I’ve been cooking since I was little. Watching my grandmother cut up a whole chicken or whip up a batch of her classic bread pudding was my favorite way to spend time when I was 8 or 9. And you can bet she was putting my little hands to work, even if I did need to have a Sears catalog under my butt in order to reach the dinner table. Those experiences paid off, as did my many adventures in a commercial catering kitchen years later, where I learned professional knife skills and the art of preparing food in bulk and making it look more “sexy.”
Despite my confidence with most cooking tasks, I do not consider myself to be so accomplished that I cannot learn new things (and I sure hope that will always be true). One of the reasons I love reading about food, watching cooking videos and subscribing to blog sites is that there might be an unconventional technique or approach I’ve never considered. I want to know what else is out there and if there’s a better way to do something—whether for reduced fat, more convenient process, better flavor, improved outcome, time savings, whatever.
Last month, I opened one of the daily emails I receive from NY Times Cooking, and the letter referenced a technique that apparently has been circulating in the culinary underground for some time—a method for improving the outcome of grilled shrimp—and I’ve gotta tell you, I’m flabbergasted. It involves a slick coating of a small amount of mayonnaise, which isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but also the tiniest little bit of something else that activates the mayonnaise to become even more slippery, resulting in the juiciest shrimp I have ever tasted. It works so well, in fact, that I have since tried the technique with a variety of seasonings, cooking methods and even other seafood proteins.
This culinary hack, my friends, involves good old baking soda. Say what?
Yep, the same household substance that will softly scrub your stovetop to sparkling clean, give a leavening boost to your banana bread, dry shampoo your pet-worn carpet—heck, even knock the stink off your kid’s gym bag—can also be used to make grilled, broiled or sautéed seafood better, juicier and more succulent than you’ve ever tasted before.
OK, some of you may already be performing this trick. This is probably a good time for me to acknowledge that I am a little slow to hop on the bus that’s been following J. Kenji López-Alt, the chef-slash-genious whose innovative approach to cooking has me awestruck at every stop. If there’s a science behind it, Kenji has already explored it, hacked it, improved it and written a chapter about it in his book, The Food Lab, which is the holy bible of cooking, as far as I’m concerned. If you are already savvy to this particular mayo knowledge, feel free to nod along politely and just skip ahead to the juicy pictures. I’m envious. But if you’re sitting there with a stunned expression, as I was when I first read this, then join me for an exciting adventure in Kenji’s chemistry class.
This technique begins innocently enough, with a mere 1/4 cup of mayonnaise per pound and a half of shrimp (or, presumably, any other protein you wish to marinate). Add some flavor enhancers; Kenji’s initial recommendation is a few cloves of grated garlic and a minced jalapeno half, a fairly generous pinch of kosher salt and then—wait for it—1/4 teaspoon of baking soda. Watch what happens to the mixture:
You can see a bunch of tiny little bubbles in the mixture, which is caused by the chemical reaction between the baking soda (an alkaline) and the mayonnaise (it’s acidic, thanks to the vinegar in it). This sudden shift in pH level forces the moisturizing nature of the mayo further into the shrimp, and this will protect it from the high heat of your grill, skillet or oven.
Fold the peeled, deveined shrimp into this magical mayo marinade and tuck it away into the fridge for half an hour. Use this time to light the grill or prep whatever else you plan to serve with the shrimp or to pour a glass of wine and congratulate yourself for being willing to learning something new.
The first time I tried this baking soda-mayo technique, the weather forced me to do my grilling indoors, and it was perfection for the shrimp tacos I made for taco Tuesday. The second time, I changed up the flavors to marinate fillets of fresh halibut, which I topped with spicy lime panko crumbs and baked in the oven (I’ll share the recipe below). Again, perfect.
The third time, I used the same seasonings as the first batch of shrimp, but with green jalapeno. I cooked it in a plain skillet (with no additional oil) and laid it atop zucchini noodles with sautéed fresh tomatoes and onions. Brilliant!
The mayo has enough oil in it that you don’t need to bother oiling the grates or adding oil to your skillet. Somehow, though, that oil remains suspended in such a way that it doesn’t make the shrimp or fish feel or taste even remotely greasy. Oh, and none of this tasted like mayonnaise.
You can bet I’ll be trying this marinade trick on other forms of protein, starting with skinless chicken, which can be difficult to grill without drying out. I’ll report back on my findings, and if you should happen to go wild and beat me to it, please share the outcome here for all to see. 🙂
Below is a click-to-print recipe for the basic marinade, including my own slight adjustments from Kenji’s original. Further below is the recipe for the panko-topped halibut, which I’ll be making again very soon!
Miraculous Mayo Marinade
Every now and again, a technique comes along and surprises me, upsetting everything I thought I knew about cooking. This is one of those techniques!
- 1/4 cup (4 Tbsp.) mayonnaise
- Several cloves fresh garlic, peeled (see ingredient note below)
- 1/2 fresh jalapeno, seeded and minced (see ingredient note)
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- Several twists freshly ground black pepper, optional
- 1/4 tsp. baking soda
- For best results, grate the garlic cloves on a microplane, as this ensures the flavor will be evenly distributed throughout the marinade. If you don’t have a microplane, carefully grate the garlic on the smallest holes of a box grater or mince into the smallest pieces possible and drag them with a flat knife blade to make it like a paste.
- The jalapeno is optional, and may be omitted if you don’t care for the heat. Try another minced flavor add-in, such as citrus zest or fresh, minced herbs.
- Combine mayonnaise, garlic and jalapeno in a bowl large enough to hold the protein you plan to marinate. Stir in salt and pepper.
- Add baking soda and stir vigorously to blend.
- Fold small protein into the marinade, or spread the marinade over the protein if it is large, such as fish fillets. Refrigerate up to 30 minutes, and then grill, bake, roast or pan-fry as intended.
Mayo-marinated Baked Halibut with Zesty Citrus Panko Topping
This is a simple, but elegant fish entree that stays moist after baking, thanks to the miraculous mayonnaise marinade technique I learned from J. Kenji López-Alt. If halibut isn't your favorite, substitute any other firm, flaky whitefish and adjust cooking time as needed.
- 2 portions fresh halibut, about 6 oz. each
- 2 Tbsp. mayonnaise
- 3 cloves garlic, grated on microplane or smallest holes of a box grater
- Zest of one lime, divided (you’ll use half in the marinade, and half in the crumb topping)
- 1/4 tsp. key lime juice (or regular lime juice)
- 1/2 tsp. kosher salt and several twists of freshly ground black pepper
- 1/8 tsp. baking soda
- 2 Tbsp. salted butter
- A few quick shakes dried pepper flakes (I used Flatiron Pepper Hatch Green Chile, but any will do)
- 1/4 cup plain panko crumbs
- Preheat oven to 375° F, with oven rack in center position. Pat fish fillets dry with paper towels and place them on a foil-lined baking sheet.
- In a small bowl, combine mayonnaise, garlic, half of the lime zest and juice. Stir together with salt and pepper.
- Add baking soda to the mayo mixture and stir until blended. Small bubbles should appear in the mixture and it will seem to expand a bit.
- Spread the marinade all over the halibut fillets, covering every side that will be exposed to the oven heat. Let this rest for 30 minutes.
- In a small skillet, melt butter over medium-low heat. Stir in remaining lime zest and dried pepper flakes. Toss panko crumbs in the mixture until all butter is absorbed.
- Spoon the panko crumbs over the tops of the halibut fillets.
- Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until you can easily flake the side of the fish with a fork. If crumbs do not brown, return it to the oven on a low broil setting for about 30 seconds (watch it closely to prevent burning).