How to CookMeat

Worth It or Not Worth It: Marinades

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There are so many great conversations on the Hotline—it's hard to choose a favorite. But we'll be doing it, once a week, to spread the wealth of our community's knowledge—and to keep the conversation going.

Today: We're getting down to the meat of marinades.

Marinades: They’re worthless. Well, at least that’s what the Los Angeles Times concluded in a piece published a few weeks ago. “Whatttt?” you say, “That uber lemony-olive oil-Worcestershire-soy sauce-oregano-basil marinade my steaks have been drowning in for the better part of two hours is effectively useless?” Perhaps, but let’s look closer at the merits of marinades:

Worth it

  • If you’ve ever had escabeche, you know the wonders of marinated fish. It tastes fresher, almost, than plain fresh fish, because the acid in marinades weakens aldehydes—the compound responsible for accentuating that fishy smell a lot of folks find unappealing. 
  • Tofu—the little sponge it is—is better with a marinade. The same can be said for other soy products, like tempeh
  • Vegetables, too, can benefit from an herbaceous marinade that coats every slice of squash or stalk of broccolini.
  • Slices of meat, marinated quickly for about 30 minutes, are one of your best shots at getting flavor into meat without degrading the meat (see below).

Not worth it

  • Marinades are acidic, and acids denature proteins (a.k.a. meat). “The acid in marinades does weaken muscle tissue and increase its ability to retain moisture,” writes Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking. “But marinades penetrate slowly, and can give the meat surface an overly sour flavor when they do so.” Sour meat? Nuh-uh
  • As the Los Angeles Times points out, meat is mostly water. An oily marinade is mostly fat. Water and fat don’t mix, so that marinade’s not going to get past the meat’s exterior all that much. If you’re going to use a marinade, make it salty—which makes the meat more penetrable—and with bold flavors like onion, garlic, and shallots. McGee also suggests using a cooking syringe to inject the meat with whatever flavorful liquid you’re working with, essentially marinating it from the inside out. 
  • Let’s just say it: The best seasoning for high-quality meat is salt and pepper. Our Hotline agrees, and so do we. 

Verdict: This is a case-by-case basis. However, if you’re working with a good piece of beef or free-range bird, let the meat do the talking, not the marinade.

Photo by James Ransom 

Tags: Community, Advice, Your Burning Questions