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© Denzil Green

A Marinade is a medium, often wet, used to prepare meat or vegetables for cooking, usually by grilling on a barbeque. Using a Marinade is called "Marinating."

There are three goals that people have traditionally aimed for when Marinating:
  • Enhance flavour by having the object being marinated absorb some of the Marinade;
  • Tenderize meat;
  • Short-term meat preservation.

The goal of a Marinade providing short-term preservation of meat is not really important these days. If we get meat one day and decide not to use it till a day or two later, we just stick it in the fridge. We have only been able to do that at home, though, since the 1930s or 1940s, because before then there were no fridges available to ordinary people. Soaking a piece of meat in a Marinade for a day would have helped inhibit its going bad for that short period of time.

The conventional wisdom is that Marinating really makes a difference to a piece of meat. No one ever challenges that, perhaps out of politeness. Half the men on this planet take charge of Marinating the meat, and take great pains to point out to the guests that they made this great new Marinade and Marinated the meat overnight in the fridge in it. Well, they have to great pains to point it out, because otherwise you wouldn't know, and the reason is that wet Marinating makes no appreciable difference. When you sit down to a steak that was Marinated in what should have been a fabulous-tasting Marinade, it's extremely rare that you can even taste any of the great flavours that you thought you were getting into the meat.

Wet Marinating at home without a tumbler really doesn't do a thing for meat. If you soak a piece of meat in a Marinade for even 48 hours, you are lucky if after all that time 1 to 2 % of the Marinade gets into the meat. Only with a tumbler can you get up to 10% or more of the Marinade's flavour into the meat. See entry on Tumbling if you regard this is a challenge.

As far as tenderizing goes, the theory is that Marinating will help break down the elastin in meats, otherwise known as gristle. It doesn't really, because the Marinade never actually gets into your meat. Only the surface gets softened. Nor will Marinating guarantee that your meat will be juicier when cooked, as some claim -- water just drips and evaporates away during cooking. Juiciness comes from fat, and only fat. Too many steaks that would be gorgeous braised or cooked in moist-heat are ill-treated through being Marinated, making their surface all squidgy, and then barbequed, making them turn out dry and tough.

Whenever there is any actual tenderizing effect, it's actually only on the very surface of the meat, which can get mushy when using an enzyme treatment. Too much tenderizer will give the surface of the meat a funny feel in your mouth, like licking a carpet.

Harold McGee's book "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen" sums it up best: " In general, there are at present no really satisfactory ways of tenderizing meat chemically."

There are three types of Wet Marinades designed to tenderize meat.

Acidic Marinades

This includes Marinades with bases such as wine or vinegar, or highly acidic juices such as tomato juice or citrus juices. The acid loosens bonds between proteins in the meat, causing them to unravel and loosen up. After a while though, the bonds between the proteins form again, tightening up the meat, and squeezing juices back out, actually toughening the meat.

Enzyme Marinades

Papain or bromelain, in fruits such as kiwi, papaya leaves or fruit, pineapple, etc. actually break down muscle fibre. If left too long, they can do too good a job and make the texture of your meat mushy and spongy. Natural juices in the meat flow out, your Wet Marinade will flow in, but when you go to cook it, your Wet Marinade that was absorbed just evaporates, leaving the meat dry and tough.

Dairy Marinades

Many feel that this the only tenderizing approach that actually works. The calcium activates enzymes already in the meat, in the same way that aging meat does, which break down proteins in the meat on their own. Buttermilk and yoghurt, are also mildly acidic.

Different flavours of Marinades are appropriate for different foods. You wouldn't use a red-wine based Marinade for poultry or fish, and fruit flavourings wouldn't go with beef, for most people's tastes. Marinades with seafood, poultry and vegetables are really there to add flavour, not to tenderize, so soaking times for these are far shorter, and these Marinades tend to be less acidic.

There are three methods of Marinating overall.

Wet Marinating

Wet Marinating completely immerses a piece of meat in a Marinade liquid. The Marinade, covering the meat, protects it from going bad while it is Marinating -- but only for a short period of time. As a rule of thumb, you need 1/2 cup (4 oz / 125 ml) of Wet Marinade per pound (225g) of item being Marinated. Never Wet Marinate outside the fridge for more than an hour - let it happen in the fridge.

