Sometimes big flavor comes in small, tree-ripened packages. Take macerated fruit, the only case I know where a single berry or slice of fruit can end up tasting spicy, zesty, smoky and sweet all at once. And all thanks to an easy, set-and-forget technique.
What Constitutes Macerating
Macerating is similar to marinating—except that your soak-ee is going to be fruit rather than meat or vegetables. The process is simple: Fresh or dried fruit is splashed with or left to sit in a flavored liquid such as liquor, vinegar, or syrup for a few hours or overnight. In time, the fruit absorbs the liquids and seasonings around it, which causes a slight softening (or plumping, in the case of dried fruit) of texture and a shift in flavors. The end result is juicy fruit with amped-up taste.
In many recipes, sprinkling fruit with sugar is referred to as macerating, too. Even though there is no liquid being applied, the open-minded among us will accept that, and here's why: A sprinkling of sugar draws moisture out of fruit, which ends up combining with the sugar in the bowl to create a syrup. The effect is similar to the liquid experience, although the end result will likely have less moisture than those steeped in added liquid from the start. Not a bad thing, this can actually be more desirable for some dishes, like fruit pastries or a fruit salad.
Still, from a strict flavor perspective, ain't nothin' like the real thing. Fruit can be macerated in liquids from spicy dark liquors to tart juice or vinegar, citrus juice, strong wine, or liqueurs, and will take on much of the flavor of its neighbors. Since some of these liquids can be harsh on their own, the taste can be balanced by adding seasonings like chopped herbs, spices, or sweeteners like sugar, honey or vanilla. (More on that in a moment.)
Maceration starts instantly, and in some cases you'll notice change in fruit texture or flavor within minutes of contact. But the best results require more time, anywhere from 30 minutes to overnight. Some say heat has no hastening effect on the process, but I've found that slightly heating but not boiling the soaking liquid speeds up the plumping and moistening of dried fruits like raisins, cherries or currants. (In some cases, it also seems to lessen the sharpness and acidity of seasonings like citrus, vinegar or liquors since some of the intensity is cooked away.)
When macerating several fruits together, you may want to give a head start to tougher, skinned fruits (grapes, blueberries and ripe apples come to mind), eventually adding softer, fleshier fruits (bananas or mangoes) in order to prevent mushiness or too much discoloration.
When it comes to prepping in advance for a dish, time is on your side. If you're dealing with fresh fruits, you can usually start macerating up to 48 hours in advance of serving. Dried fruit maceration can be done up to a few weeks in advance and stored covered in the refrigerator. In either case, alcohols with higher percentages (bourbon as opposed to red wine, for example) will help preserve your precious fruits and berries from spoiling.
Ideas for Seasoning
Have fun mixing and matching these macerating ingredients:
- Liquors and liqueurs with a fruity, herbal or spicy profile
- Vinegars such as balsamic, cider, red wine or champagne
- Honey, maple syrup or agave nectar
- Ground or whole spices including cinnamon, black pepper and star anise
- Citrus juice and zest
- Fresh, chopped herbs
- Fresh and dried chiles
- Extracts like vanilla or almond