Marinades and How to Use Them
Marinating is the process of soaking foods in a seasoned liquid prior to cooking to infuse
flavor(s). The origins of the word allude to the use of brine (aqua marina) in the pickling
process, which led to the technique of adding flavor by immersion in liquid. Marinades are
typically acidic with ingredients such as vinegar, citrus juices, wine and sometimes
buttermilk. Marinade can contain oils, herbs and spices to develop more flavors. Adding
sweet ingredients to the marinade can help form appealing caramelized, crispy coatings
on grilled meats.
A common misconception is that marinades tenderize meat. This is true only IF the
marinade contains enzymes. Enzymes, not acids, break down proteins, such as papain
from the papaya plant. Meat tenderness is more about the length of the protein strands in
the meat, connective tissue content, marbling content, butchering and cooking method
than it is the marinade.
Time and temperature turn connective tissues into gelatin. Depending on the cut and
type of meat, it may need a little assistance to bring it to a palatable range of tenderness.
Proper cooking method and knowing how to mechanically process the meat (a.k.a.
butcher, cut, pound, grind etc.) will go a long way in producing tasty and tender meats.
Meat tenderizers can make meat have a mushy texture and reduce the meat’s ability to
absorb the marinade, so I avoid them altogether.
Marinating requires direct contact with the meat. Marinade penetration is usually less
than 1/4 of an inch. Therefore, flat cuts of meat benefit most from marinades. If you
marinate a large cut of meat, cut it into smaller flat pieces about ½ to 1 inch thick, thereby
maximizing the surface to mass ratio. Place the meat in a heavy zip-lock bag with the air
squeezed out and turn it often to be sure all surfaces benefit from the marinade. Place
the zip-lock bag into a container to capture any leaking marinade. Place the container on
the bottom shelf of your refrigerator to prevent cross-contamination with other foods in
The type of marinade is determined by the type and cut of meat and the desired flavor
profile. The fundamentals of flavor layering apply to marinades just as they would any
other food, balancing sweet, savory, bitter and saltiness characteristics. Balancing acidity
with the other ingredients is critical. Too much acid will result in essentially pickling the
meat, which in the case of Ceviche is not a bad thing. Sugars in the marinade result in
caramelizing the surface of the meat, adding to the appearance as well as texture and
flavor. Too much/many sugars can result in a strong-burnt flavor because sugars burn
well below the typical grilling temperatures.
- Taste your marinade BEFORE you add the meat. Make any adjustments up front.
If it tastes good now, your chances of success are better.
- ALWAYS marinade in the refrigerator.
- If you are basting with your marinade, do not apply it during the last three to five
minutes of grilling, especially if the meat is chicken.
- Use stronger flavors for beef and game than for chicken or pork.
- Allow enough time for the marinade to work. This is a function of the type and cut
- Discard the marinade after use and do not reuse.
- Make it fresh with fresh ingredients. Do not use prepackaged mixes. They may
contain things you don’t need or want in your marinade.
- Remember, the meat is the star, not the marinade. You still want to be able to taste
Here is a favorite marinade of mine.
ANCHO CITRUS MARINADE:
4 dried Ancho peppers
2 fresh limes juiced
1/2 fresh lemon juiced
1 navel oranges, juiced and zested
1 onion sliced
2 T. honey
1/4 c. olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 t. ground black pepper
1 crushed bay leaves
1 t. thyme
6 T. fresh cilantro, chopped
Salt & pepper to taste
Stem, seed and crush the chilies. Zest the orange. Juice the citrus. Sauté onion, garlic
and chilies in a pan, 3 to 5 minutes until slightly softened. With the exception of the
cilantro and orange zest, combine all ingredients in a blender and puree. Add the
chopped cilantro and zest, season to taste and refrigerate until needed. Marinate the
chicken for a minimum of 3 hours.
Chef David Hall
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