No matter how long you Wet Marinate something, it is only going to go so far in, about 1/4 inch (6 mm) or so if you're lucky, and that's it. It's a myth that scoring meats with a knife first or piercing them will increase the uptake of Marinade: instead, what you do is create more means for the juices of the meat to escape from while cooking. Plus, if you really could work out a way to get a lot more of the liquid in, you'd end up steaming the food, rather than grilling it.

Don't use salt in Wet Marinades as the long soaking times gives salt a wonderful opportunity to draw out all the juices from the meat. Unlike all the so-called tenderization benefits of Marinades, this would have an actual real effect: to toughen your cut of meat!

Never re-use Wet Marinades. Some say you can use the Marinade to baste the meat with while its cooking, but to do this you must first bring it to a boil and keep it there for at least 1 to 5 minutes to kill any bacteria it has picked up from the meat; otherwise, you're spooning uncooked meat juices onto meat and dishing up food poisoning for your guests. The 5 minute range seems safer, though at this point the flavour of the Marinade would have changed, and who'd want to use it anyway? A few people boil it then put it on the table as a sauce for people to spoon onto their meat, but this is very unsafe: some bacteria will create toxins that won't go away no matter how long you boil them. The better course of action is to set aside some of your Wet Marinade sauce at the very beginning before using the rest for putting the meat in, or make a bit extra. Never let this reserved portion of Marinade sauce come near whatever it is you are Marinating. Discard completely down the drain all the Wet Marinade sauce that came into contact with the raw meat, then pull your reserved portion out of the fridge to use for basting or serving at the table.

Cubed meat tends to absorb more flavour than full cuts, as there is more surface for the Marinade to get in through. Prepared, bottled vinaigrette salad dressings can also be used as Wet Marinades.

Pat Wet Marinated meat dry first before putting on the bbq / grill to avoid flare-ups.

Dry Rubs (Dry Marinating)

These are also called "barbeque spices." These rubs, made of dried herbs and spices, usually use salt to break down proteins and draw other flavours in. The downside is that the salt also draws out the meat's juices.

The dry mixtures are rubbed onto the surface of a piece of meat. Oil or dampen the surface of the meat first, then apply the rub, pressing it in so that it will stick. The rubs give a flavour and texture contrast between the inside and outside of the meat when it is cooked by letting the meat inside taste as it normally would, while creating a flavourful, crunchy crust on the surface of the meat. You apply these just before cooking.

Dry Rubs are easier to use, less fussing, and actually create a noticeable effect, unlike Wet Marinades. These are what some real barbeque pros use. Popular dry rubs include Cajun, Tex-Mex and Jamaican.

Wet Rubs (Pastes)

This category includes Jerk seasoning and Berber spice paste. The pastes are basically often the same idea as Dry Rubs, being spices and herbs, but mixed together with an oil or other liquid to make a paste. Pesto makes a good Web Rub for poultry and seafood.

Cooking Tips

Wet Marinating is best done in a sealable plastic bag, along the line of those with a zip top. It lets you turn the item over and over very easily, and if you're Marinating in a sealed bag, the food doesn't have to be completely covered with the Marinade. Put Marinade and items to be Marinated in the bag, press as much air out as you can and seal. Don't wet Marinate in anything aluminum or cast iron, as it can create an off-taste.

Following is a very rough guideline for Wet Marinating times. It's rough, because it depends on how acidic any particular Marinade is. Remember, the danger is that over-Marinating will toughen and dry-out your meat.
  • Chicken parts and whole fish: 3 to 6 hours
  • Chicken breasts, boneless: 1 hour
  • Fish pieces with a pronounced taste: 30 minutes
  • Fish pieces with a mild taste: 15 minutes
  • Vegetables, sliced or chopped: 15 minutes to 1 hour
  • Tenderloins, loins, rack of lamb, etc.: 6 to 12 hours
  • Very Large pieces of meat (Pork shoulder, leg of lamb, capons, roasts, etc): 12 to 24 hours

Language Notes

Originally, Marinades were always made of brine. Seawater could even be used. In Latin and Italian, "Marinara" means "from or of the sea". Our word Marinade is derived from that.

See also:

Meat Tenderization Techniques

Barding; Braising Meat; Jacquarding; Marinades; Meat Tenderization Techniques; Tumbling

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Also called:

Eingelegen, Marinaden (German); Dejar en adobo, Marinar (Spanish)


Oulton, Randal. "Marinades." CooksInfo.com. Published 18 February 2004; revised 30 June 2009. Web. Accessed 06/24/2018. <http://www.cooksinfo.com/marinades>.

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