The Secrets And Myths Of Marinades And How Gashing Can Make Them Work Better
"Some marinades are as goofy as a dog in a tutu. Just what is wrong with the unadulterated taste of beef?" Meathead
Most marinades are thin liquids that foods swim in before cooking but marinades are bathed in myth and mystery.
Marinades usually have a number of ingredients such as salt, oil, flavorings, and acids. The molecules of each are different sizes and some are attracted to the chemicals in meats and some are repelled by them. Some can flow easily into the microscopic voids between muscle fibers, some are too large.
Let's debunk some myths about marinades. Some facts:
Myth: Marinades penetrate deep into meat. Marinades are primarily a surface treatment, especially on thicker cuts. Period. End of story.
Meat is a protein sponge saturated with liquid. About 75% of meat is water. There's not much room for any more liquid in there. Think of a sponge. When you are wiping up a spill, as it gets fully loaded you just can't get any more liquid in there.
Marinades, unless they are heavy with salt, in which case they more properly are called brines, do not penetrate meats very far, rarely more than 1/8", even after many hours of soaking. Especially in the cold fridge where molecules are sluggish.
Salt penetrates because it is a smaller molecule than water but, most importantly, because it reacts chemically with the water in the meat. But molecules like sugar and garlic are comparatively huge. Water is three atoms, two hydrogens and an oxygen, H
2O. Salt is made of just two atoms, sodium and chloride, NaCl. Sucrose is C
11, that's 45 atoms. Garlic's active ingredient is allicin, C
2, and it has 18 atoms, and garlic powder is more complex than that.
On top of this, most marinades have a lot of oil in them. And meat is mostly water. Tell me, how does that oil mix with the water and penetrate the meat?
Sugar can move inward a bit after days of marinating, but most ingredients go no further than the surface. There are important exceptions: Fish, shellfish, eggplant, and mushrooms, for example, absorb marinades more rapidly and deeply (see the photos at right). But for most meats and veggies, the benefit of marinades is that they flavor the surface. We are often bamboozled into thinking the marinade has soaked in because the knife, fork, and liquid on the plate are full of marinade flavor, because the flavors on the surface get on our tongue, and they get pushed down into the meat by our teeth.
Try this experiment: Marinate a 2" thick porkchop as long as you like in whatever you like. Since your marinade probably has some salt in it, take another 2" chop and just salt it. Cook them side by side, bring them in and rinse them off to remove as much surface flavor as possible. Then cut off the outer 1/4" of both. Be very very careful to not let the juices from the outsides touch the center. Now have a friend serve you tastes of both without telling you which is which. Hard to tell apart, aren't they? They both taste like plain ol' pork. You might taste salt, but no sugar, garlic, pepper, or whatever.
If you marinate thin slices of meat, say 1/2" thick skirt steak, the flavors may penetrate 1/8" on either side and so it will get close to the center, especially since skirt steak has loose fibers running parallel to the surface, but not thick pieces. Think of prime rib. The outside crust really tastes like the seasonings while the center tastes like plain old beef.
But in most cases it is good that marinades don't penetrate very far. If that red wine marinade you used on your flank steak penetrated all the way, would you and your guests prefer purple meat to bright red?
But let's not demean surface enhancement. A touch of sugar can help with browning and add flavor and color. Spices and herbs on the surface can make wonderful aromas and moist surfaces attract smoke.
Myth: Marinades tenderize. Tenderizing is a process of making the proteins softer, both the proteins in the muscle fibers and in the connective tissues that sheath the fibers and connect them to bones (see my article on meat science). This softening is called denaturing. Since marinades do not penetrate very far they cannot denature the protein bonds much beyond the surface, so there is little tenderizing beyond the surface. In fact, some ingredients, especially acids, such as vinegar and fruit juice, can make some surfaces firmer, and some surfaces mushy. In some cases acid can even reduce water holding capacity. This can be good if you are trying to form a dry crust.
Myth: Marinades improve everything. Marinades keep the surface wet so when they go on the grill or in a pan, the water evaporates, steaming the meat, and steam can impede browning and crisping of the surface and prevent the formation of the crust or bark we love. Crisp brown meat has more flavor, and one of the main reasons we like to grill (see my article on the maillard reaction, caramelization, and why brown is beautiful). On the other hand, the wet surface can help prevent dehydration and the drying effect of the grill, producing moister meat.
