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Should you Marinate your food?

Updated on November 11, 2014

What's it for anyway

The best place to start is to ask the question, "What are marinades?" A marinade is a simple combination of flavor, acid and/or salt used in meat. That's the basic truth to it all. Now you can spin off into any direction with that.

  • FLAVORS - There are a hundred ways to impart flavor to your meat. Here is a list of the most popular. Some of these should not be used in conjunction with each other. An example would be brown sugar and dill weed. Those 2 together make me cringe.

Brown Sugar
Black Peppercorn
Soy Sauce
Fish Sauce
Chili Powder
Curry Powder

The line between spices and herbs tend to cross at times and so do the general use of an ingredient. Soy Sauce for example can be used as a flavor and a salt. The sugar in brown sugar will have the same effect on meat as a salt would. These are certainly not all the flavors used in marinades but they are some of the one I use most.

  • ACIDS and SALTS- Here is the real backbone of any marinade. These simple ingredients have the ability to break down the strong protein chains in meat thus making them more tender. Acid is aided by salt to penetrate the meat. Salt also helps get the flavors into the meat. Salt in it self is a flavor enhancer.

Cider Vinegar
Sea Salt
Wine Vinegar
Soy Sauce
Rice Vinegar
Worchestershire Sauce
Lemon Juice
Various Vinegars
Various Vinegars

How Do They Help?

If you understand what happens to meat as it cooks and what marinades do beforehand you can understand what makes them so useful. Who hasn't cooked a piece of of sirloin steak only to find out you need a hammer a chisel to cut the thing. Beginning cooks have done this many times over. There are several ways to get a nice juicy tender sirloin but first lets look at some history.

In the 1960s meat was much more fatty than it is today. Animals were raised for flavor and flavor comes from fat. Then doctors told us all that fat will kill you. The industry changed gears with demand and started breeding lower fat animals. Sirloin of the 60's had more marbling in the meat itself. Marbled fat is the fat within the tissue itself. The rind fat on the outside of the meat does add flavor but doesn't help in the tenderness. When marbled fat cooks it has a tendency to melt at higher temperatures. This naturally allows the meat be more tender since a lot of the connective tissue is now gone.

Now in 2000 something all that nice marbled fat meat is the expensive cut of meat. Think about Delmonico, NY Strip, and Porterhouse. These are all expensive cuts of meat because they cook so nicely and they have the marbling with natural flavor we crave. Think about that uber expensive meat Kobe Beef, which is nothing but marbling. We pay top dollar for that beef now but that was more close to the norm in the 50's and 60's. However, we have been brainwashed to buy lean meat because its better for you. Either way we go to the grocery store and look for a nice lean piece of sirloin or pork loin that doesn't have a stitch of fat in it.

Kobe Beef
Kobe Beef | Source

This is were our good friend Mr. Marinade comes into play. Since we are inherently buying tougher cuts of meat and we are preparing it in a way that makes it tougher than ever. Marinades come into play.

The way our food is prepared has been put askew over the years. The health field would have you cook meat until it internal temperature reaches 7 million degrees. Wait, don't eat the burnt bits because that might be a carcinogen and cause cancer. Your best bet would be to sit in a corner and hide from anything that might want to kill you. I, on the other hand, will take my chances and eat slightly undercooked food and enjoy myself. Ah, throw caution to the wind. What I am really trying to say in the middle of this little rant is that the toughness of meat resembles a bell curve as you cook it. If you were to eat a raw piece of beef heaven forbid, it would be undeniably tender. And meat cooked for a long period of time is also tender but has lost much of it moisture and the time has changed the texture of the meat as well.

The implementation of marinade lowers the peak of the curve to make a flavorful and tender piece of meat that is completely done.

Flank and Skirt Steak
Flank and Skirt Steak

What have we learned?

The proper use of a marinade will make a possibly tough piece of meat much more tender after its cooked.

