There are a handful of cuts of meat out there that get a bad reputation for being dry, tough, and flavorless. Chicken breasts, pork tenderloin, and beef flank steak are some good examples of meats that don't always turn out the way you want them to. There is a not-so-secret trick that chefs have been using for centuries to tenderize meats and add flavor and it couldn't be easier to do in your own kitchen at home. We are talking about marinades today and how they work to soften tough muscle fibers and add moisture to meat and vegetables.
What is a Marinade Made of?
There are no limits to exactly what ingredients are included in a marinade, but all marinades share a few common ingredients. There are essentially three types of marinades that are popular. One uses acidic ingredients such as citrus juice or vinegar. Others use enzymatic components such as pineapple, papaya, or yogurt which aid in softening tough fibers. Finally, there are non-acidic marinades that use a combination of oil and spices to enhance flavors.
How Marinating Works and What it Does
Marinading meats originated with the practice of using seawater to pickle vegetables. Along the way, someone realized that adding acidic ingredients and spices tenderized meat and added intense flavor. Nearly every culture out there has discovered unique ways to make marinades work based on the ingredients they have commonly available.
The reason that marinades work varies by the ingredients. Ultimately, acidic marinade ingredients serve to break down muscle fibers to allow the meat to absorb flavors and moisture. Saltiness added to the marinade can also retain natural juices and allows water-soluble flavors like onion and garlic to penetrate deeper into the meat. Fats added to a marinade enhance flavors by infusing fat-soluble flavors like chilis and spices.
There is such a thing as too much, though. Meat that is marinaded for too long or in too much acid can leave you with an unpleasant surface texture and overly-flavored meat.
What are Examples of Marinades?
Marinades come in all types and flavors to enhance the type of meat you are cooking. The best marinades use a combination of complementary ingredients that work together to tenderize and flavor meat, fish, and vegetables. A typical marinade recipe will use a combination of acids, fats, salt, and spices to infuse flavor and tenderize meat.
Acids Used in Marinades
There are a couple of acids that are immensely popular in various types of marinades. One of the ones we use the most is apple cider vinegar – the good one with the Mother in it. We use it a lot on pork and chicken when we are going to grill and barbecue. Apple cider vinegar adds a unique sort of sour flavor that enhances the meat. It might sound weird, but it works. Red wine vinegar similarly works well for many French-inspired recipes.
Worcestershire sauce is an acid that is also popular for marinating meat that is being grilled. We often use it along with amino acids when flavoring and tenderizing beef. Soy sauce is another acidic ingredient popular for pork loin tenderizing.
Acidic fruit juices like lime juice and lemon juice are common when marinating things like chicken and pork. It is also common to use lime juice to marinade fish, but you'll want to keep the time very short because the acid will cook the fish.
One of the best marinades around uses hot sauce, another acidic ingredient, to marinate beef, pork, and chicken when making Southern food and Spanish food.
Fats in Marinades
The most common oils to use are cooking oils like olive oil and sesame oil. Oils work to carry fat-soluble flavors and make it possible for the meat fibers to absorb them while adding subtle flavors from the oils themselves. Popular neutral oils to use include peanut oil, vegetable oil, and canola oil.
One of our favorite ways to tenderize and season chicken is to use both oil and vinegar, just like when you are making a salad dressing. You can even add flavor by using flavored oils such as lemon or basil-infused olive oil and combining it with fig-infused balsamic. This combo is pretty much perfect for light meats like chicken and pork.
Enzymatic Ingredients in Marinades
The use of enzymatic ingredients in marinades probably predates any other method. Most of the time, enzymatic ingredients like ginger, pineapple, and other types of fruit juice work to tenderize tougher cuts and prevent bacterial growth. One of the first purposes for marinading was to preserve meat, getting great flavor was just a happy benefit.
How Long Should You Marinate Meat For?
Marinades only work on the surface of meat and just a few millimeters below. This is because there is only so much liquid that can be absorbed by the meat, no matter how long you soak a cut. Marinading too long will cause the surface texture to break down and become soggy, which is about as unpleasant as it sounds.
The length of time that you can marinate different types of meat depends on the cut, the thickness, the marinade ingredients, and the desired results. Generally, you'll want to marinade most cuts of meat for anywhere between six and 24 hours. Thinner cuts like flank won't require as long, while fish and shrimp can only be in a marinade for a matter of minutes before the texture will begin to break down.
Methods of Enhancing the Effectiveness of Marinades
Water and salt mixed together create a brine that allows draws moisture away from the surface of the meat and allows the meat to then absorb salty water that is infused with water-soluble flavors. This is a great way to enhance herb flavors like fresh rosemary and sage along with dried herbs including bay leaf and marjoram.
Combining saltiness with fats also enables fat-soluble flavors to be absorbed into the meat. These include things like curry paste, tamarind paste, and chili powder.
Combining Wet Marinade and Dry Marinating
Making marinades more effective often means combining wet processes and dry rubs to flavor meat and enhance the surface at the same time.
A dry rub often uses lots of spices and herbs like garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, and can include sweeteners like brown sugar and sweet fruit juices. You can even mix the dry ingredients with oil or acidic ingredients to make wet rubs that help to enhance flavors and textures.
Cooking Tips for Using Marinades
There are a few things that you can do to improve the results of your marinade. Always start by heating the water, adding salt and sugar if using, then allowing the marinade to cool to room temperature. You should add fresh herbs and spices to the water when it is hot to help extract the oils and flavors from them. You never want to add a hot marinade to uncooked meat because it will create perfect conditions for bacterial growth.
Allow your meat to rest in the marinade in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Different foods will require more or less time, but we tend to marinate for six to eight hours, then use a dry marinade to add flavor and texture.