Myth: You can use just about anything in a marinade. If marinades contain sugar, they can burn and ruin the food. Sugar is less of a problem for low slow roasting over indirect heat with convection airflow. And oils can drip off causing flareups and soot deposits on the food.
Some better ideas
A better way to bring flavor to food is a spice rub. A blend of spices and herbs, it delivers more flavor per square inch than any marinade. Another technique is a sauce. A great way to bring the brightness of herbs and the other usual flavors in marinades to the table with little effors is a board sauce.
Gashing helps marinades work
Think of marinades as a spice mix. What marinades do best is find their way into cracks and crevices on the surface of meats producing a flavorful baked on spice blend, much like a dry rub. When it dries out during cooking, it leaves behind the flavors.
They work best on thick cuts of meat like roasts where the food bakes for a long time on the indirect side in a 2-zone system and the marinade can dry out, leave its flavor on the surface, and then brown.
In general, it is best to think of marinades as a spice blend. Where they differ from normal spice blends is that you can get exotic flavors that can't normally find on your spice rack, such as flavors from liquids like wine, juices, coconut milk, soft drinks, liqueurs, etc.
Help marinades by gashing the food. Since marinades don't penetrate very far into most foods, give them a hand. Gash your food. Cut slices into the surface, rough it up, give the marinade cuts, cracks, and pits to enter. There is also more surface area to brown and more surface area coated with baked on marinade.
This meat was gashed in a cross-hatch pattern with a knife before marinating. As you can see, the marinade has penetrated as deep as the gashes making 1/2" cubes of flavored meat. This is a great technique for use with marinades.
Gashing even works on veggies like the yellow squash below.
Making a marinade
Once you understand how marinades really work, you can use them to your advantage. As you can see, gashing meat is a great way to get more marinade down into the meat.
The best marinades usually contain four working components: Salt, oil, flavoring, and acid, and if you remember the acronym SOFA, you can create your own easily.
S is for Salt. Salt is the most important ingredient because it is a flavor enhancer and it is good at penetrating meat and pulling in other flavor components. Soy sauce is a great source of salt.
O is for Oil. Oils are used in marinades because many herbs and spices are not water soluble, and oils are needed to release their aromatics and flavors. The flavors in most green herbs are oil based and therefore oil soluble. Oils on the surface of the meat aid in browning and crisping. Don't use olive oil because it solidifies at refrigerator temp during the marinade. Use corn, canola, or peanut oil. Alas, they don't have much flavor. Other oils might work but give them thought because some, such as walnut oil and sesame oil, are too flavorful.
F is for Flavoring. Typical flavorings include herbs and spices such as oregano, thyme, cumin, paprika, garlic, onion powder, and even vegetables such as onion and jalapeño. It's a good idea to add some umami. That's the savory meaty flavor from glutamates found in meat stocks, soy sauce, and mushrooms. It is also a good idea to add some sugar. It aids in browning the surface, but go easy. Too much will burn the surface. You want it to caramelize after the water evaporates without burning.
A is for Acid. Citrus marinades were probably among the first, historically. They have it all, acid, sugar, flavor, aromatics. Acid can denature protein on the surface. Typical acids are fruit juice (lemon juice, apple juice, white grape juice, pineapple juice, orange juice, and wine work well), vinegar (cider vinegar, distilled vinegar, sherry vinegar, balsamic vinegar, raspberry vinegar, or any old vinegar), buttermilk, yogurt, and even sugar free soft drinks. But acids can make the surface of the meat mushy so use them judiciously, no more than 1/8 of the blend, and only for their flavor.
Acidity is measured on the pH scale of 0 to 14. Solutions with a pH of 7 are said to be neutral. Below 7, the solution is acidic. Above 7 it is alkaline. Here are the approximate pH measurements some common solutions for reference:
0 - Battery acid
1 - Stomach acid
2 - Distilled vinegar, lemon juice
3 - Carbonated drinks, orange juice,
4 - Tomato juice, wine
5 - Black coffee, beer, yogurt
6 - Saliva, cow's milk
7 - Pure water
8 - Sea water, my brine recipes
9 - Baking soda, olive oil
10 - Milk of magnesia
11 - Antacids
12 - Ammonia
13 - Chlorine bleach
14 - Lye, liquid drain cleaner
Refrigerate. Keep marinating meats in the fridge.
