Put some thought into your marinade. Picture by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post
Put some thought into your marinade. Picture by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post
You marinade is as important as the cut of meat you use. Picture from Pexels.
You marinade is as important as the cut of meat you use. Picture from Pexels.
For a lot of home cooks, marinating meat is almost as automatic as cooking the meat itself. Douse the meat in some kind of flavoured liquid, pop it in the refrigerator overnight and cook it the next day.

It seems straightforward enough, but there are reasons to put a little more thought into how you marinate. 

More and more, we’re hearing as much about what marinades can’t do as what they can. And in some cases, you may be doing more harm than good.

“I’m going to step on the conservative side of controversy,” says grilling and barbecue expert Steven Raichlen who is also the author of Project Fire cookbook. “I do believe they add flavour,” he says.

You marinade is as important as the cut of meat you use. Picture from Pexels.

Here are some ways to ensure you’re marinating the right way - and for the right reasons:

  • Think about what goes into your marinade: Marinade ingredients generally fall into three categories: acids, oils and aromatics. Acids - think of them in terms of sour flavours - can include citrus juice, vinegar and yoghurt. Oils, which help keep the meat from drying out, can be neutral in flavour (canola, vegetable, peanut); in between (olive, nut); and assertive (sesame).
  • The world of aromatics is wide, including garlic, onions, ginger, herbs, chillies and spices. Make sure your marinade contains a salty component, because that is one of the most effective flavouring agents. But it doesn’t have to actually be salt, Raichlen says, so feel free to use soy sauce, miso or fish sauce.
  • Don’t expect it to penetrate that much: Turns out, marinades are essentially a surface treatment. Most flavours will not go farther than a few millimetres into meat. Raichlen, however, is fine with that, because, as he points out, the surface is what you taste first. The limited distance travelled is another reason marinades are generally better for lean proteins - chicken breasts, flank steak, shrimp: you’ll get a better ratio of flavoured surface per serving than in a larger, thicker cut of meat.
  • Longer does not mean better: Marinating for hours on end does not change the very shallow depth that a marinade penetrates. You can often get the same results in an hour or less as you would overnight. But how long should you marinate? In Barbecue Sauces, Rubs, Marinades - Bastes, Butters, and Glazes.
Raichlen gives a rough guide to marinating times:
  • Very large pieces of meat (brisket, prime rib, pork shoulder, leg of lamb, turkey): 24 hours.
  • Large pieces of meat (beef and pork tenderloins, pork loins, rack and butterflied leg of lamb, whole chickens, large whole fish): 6 to 12 hours.
  • Medium pieces of meat (porterhouse steaks, double-cut pork chops, chicken halves or quarters, small whole fish): 4 to 8 hours.
  • Medium-to-small pieces of meat (steaks, pork and lamb chops, bone-in chicken breasts or legs, fish steaks; also tofu, mushrooms and vegetables): 1 to 3 hours.
  • Small pieces of meat (boneless chicken breast, fish fillets, shrimp): 15 minutes to 2 hours.
  • Do it safely and smartly: Always marinate proteins in the refrigerator, Raichlen says. Keep the food covered, and make sure you are marinating in glass, ceramic, plastic or stainless steel. Reactive materials such as aluminium and cast iron can cause off-flavours in the food when they come in contact with acid.