when exposed to air. So when using ginger, slice off just what you need from the root. Peel away the brown outer layer and, working against the grain, chop, grate, or slice the fibrous flesh.
Fresh unpeeled ginger root, tightly wrapped, can be refrigerated for up to three weeks and frozen for up to six months. To use frozen ginger, slice off a piece or grate the required amount of the unthawed root, and rewrap and return the rest to the freezer. One tablespoon of fresh ginger equals 1/4 teaspoon ground. Ground ginger isn’t a good substitute for fresh, as Allen stated. However, dried whole ginger will do in a pinch.
Allen’s work on fresh ginger was published in the Journal of Food Science in 1973.
Now, regarding that recipe, let’s try it again, but this time with fresh ginger.
Teriyaki Marinade for Venison or Beef
- 1/4 cup oil
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons ketchup
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon vinegar
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and minced
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
Combine all ingredients and mix well, pour into a large zip-type plastic bag, add the venison or beef, and seal. Turn several times to make sure all of the meat is covered, then allow to marinate in the refrigerator for 8 to 12 hours ahead of cooking, turning a couple of times.
The tougher the meat, the longer you should marinate. Venison can marinate up to four days if quite tough.