Marinading is one of the most misunderstood parts of cooking there is. Marinading is credited with all kinds of mystical powers, such as being able to turn road-kill into ambrosia, or leather into a melt-in-your-mouth entree. Is any of this true?
There are detractors that say that marinading does nothing for the food, and they are entitled to their opinion. However, physics, chemistry, and several thousand professional chefs (this one included) disagree whole-heartedly. I believe the controversy is due to the fact that some people just cannot taste certain things. It’s the culinary version of being color-blind. I have worked side-by-side with people who honestly could not taste garlic, onions, certain spices, etc… Luckily, they could read, and follow recipes, so it worked out OK. Anyway, it’s your kitchen, and your food. Prepare it any way you like it.
Before we can go much further, we need to establish what a marinade is, and is not. And when did all this start?
Table Of Content
We’ll Meat Again…
While we can’t say for sure exactly when people started marinating their food, we do have some archeological evidence (circumstantial, for sure, but it’s there…) that indicates the ancient Egyptians were marinating meat and veggies, and later on, the Greeks and Romans borrowed the process. Asians were marinating as far back as 3000 years ago, and this was probably the main reason they invented Soy Sauce. Soy Sauce is still one of their favorite marinades (and mine as well). Europe managed to catch on by the 1300s, and by Columbian times, marinating had covered most of the known world.
Each culture has its own style of marinades, and the possibilities for creating new culinary options are endless.
What Is A Marinade?
The word, “Marinade”, and “Maranate” comes from the Latin word, “Mare”, meaning ‘sea’. This is because it was first thought to be used with fish, and used salt and water. What makes a marinade different from a brine? This one is easy. It’s the purpose that defines the action. Brining uses the scientific process of diffusion to saturate each cell in the meat with as much water as it can hold. Of course, as the cells are taking water in, they are also taking in whatever water-soluble flavors are in the brine, as well. Brining is done to cause the meat to lose less water during the cooking process, and to a lesser extent, to add some interesting flavors to it. Marinating, on the other hand, is done to change the texture of the meat, as well as flavor it. Marinades use acids and enzymes to break down proteins and fats. At the same time, they also add complimentary (we hope) flavors. This tenderizes the meat to a certain extent.
A marinade has three main parts; an acid (such as vinegar, citrus juice, or wine), water, and and oil. The acid component denatures some of the proteins, and connective tissues in meat and vegetables. Adding alcohol, such as wine or spirits, enhances the process, because alcohol is fat soluble, whereas acids are water soluble. It’s sort of like a one-two punch. Water is used as a carrier for the spices and flavorings, and will be taken into the meat, Water aids the diffusion process. Lastly, oil is used, both for flavor, and to offset the added water to the food, which could affect browning and crisping. Of course, oil and water do not mix, so you also need to include some sort of emulsifying agent so the water and oil will mix evenly. Good emulsifiers are garlic, mustard, honey, syrups such as maple, and soy or Worcestershire sauce. You can add any spices you want to this mixture. Some of my favorite additives are Sriracha Sauce, garlic (of course…), onion, Mcllhenny’s Tabasco, El Yucateco Habanero Sauce, Ghost and Scorpion Pepper Sauces, (if you haven’t guessed by now, I like hot stuff….) , basil, oregano, marjoram, Adobo, Sazon, etc….
There is another kind of marinade that uses enzymes instead of acid. Enzymes work a little differently than acids, but have a similar end result. Good enzyme agents are fresh pineapple juice, garlic, and fresh papaya. The active enzymes are destroyed by the canning and bottling processes, so you have to use fresh juice. Enzymatic marinades, in effect, begin to digest the food, so you don’t want to use an enzymatic marinade for very long, or your food will become ‘mushy’.
How To Create A Marinade Properly
For a marinade to work, it needs to have the correct proportions. Too much salt will dehydrate the food. Too much acid will adversely affect the food. Too much oil can cause flare-ups when the food is cooked. Too much time can ruin your food.
As a general rule of thumb, a good marinade will be 3 parts acid to 1 part oil and 1 part water. This will give you the optimum results if the correct timing is followed.
Timing is a function of weight. But you also need to consider the thickness of the meat. Thinner cuts like pork chops and chicken breast fillets will marinate faster than a whole chicken, and a whole turkey can take 24 hours or more. How fast a marinade diffuses into the meat is a function of several factors. The math looks like this:
Where d is the rate of diffusion, n is the number of molecules within the cell (mol), t is time (in seconds), P is the Permeability Constant, expressed in cm per second, A is the surface area of the cell membrane (cm2), C is the concentration of the diffusing molecules (mol/cm3), and x is the width of the cell membrane. Got a headache, yet? Don’t worry about it. This is what happens when you let a chef study chemistry and physics. All this means is that for most meats, on average, 30 minutes per oz is about right, except for fish and seafood. Never marinate these for more than 30 minutes, because fish has an entirely different protein structure. The timing is for each piece, not the total weight. So if you have 5 pieces of chicken and they weigh from 4 oz. to 7 oz., time the batch for the largest piece. Of course you can marinate longer, but 30 minutes per oz. allows for a 10% diffusion, which is enough to impart flavor, and slightly alter the proteins, but not enough to totally change it, as it would if you allowed a complete diffusion. This would either make the meat mushy, or tough, depending on what you put in the marinade. You don’t want to completely change the food. The idea is just to enhance it. You can marinate less, or longer to your own tastes, within reason.