If you ask anyone who has worked in a steakhouse how or why their steaks are so tender they will tell that they marinate them before hand. Good steakhouses buy a better cut of meat that has nice marbling. They also allow them to sit a room temperature to give the protein chains time to relax. Steakhouses have to be ready for any customer type. Those who like a rare steak won't have too much problems either way, but a person who prefers a well done steak will not be happy unless the steak was properly marinated and then allowed to rest before serving.

We mentioned expensive cuts of meat that are prone to be tender all on their own but we should make a list of meats that are prone to tough if not prepared correctly.

  • Flank Steak or Brisket
  • Some sirloin cuts
  • Round steak or bottom round roast
  • Pork Loin
  • Skinless chicken breast
  • Shrimp
  • Shoulder Steak
  • Chuck Steak

The round steaks and roast come from the lower back leg of the beef. It's a large cut of meat that is very lean and does a lot of work and thus making it inherently tough. The same hold true for the chuck and shoulder meats because they are from the front leg. Chuck is fattier meat but the fat runs in large veins by itself and is not consider marbling. You might consider shrimp and odd addition to the list but if cooked properly shrimp is very tender. Most home chefs overcook shrimp and it becomes very tough and chewy.

Recipes and Tips

If you are a brave soul you may decide to take a few ingredients and make your own marinade. There are some nice simple recipes that I will provide you with to get you started if you feel you need some direction. First, I'd like you to look at the list of flavors above and notice that certain combinations of these flavors will direct your food to a region of the world. For instance:

  • Thai - Ginger, Garlic, and Cilantro
  • Chinese - soy, Garlic, and Ginger
  • South Western US and Mexico - Cumin, Chili Powder and Cayenne
  • Indian - Garam Masala, Coriander and Clove

Some simple use of a search engine and you can flavor your marinade to match tastes all around world.

Recipe #1

  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp onion powder
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1/3 cup cider vinegar
  • Marinate up to 2 hours

This would be about as basic marinade as you could make. Its great for a nice sirloin steak that you don't want over powered by other flavors.

Recipe #2

  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar packed
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp chili Powder
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • Juice of 1-2 lemons depending on size
  • Marinate up to 2 hours

This will impart a nice sweet, spicy south west flavor. It works well with chicken that will be grilled.

Recipe #3

  1. 1 cup water
  2. 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  3. 2 tsp ginger (fresh grated)
  4. 2 Tbs Soy Sauce
  5. 1 Handful of Cilantro chopped
  6. 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  7. Marinate up to 2 hours

This has a great Asian feel. Does nicely with chicken or beef kabobs cook on the grill.

Marinade and raw meat

Obviously there is a possibility of cross-contamination if you are not careful with marinade. Always allow meat to marinate in the refrigerator on a bottom shelf where its coldest. Especially if the recipe calls for overnight marinating.

Even though I don't do this, most cooks will tell you to use a thermometer when cooking your meat. I go by look and feel but if you don't trust yourself use the ole temp gauge to give you peace of mind. 180 degree is well done.

Often times cooks will use the marinade as a sauce to accompany a dish. What do you do in that instance? Either reserve some marinade before you mix it with the meat to make a sauce for later. However, you can do what I prefer, and that is to take the leftover marinade and place it in a pot with some cornstarch and cook it until its heated through and the possible microbes are no longer. Add a bit of butter to the mix after you remove it from the heat. The butter cuts the acidity and helps bring out the flavor.


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    • Susan Recipes profile image


      4 years ago from India

      Thanks for sharing this wonderful information about food marination.

    • Foodeee profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thank you so much for reviewing it. I just made some venison the other day and strayed from the original recipe and used a marinade and it was much better IMO.

    • CyberShelley profile image

      Shelley Watson 

      4 years ago

      This is a very interesting article, and I will be coming back to re-read. Useful knowledge for dealing with those tougher cuts of meat. Up, interesting and useful


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