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Maceration refers to soaking or steeping a substance so that it softens. In cooking, maceration is used to refresh dehydrated foods, to flavor various ingredients, and in winemaking, when grapes are fermented in their own freshly pressed juice. A wide range of recipes call for maceration, ranging from fruit sauces for desserts to savory sauces for main course dishes. Maceration liquids can also be used for food preservation, as is the case with maraschino cherries, which are macerated in the liquid used to package them.
In Latin, maceratus means “to soften.” The term is used in a wide range of professions, from chemistry to medicine, but all of the uses refer in some way or another to softening. In cooking, maceration typically also adds flavor to the food, through the use of flavoring agents in the macerating liquid. Many culinary traditions include maceration in some of their recipes.
When fruit is macerated, it is typically lightly crushed and then sprinkled with things like sugar, spices, and lemon juice. One popular macerated fruit dish is a sauce which is made by blending strawberries, balsamic vinegar, and sugar. After several hours of maceration, the sauce can be poured over cakes or ice cream. The strawberries have a natural sweetness which is tempered by the tartness of the balsamic vinegar to make an amazingly complex sauce with layers of flavor.
Other ingredients can also be macerated. Meats, for example, can be soaked in a blend of liquids and spices to marinate them before cooking. Marinated meats are more tender because of the maceration process, and they are also saturated with flavor, since the meat absorbs the flavored liquid, allowing it to fully penetrate. Vegetables can also be marinated in various sauces before roasting or grilling.
Alcohol is often used in maceration, because it helps to soften foods and it can serve as a vehicle for flavoring since many flavors are soluble in alcohol. Foods macerated in alcohol also have a distinctive kick which some people find quite enjoyable, especially when paired with desserts.
When you macerate food, you should keep an eye on it. If foods soak long enough, they will start to break down and become mushy, which is not desired. Refrigeration can help to slow the softening process, and it will keep your food free of bacteria. With things like fruit, taste the fruit to test the texture; macerated meats can be poked with a fork to determine texture. A little bit of gray coloration on soaked meat is nothing to be concerned about; extremely mushy meet or meat with greenish or obviously moldy spots should be discarded.