You’re Soaking In It: Marinades 101

Many outdoor cooking “experts” (and expert wannabes) extol the virtues of making marinades for preparing recipes for the grill. If you’ve ever wondered (but perhaps were afraid to ask) what the fuss over marinades is all about, read on:

What’s a marinade? Marinades are “flavor-infusing” liquids used in preparing tougher cuts of meat for cooking (most often for grilling). Marinades consist of some kind of acid or enzyme (like vinegar, wine, lemon or pineapple) in a mixture with a fat (like olive oil), and herbs, spices and other seasonings.

A good marinade will have a delicate balance of spices, acids (or enzymes), and oil. You can read about the proper proportions and suggested ingredients for a killer marinade in this other article on our blog.

Marinades serve two purposes in grilling recipes:

  • Marinades tenderize tougher cuts of meat.
  • Marinades add and enhance flavor.

How marinades tenderize: Technically speaking, the enzymes and acids in the marinade cause the muscle and connective tissue to break down. This allows more moisture to be absorbed by the meat, which yields a juicier end product. (For extra credit, remember that the scientific name for breaking down protein bonds is called denaturing.)

How much marinade should I make? For beef and pork, plan on using about 1/4 Cup of marinade per pound of meat. You’ll need enough marinade to cover the entire outer surface of the roast, chop or steak. If you’re marinating poultry or fish, your “rule of thumb” may be a little less, depending on the size of the pieces you are marinating.

You’ll want enough marinade to over and coat what you’re cooking. Put the meat in a big Ziploc bag, add the marinade, squeeze out air and seal the bag. Turn or flip the marinade bag periodically, so that each side of the meat, poultry or fish has contact with the marinade.

How long is too long? Grilling expert Elizabeth Karmel recommends a “short soak” of 30 minutes to two hours. She says that longer marinating times can result in a degraded texture to the meat. But: Other cooks recommend much longer marination, overnight and beyond.

Some, but not too much: However, too much marinating can be detrimental to the finished product. These very enzymes and acids that tenderize the meat you’re planning to grill also, after awhile, reduce the capability of the meat to hold its juices. An over-marinated cut of meat can result in significant moisture loss while you’re cooking or filling — yielding a dried-out dish when you’re done. (Bleh.)

Furthermore, marinades only tenderize the part of the meat that they touch, and can only penetrate so far into the meat. Marinate a big, thick roast overnight, and you may end up cooking a roast that is over-marinated and mushy outside, and still tough on the inside.  (Also bleh.) Flatter cuts of meat, marinated and turned frequently in an airtight Ziploc bag, will benefit most from tenderizing marinades.

A note about marinating fish or seafood: An acidic marinade, one that has a higher proportion of vinegar or citrus juices, can actually cook the fish or seafood while it marinates. Use milder marinades, and marinate fish for shorter periods of time.

Cool it, then cook it! Meat + marinade can be a breeding ground for bacteria if you are not careful. It’s best to marinate your meat, if it’s going to take awhile, overnight in the refrigerator. Let the dish come to room temperature before cooking.

If you plan to use your marinade to baste the meat while you’re grilling or roasting later, there seems to be two schools of thought: one that says you must make sure you boil the leftover marinade first to kill any bacteria that may be present.  The other school of thought dictates that if you’re basting with a liquid in which raw meat marinated, do not apply it during the last three minutes of grilling.

Also be sure to pat dry the meat, chicken, or fish before grilling so that dripping excess marinade doesn’t cause flame flare-ups.

The conflicting information can be confusing and frustrating! Whenever possible, we’ll try to give you a ballpark time frame for how long to marinate meats in our BBQ and grilling recipes that call for marinades.

Photo credit: “Marinade,” by lensfodder on Flickr