Barbecue sauce, marinades and bastes; is there any difference?

It’s absolutely amazing how using any of these flavor-enhancing cooking methods will turn an ordinary food experience into something over the top. There are, indeed, several differences between cooking with barbecue sauces, marinades and bastes. 

Two ways they are the same, however, is that all three cooking methods induce flavor and juiciness into an otherwise ordinary meal. And even though they all improve on taste, each does it in its own unique way.

The main differences between these methods is when and how they are used and with what ingredients. Marinades are used before cooking time; bastes are used during the cooking time; and barbecue sauce is used at the end of the cooking time. Associating each unique method with the correct time it is used during the prep work, will end any confusion.

Generally, marinades are used on meats, veggies, and even fruit; bastes are used mostly on meats, and barbecue sauces, on meats and veggies.

The choice of ingredients used in the marinade, baste or barbecue sauce are as diverse as the areas and even the countries, in which they are used. But there are basic qualifications for each one. And the good news is that the procedure for each of these methods is relatively quick and easy!

Marinating before cooking

Marinating is essentially leaving  the food to soak in a zesty, pre-mixed sauce for a period of time, to bring about increased flavor and a degree of tenderizing or softening. Although meat is usually marinated before grilling, it can also be done prior to baking, roasting, frying, etc.

A true marinade consists of an acid, an oil, flavorings and spices. Dairy, such as buttermilk, milk and yogurt, has been used with great success on fish, poultry etc. The low acid content of dairy performs wonderfully on these particular meats.

Commonly marinated food items are: cheaper cuts of beef, chicken, fish, turkey, veggie kebabs for the grill, fruit and tofu.

The three components of a marinade for meat

Oil is one of the components in a meat or vegetable marinade. It is used to moisten and soften. Olive and other vegetable oils work very well with meat. Nut and sesame oil are also an excellent alternative.

Acid is used to help tenderize meat especially, beef, and particularly if it is a tougher cut. This softening of the meat is called denaturing. It helps break down the proteins creating pockets that allow the marinade to penetrate. Common acids are vinegars, red and white wines, citrus juices (lemon, lime and orange), tomato juice, as well as yogurt, milk and buttermilk. If buttermilk or dairy are being used as a marinade, spices can still be added for flavour.

Flavors that create tasty results for a successful marinade are soya or teriyaki sauce, and  ground spices such as curry, turmeric, cumin, thyme, garlic, and dill, just to name a few. The possibilities are limitless.

The key in creating a successful marinade is to know which ingredients will synchronize well together and bring about the appropriate effect in a positive way. This requires either food savvy or a little research.

For instance, if a Chinese style marinade is desired, it is logical to use sesame or peanut oil, rice vinegar, soya or hoisin sauce, and ginger as a marinade.

Making Greek style kebabs? Olive or vegetable oil, lemon, oregano, minced garlic or garlic powder plus salt and pepper will lend an authentic Greek flavor.

It should be noted that the basic, three-type-of-ingredient, marinade is usually reserved for meat. But simply adding a teriyaki sauce to tofu or veggies, or a little maple syrup and vanilla to freshly cut strawberries and letting them sit in the fridge for awhile, can still qualify as a marinade.

Quantities and duration for the marinade

For each 1 lb. of meat, a ½ cup of marinade is needed. It is thought that too much acid can actually toughen the meat, so using a maximum of 4 tablespoons of acid to the ½ cup of liquid is fine.

It is important to thoroughly mix the marinade before pouring it over the meat or veggees so that the effect is uniform. For dense meat, such as thick pork chops or steaks, overnight, in the fridge, is the way to go.

However, smaller pieces of chicken and lamb, or turkey can be sufficiently marinated for anywhere up to 4 hours. As fish has a lighter, looser texture than the above meats, less time is needed. Marinating fish fillets need only take 15 to 60 minutes.

As a precaution, the marinade should be tossed out later, as it was initially used with raw meat. If you must use it with the meat, the marinade should be cooked for at least 5 minutes to kill possible bacteria.

A sturdy plastic bag or a plastic container with a lid is ideal for marinating. Metal bowls and ceramic bowls are not recommended.

Basting during cooking

Basting is a cooking procedure which incorporates the natural drippings from the meat itself or from the marinade that was used on the meat. Essentially, it is the method of keeping the meat moist throughout the cooking process by squirting it with a baster or brushing it with a basting brush with the drippings. 

When roasting or baking a meat to which spices, or just salt and pepper, have been applied, a tasty rendering of juice will form. This natural liquid is typically used for basting. However, you can baste meat with a liquid made up specifically for this purpose, such as broth and soy sauce, or lemon and butter.

Often applied when roasting turkey, basting adds moisture and  flavor to the meat, culminating in a delicious liquid that can later be made into a gravy.

Turkey makes its own basting juice, but if slow-cooking a roast, such as a pot roast, a liquid baste can be made by adding broth, wine and/or spices to the slow cook. This is an excellent example of a homemade baste that can also be thickened into mouth-watering gravy.

There are no special guidelines for a baste, just a little savvy when adding flavor and/or liquid to a planned meat.

Barbecue sauce – at the end of cooking time

Barbecue sauce is typically a tangy mixture of tomato paste or ketchup, vinegar, brown sugar, mustard, hot sauce, smoke flavour and spices such as cilantro, cumin, or basil. This is the ubiquitous type of sauce North Americans are used to, often infused with escalating degrees of spicy heat. But there are multiple types of barbecue sauce.

For instance, in Brazil, chimichurri sauce is a used as a grilling sauce as well as a table sauce. Made of a blend of parsley, shallots, garlic, red wine, pepper flakes, etc. and sometimes the addition of chopped peppers, it illustrates how diverse barbecue sauces can be.  

Essentially any sauce brushed on ribs, chicken, fish, pork chops, lambs or vegetables during the last 15 minutes of barbecuing for added flavor and moistness is a barbecue sauce. But when it comes to really superb barbecue it is all about the sauce! There are rows of bottles of pre-made sauces lining the shelves of grocery stores and specialty shops and most of them are delicious. Barbecue sauce is big business.

Still there are a myriad of recipes to try from scratch,that will deliver very tasty results and make a positive impression on family or guests!

The importance here is to only add the barbecue sauce to the meat or veggies for a short time, and during the last 15 minutes or so of barbecuing or grilling. The sauce could char if left too long.  

There are a number of differences between barbecue sauces, marinades and bastes. It is all in the timing and the application. All three methods are designed to enhance the art of cooking. All are solid, tried and true cooking methods that bring everyday cooking up a huge notch with little effort. One thing for certain is they will make the difference between an ordinary meal and an extraordinary one.