For the individual components, as a rule, anything you don’t like on its own, you won’t like in a marinade. This includes wine, beer and other spirits. If it’s not good to drink, it won’t be good to cook with. There are no hard and fast rules to marinades, but some general cooking guidelines might be helpful. Red wines normally go best with red meats. White wines with fish and poultry. Rosé and Blush wines can go either way. It’s the same with beers and ales, dark with red and lighter with white. Avoid too much sweet stuff if using it on sweet meats like chicken and fish. In general, lemon, lime and citrus flavors go well with poultry, pork and fish. Grape and sweeter flavors go best with red meats. Garlic contains enzymes, so don’t be afraid to use it in any marinade. Avoid mixing too many salts, such as table salt and soy sauce. If you use soy sauce, cut back on the NaCl. Water is a carrier that helps speed up the diffusion process, so don’t be afraid to use it. Diluting a marinade will not effect it’s flavor (at least until you approach Avogadro’s Number, or 6.02 x 1023 = mol-1…oops, sorry. More chemistry….). Any spice you want to use is fine. There are some standard combinations, such as rosemary and thyme for chicken, Old Bay for fish and seafood, and adobo for pork, but these are not written in stone. Use what you like. Another standard cooking philosophy that may work well for you is, “less is more…”. Use a light hand with your ingredients (unless it is hot stuff, and you are cooking for me…).
Marinade Safety: 5 Basic Guidelines
This may sound like a lot of common sense, but people make themselves sick every day by not following simple kitchen safety rules. The first rule is the most over-looked, and that is to regard your kitchen as the most dangerous place in your house…and you will be right. Think about it. You have a small, mostly enclosed space filled with dozens of sharp and bladed objects, a virtual pharmacy of chemicals, some flammable, biodegradable materials that have the potential to breed pathogenic microbes, and lots of devices who’s only purpose is to create heat and flame. More people are injured, hurt, or have their health adversely affected in their kitchens than in any other place in their homes, including the bathroom. So do yourself and your family a favor, and always be safety conscious in the kitchen. Here are some other guidelines pertaining specifically to making marinades:
- Keep meat cold at all times. Never allow it to set out while you are making a marinade. Keep it in the fridge until you are ready for it.
- Always marinate meat in the refrigerator. Never do it on a table or countertop.
- Never try to marinate frozen meat, unless you intend to thaw the meat in the marinade while it sets in the fridge. The marinade won’t have much effect until the meat thaws, but it will combine two steps into one. Just don’t get impatient and try to speed the process up by leaving it out on the counter.
- Make twice the amount of marinade you think you need. Only use half to actually marinate the food, and the other half to baste with while the food is cooking. Never use marinade that has had raw meat in it for anything else, even if it is to be cooked. There are some that say it is OK, but as a professional chef, I do not recommend it, ever. The risks are just too great, and it’s not worth it. Making a double batch of marinade is a lot cheaper than a trip to the Emergency Room.
- Never, never, never re-use marinade. Discard it as soon as it has been used. You can, however, make up large batches of your favorite marinade ahead of time and store them in the fridge, or even freeze them. I sometimes freeze mine in ice trays. Then, all you have to do is take a cube or two from the tray, add some warm (not hot) water, let it melt, and you are good to go.
When marinating meat, the easiest way is to place the marinade and food in a good zip lock bag, squeeze out most of the air so that the marinade touches the food on all sides, and place the whole bag in a large bowl in the refrigerator (in case the bag has a pinhole…it happens, trust me…). Every so often, you can shake the bag up and flip it over to be sure all sides of the food stay well-coated. You can also marinate in a container, as long as it has an air-tight lid. Marinades will pick up odors and flavors from the other things you have in the refrigerator, like that pizza and fried chicken from last night…. Nobody wants a pork chop that tastes like it came from Little Caesar’s.
Putting It All Together: Some Classic Marinades
Now that you know all about marinades, it’s time to put that knowledge to good use. Before you start trying to develop your own marinades, it’s a good idea to use some standard ones as a starting place, just so you have an idea of how a teriyaki marinade should taste, or how a chicken marinade looks on a grilled chicken breast fillet. Here are a few classics, just to get you started.
1. Beef Marinades
Classic Beef Marinade
This is a standard marinade that works well on all beef dishes. Use it on roasts, steaks, beef tips, BBQ, shish kebobs, etc… This makes about 1 quart of marinade, or enough for several pounds of meat.
- 1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
- 3/4 cup soy sauce
- 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
- 1/3 cup lemon juice
- 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
- 2 tablespoons ground dry mustard
- 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- 2 tablespoons ground cloves
- salt and pepper to taste
Mix all of the ingredients in a quart jar, screw on the lid, and shake until well mixed.
