Marinating your food – surprising revelations!

Do you use marinades in your cooking? If so, stay tuned for this Cooking Tip for some advice. When discussing this topic, the first question you may encounter is whether it is “marinade” or “marinate”? It may help to remember that marinade is a noun whereas marinate is a verb. So, the liquid mixture you make to put your food into is the marinade. You make the marinade, add your food to it and allow it to marinate for the specified time. Got that?

Now that we have our grammar lesson out of the way, let’s get to what this all means in the kitchen. A marinade is usually a flavorful liquid in which foods are soaked in order absorb flavor and maybe tenderize them. Most (but not all) marinades will contain oil, an acid and aromatics (herbs, spices, veggies).

Oil

The oil helps to emulsify the marinade, making it thicker and easier to stick to the food item. Also, many of the aromatics are fat-soluble meaning that you will get a more even flavor distribution when you use oil. The oil also helps to cook the meat more evenly.

Acid

The acid can be citrus juice, vinegar, wine, fruit juice, buttermilk, yogurt, etc. This acidic component is what some say helps to tenderize tough cuts of meat. However, if you are not careful, it can do the exact opposite. The acid causes the proteins in the meat to denature into a loose mesh. At first, water is trapped within this mesh but if the marinating time goes on too long, the proteins tighten and squeeze the water out. This results in a tough piece of meat or seafood.

To avoid this, be sure that the more delicate the piece of protein you are using, the less acid you should be using. There are different recommendations for the acid to oil ratio. One source advises to use equal parts acid and oil, unless you have a specific reason for using more acid. Another chef recommends 3 parts oil to 1 part acid. If you are making your own marinade, I would start with the lower ratio.

This is especially true for marinating seafood as the acid in the marinade will start to cook the seafood – think ceviche. If left in too long, the tender seafood can become tough as if it were overcooked. Fine Cooking recommends only 1 part mild acid to 4 parts oil for marinating shrimp.

Another risk to an acidic marinade is a mushy texture, especially if left in the marinade too long. Nik Sharma in a post on Serious Eats agrees with this but notes that yogurt-based marinades are different due to the type of acid in yogurt. Longer marinating times are much better tolerated if the meats are placed in a yogurt-marinade rather than a more standard marinade. For a very in-depth discussion of the science behind this, see his article. Another good dairy choice is buttermilk. With one of these options, you can achieve a real tenderizing effect.

Because of these concerns with acid, Cooks Illustrated recommends against using acid. Acidic marinades do, though, add great flavor, though, and so are worth trying.

Aromatics

Most good marinades will also contain salt. As J. Kenji Lopez-Alt in The Food Lab states, the protein myosin that is found in the muscle of the meat will dissolve in a salty liquid. This results in a looser texture that allows it to retain more moisture. Cooks Illustrated recommends 1½ tsp per 3 Tbsp of liquid, making the mixture not only a marinade but also a brine.

The Food Lab also recommends adding a protease (an enzyme that breaks down proteins) such as soy sauce. Other ingredients similar to soy are fish sauce and Worcestershire sauce.

Additional aromatics include items such as garlic, shallots, dried spices, herbs or chilies. Finally, sweeteners such as sugar or honey add complexity and help brown food, another flavor booster.

Other types of marinades

  • Dry marinades or rubs – these are mixtures of herbs and spices, often moistened with some oil before rubbing onto the meat.
  • Fruit-based marinade – these are considered enzymatic rather than acidic. The enzymes (proteases) within the fruit are often touted to help tenderize meat. However, these types of marinades easily make the surface of the food mushy.

You may be surprised to know that your marinades do not penetrate very far into the meat According to J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, even after setting overnight in the refrigerator, the marinade does not penetrate more than a millimeter or two. He also states that the penetration rate actually slows the longer you allow it marinate. This all means that the marinade’s effect is mostly on the surface of the food item. For us home cooks, that means we can get by with shorter marinating times.

Veggies are one type of food for which marinating is a great choice. Since they are not composed of protein, many of the above cautions do not apply. Veggies are made of fiber, which helps them soak up the marinade, resulting in great flavor. Tofu acts similar to veggies.

How to marinade

You want to maximize contact between the food item and the marinade. An easy method is to put it all in a zip-lock plastic bag and squeeze the air out. You may also do it in any non-reactive bowl or container. Make sure the food is thoroughly coated in the marinade and turn it at least once to make sure all sides spend time in the marinade. Aim for about ½ cup liquid marinade for every 1# meat.

Be sure to refrigerate your food while it is marinating for food safety reasons.

Some marinades are cooked beforehand and others are not. Never use the liquid in which you have marinated meat as an uncooked sauce as it could be contaminated by the meat. If you want a sauce using the same marinade, there are two things that you can do. First, just hold some of the marinade aside for the sauce and put your meat into the remaining marinade. Or, you may cook the marinade for at least 5 minutes after removing the meat to kill any potential pathogens.

The biggest disagreement you will find is over how long to marinate. Due to the fact that the marinade doesn’t penetrate into your meat very far along with the possible detrimental effects from a long marinating time, many experts are now recommending a shorter time in the marinade. My Recipes test kitchen chef Mark Driskill feels that anything over 3-4 hours is unnecessary and maybe detrimental to your finished dish. Cooks Illustrated agrees saying it is “pointless to marinate for hours and hours”.

They, and others, recommend limiting the use of marinades to thin cuts of meat or meat that has been cut up for your dish. They say that larger cuts of meat would probably do better with a spice rub.

All that being said, we can make some general recommendations. No matter the recommendation, if your food starts to turn cloudy, you are starting to cook it. Take it out of the marinade immediately.

  • Shellfish (such as shrimp or scallops) – no longer than15 minutes
  • Other seafood – up to 30 minutes
  • Boneless chicken breast – about 2 hours
  • Pork loin – up to 4 hours
  • Lamb – 4-8 hours
  • Beef – Some will say up to 24 hours but you probably want to limit it no more than 8 hours.
  • Pork – about 6 hours
  • Kabob cuts (1½ – 2-inch cubes) – 2 hours
  • Firm tofu – 30 minutes
  • Hard veggies – 30 minutes to an hour
  • Tender veggies – 15-30 minutes

All of the above should make your decision to marinate easier when you look at some of these recommendations and when you realize that you do not need nearly as much time as you might have thought.