No alcohol. A lot of folks like to use wine, beer, and spirits in their marinades, but this may not be a good idea. Here's what the great Chef Thomas Keller says in his award winning The French Laundry Cookbook: "If your marinating anything with alcohol, cook the alcohol off first. Alcohol doesn't tenderize; cooking tenderizes. Alcohol in a marinade in effect cooks the exterior of the meat, preventing the meat from fully absorbing the flavors in the marinade. Raw alcohol itself doesn't do anything good to meat. So put your wine or spirit in a pan, add your aromatics, cook off the alcohol, let it cool, and then pour it over your meat. This way you have the richness of the fruit of the wine or Cognac or whatever you're using, but you don't have the chemical reaction of 'burning' the meat with alcohol or it's harsh raw flavor."
Use a nonreactive container. The acids in a marinate can react with aluminum, copper, and cast iron, and give the food an off flavor. So do your soaking in plastic, stainless steel, porcelain, or, best of all, zipper bags. Pour the marinade and meat in the bag and squeeze out all the air possible and the meat will be in contact on most surfaces. Put it in the fridge and flip it over frequently.
What to marinate. Thin cuts are best for marinating.
Now here's a neat trick. Fresh pineapple, papaya, and ginger have enzymes that tenderize meat. Papain, the enzyme in papaya, is an enzyme in papaya and the main tenderizing ingredient in Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer. These enzymes work fast. Within 30 to 60 minutes the meat is ready for the grill. Alas, pineapple and papaya add very little flavor to the meat in such a short time. Some people like the softer meat, others feel it is mushy. You decide. The enzymes are destroyed by the canning and bottling process, so be sure to use fresh pineapple, papaya, and ginger if you want the tenderizing.
Go nekkid first. Chicken and turkey skin are very fatty and they are a like a condom to marinades. If soaked, they only get soggy and won't crisp properly. So if the skin won't get crispy, what's the point? Get rid of it. Skinless chicken will drink up more flavor. And it's healthier. And yes, you can get skinless meat crisp. If you must have the skin, cut it into 1/2" squares and brown it in a pan over medium heat like bacon, and use it as a garnish. Read my article on chicken skin and duck cracklins.
Save money. Some recipes call for marinating in barbecue sauce. Don't do it. It's just a waste of expensive sauce because it is too thick to penetrate very far and most barbecue sauces are sweet. They can burn.
Warning. Remember, all uncooked meat has microbes and spores. If your marinade recipe calls for heating it, let it cool thoroughly before using it to discourage microbial growth. Used marinades are contaminated with raw meat juices so if you plan to use it as a sauce, it must be boiled for a few minutes. Better idea: Discard it.
A shortcut. If you don't want to make a marinade from scratch, just buy a bottle of your favorite oil and vinegar salad dressing. The thinner the better. Salad dressings usually have all the necessary ingredients, although they tend to be too acidic, so diluting it 3:1 with water is a good idea. Just make sure you don't get the Caesar. It has cheese and anchovies in it. We don't need no cheese or no stinkin' dead fish in our pork or steak. And watch out. Some salad dressings have a lot of gums (emulsifiers) and other additives that could burn or make the meat taste funny after they are heated.
Recipe for a good basic marinade: Mrs. Meathead's Italian Marinade
This is my standard marinade based on a wonderful, herby oil and vinegar salad dressing. I have added more salt to the dressing because it helps create the flavor-enhancing effect of a brine (read my article The Zen of Brines). Best of all, it allows the flavor or meats and veggies to come through without burying them under fruit or other flavors. I use it on pork, chicken, and even zucchini and eggplant. You can use bottled Italian dressing, but most of them have gums and thickeners added and they keep the marinade from penetrating. Some also contain cheese, and that can really taste bad when cooked. Click here to see how to use it to make wonderful Tuscan ribs. Elegant.
Pour the vinaigrette and salt into a bowl, whisk, and pour into a bottle. It can be refrigerated for months. Shake well before using.
This page was revised 7/11/2012
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