Hi Everyone, Lime and salt are two ingredients that give us so much flavour and taste but when we unwisely let them overstay their welcome, they rob us of those exact qualities – flavour and taste. But let’s put the blame where it belongs, with us cooks, after all, the lime and salt don’t get there by themselves. Caribbean people especially, overdo it when it comes to liming and salting our seafood, poultry and meat all in the name of cleanliness. Here’s the bottom line, if your fish, chicken, beef or pork smells so offensive that you have to lather it in lime and salt, chances are that it’s not good and you should not cook it.
Most people who worship at the altar of lime and salt will tell you that the reason they lime and salt their proteins before seasoning and cooking, is to get rid of the rankness, some refer to it as that “fresh smell”. The fact is that the smell of your seafood, poultry or meat should be almost non-existent. There should never be an offending odour. Like I said, if there is, then your purchase is not fresh. But I know that many people buy fresh ingredients and still subject them to an onslaught of lime and salt and it is not so much that the ritual of liming and salting takes place but it is the amount of time that the fish or meat is spent in this concoction that I find alarming.
I’ve heard tales of people liming and salting fish for an hour. One woman told me she put her meat and chicken in lime and salt for two hours! I was speechless; my stunned reply was simply “wow!” Unfortunately, I think she took my reaction to mean that I was impressed about how clean her food was.
I don’t have grand designs of starting a lime and salt revolution with this column (actually, I’d like to start such a revolution, but I’m going to hold back). All I ask is that you read this with an open mind. If I can free just one person from his or her obsession with lime and salt then I will be a happy woman.
Here is a fact – seafood, poultry or meat, marinating or as we like to say, soaking, in lime and salt for a prolonged period will result in the protein being cooked in some way. Fish and shrimp would be cooked through in no time due to the natural tenderness of the flesh and this would be evidenced by how white or opaque it becomes. With poultry and meat, you will notice the edges and surface turn grey or white; the outer texture would have changed becoming a bit mushy and easy to rub off. What has taken place here is that the acidity of the lime juice has cooked the protein and the salt used in conjunction with the lime has drawn out a lot of the natural moisture. Not only has the lime and salt cooked the protein fully and partially, but is has also closed up the pores on the surface that would have allowed seasonings to penetrate and enhance the natural flavour of the meat or seafood.
It’s no wonder then that some cooks resort to making deep gashes in the fish and meat and aggressively fill them with green seasoning trying to impart some flavour. But if you do this, all it will mean is that your guests will find themselves biting into raw seasoning! Yuck! When the fish is cooked, the natural flavour that distinguishes it is lost, gone. The same goes for the poultry and meat. Sure you know that you’re eating chicken but it’s the sauce or gravy it is served with that makes it attractive. What is the point of cooking pork if your guests can’t distinguish between that and the beef dish you made? Or cooking beef and having them wonder if it is lamb?
Before I go on, let me make it clear that there are many places for lime and salt to be used in tandem when preparing certain dishes such as ceviche – an appetizer of raw fish or shrimp marinated in lime juice along with onions, tomatoes and peppers. There are certain Caribbean fish dishes as well where the lime juice, salt and herbs are used to create a specific flavour such as Dominica’s Fish Coubouillon where the fish has to marinate for 2 hours in lime, water, salt and pepper and then be cooked in the same liquid along with garlic and green onions that have been sautéed in butter. Lime and salt along with oil and herbs are also used as marinades and in some cases poaching liquids for certain preparations and in each case, there is an exacting amount of time for which to marinade; cooks and recipes will warn you that if you leave it longer than the prescribed time, it will start to cook and ruin the flavour.
The point I’m making is this, unless you are preparing a dish where lime and salt is an integral part of the flavour of the dish, then marinating or soaking fish and meat for a long period of time in such an acidic and salty environment, for the sake of cleaning it, will ruin the natural flavour and texture.
So how do you go about cleaning your seafood then? Particularly fish as that is what we use a lot of here in the Caribbean? Let’s start by ensuring that what we’re buying is fresh, don’t be afraid to put the fish close to your nose and smell it, check the gills that they’re bright red or pink, the skin shiny, the flesh firm. Those of you that live in places where fish is caught and sold daily know by just looking at the fish whether or not it is fresh. Once your fish has been gutted, filleted or cut up and you bring it home to cook, rinse it thoroughly in water and pat it dry. If you like you can sprinkle a little salt on the fish or shrimp, rub it gently all over and immediately rinse and pat dry. However, if you insist on doing the lime and salt action, fill a large bowl with water, squeeze the lime juice into the water, add some salt and then quickly dip your fish into the water and take it out or swirl it around in the water for about 5-seconds only, remove it, immediately wash with clean water, pat dry and proceed with your recipe.
What about the chicken and meat? Honestly, as long as your purchases are fresh, it is not necessary to lime and salt either. Knowing that you will insist on some sort of cleaning ritual, I’d suggest you wipe them clean with damp paper towels. If that’s not good enough for you, go ahead and wash with water and be sure to pat dry.
I’m throwing out a challenge – don’t do the lime and salt at all or just do the 5-second bath like I suggest and tell me that the texture and flavour was not different when you cooked.