To use, place your meat in a large mixing bowl with a cover, or marinating bag. Pour the marinade over the meat, and toss the meat until each piece is well coated. If using a mixing bowl, cover tightly. If using a bag, press all of the air out and seal. Place in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, shaking, mixing and turning every few hours so the meat gets marinated evenly on all sides.
Very Basic Beef Marinade
This is as simple as it gets, and is great for steaks, carne asada, fajitas, stir fry, roasts, and any beef where you don’t want to over-flavor it. Rather than adding a lot of flavor, this marinade just adds more depth to the natural flavor of the beef. This makes about 1 cup of marinade, or enough for a couple of large thick steaks. It works with chicken, and pork as well.
- 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- salt and pepper to taste
Mix all the ingredients well, add beef and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
Basic Teriyaki Marinade
This is your classic teriyaki marinade for beef, chicken, pork, fish or seafood. Outstanding for any Oriental recipe. This makes about 1 cup of marinade.
- 1/2 cup Soy Sauce
- 1/2 cup orange juice, or orange-flavored zero-calorie drink mix (if you are counting calories and sugar…)
- 1/4 cup brown sugar or equivalent (I use sugar-free maple syrup)
- 1 clove garlic or 1 tbsp garlic powder
- black and white pepper to taste (leave out any extra salt because the Soy Sauce already has plenty…)
Mix all the ingredients well, add meat, and refrigerate 4 hours to overnight (except for fish and seafood…30 minutes, max…) shaking and mixing every few hours. The longer you marinate, the stronger the teriyaki flavor will be.
This is a spicy Mexican marinade for fajitas, carne asada, steak ranchero, carnitas, chicken, or anything you want a Mexican flavor in. This makes about 1 cup of marinade. Works with chicken and pork as well.
- 1/3 cup water
- 1/3 cup lime juice
- 1 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
- 2 tbsp garlic powder
- 1 tbsp onion powder
- 3 tsp chili powder
- 2 tsp cumin
- salt and pepper to taste (you can also add jalapeños, cayenne, or your favorite hot sauce, to taste…)
Mix all of the ingredients well, add meat and refrigerate 2 hours to over night, shaking or mixing every few hours.
2. Chicken Marinades
Asian Chicken Marinade
This is a wonderful marinade for both chicken breast fillets, as well as split breasts, chicken pieces, or even a whole chicken. It creates a gorgeous brown glaze with the flavors of soy and ginger. It works with thinly sliced pork as well.
- 3/4 cup unrefined peanut oil (if you cant find any unrefined peanut oil, you can make your own by frying raw peanuts, sans the shell, in canola, vegetable or regular peanut oil, or you can just use canola or vegetable oil…)
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 chopped green onions
- 3 tbsp honey
- 2 tbsp white, or apple cider vinegar
- 2 tsp garlic powder
- 2 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp black pepper (you can also add some Sriracha Sauce to taste for some extra zip…)
Mix all of the ingredients. Add chicken and refrigerate 4 hours to overnight, mixing every few hours.
Garlic and Herb Marinade
A great all-around marinade for chicken, that has an Italian flair. Wonderful for grilling chicken fillets. This works for fish and pork as well. Makes about 1 cup.
- 1/3 cup water
- 1/3 cup vinegar
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed into a paste (this is also the emulsifier)
- 1 tbsp of Italian seasoning, or 1 tsp each of thyme, oregano, basil, and rosemary
- 2 tsp onion powder
- salt and pepper to taste
Mix all the ingredients well, add chicken and refrigerate at least 2 hours (except for fish and seafood….30 minutes, max…), turning every so often.
Simple Chicken Marinade
This is as basic as it gets. It’s just a good generic marinade that adds a little zest to the natural chicken flavor. Makes about 1/2 cup.
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 tbsp garlic powder
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- salt and pepper to taste
Mix all the ingredients well, add chicken and refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours. Don’t over-marinate or the lemon juice will start cooking the chicken for you.
3. Pork Marinades
Any of the marinades for chicken and beef will work with pork. ‘Nuff said…. Seriously, pork is one of the most forgiving meats there is, and will accept just about any seasonings and cooking methods you care to use. My all-time favorite meat….
4. Fish and Seafood Marinades
Fish and seafoods are very delicate, and is not forgiving at all. You have to be careful when marinating fish or seafoods. Too much, or too long, even by as much as a tsp, or 1 minute, can ruin your food. Marinades can adversely affect both the flavor and texture. Be very conservative with your fish and seafood. I would only recommend the most basic of marinades, which I will include here. You can add some seasonings, juices, etc, but go real easy on them. And regardless of what you add, never marinate fish and seafood longer than 30 minutes.
Basic Fish and Seafood Marinade
- 1 cup water
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tbsp garlic powder
- any other spices and flavors you want
- salt and pepper to taste.
Mix well, add fish and refrigerate for no more than 30 minutes, turning occasionally.
Conclusion: Make Your Marinade
Now you are ready to go out into the world of marinades. I hope you enjoyed the guide, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below if you have any questions! Have a pleasant journey…