How To Marinate Meat

We have answers to the most frequently asked questions about marinating meats.

The Best Steak Marinade

Photo by bellepepper

Sauce of the Sea
The word marinade comes from the Latin marinara, which means “of the sea.” The original marinades (from several centuries ago) were briny liquids like seawater meant to preserve, tenderize, and flavor foods. Not that much has changed.

Why Marinade?
Marinades add flavor to food. They also add moisture, particularly when the marinade contains an oil base. Some marinades are also thought to tenderize meats. Buttermilk and yogurt are popular for this purpose. Whether or not they significantly tenderize meat, buttermilk and yogurt help balance out the sweet, spicy, and aromatic flavors of a marinade.

See Our Complete Collection of Marinade Recipes

How Should I Flavor My Marinade?
Marinades typically include an oil and an acid, but the sky’s the limit for creativity. Add your own punctuation marks with fresh or dried herbs, spices, and chile peppers; onions, shallots, garlic, ginger, citrus zest; prepared condiments like mustard, ketchup, or plum sauce. For your oil base, try olive, peanut, sesame, walnut, or chile oil. You can also use milk, coconut milk, buttermilk, or yogurt.
However, don’t add salt until right before you cook the meat. Salt can leech out moisture, drying and toughening the meat.

How Long Should I Marinate Meat?
If they soak too long, delicate meats like seafood and skinless chicken can become mushy from the acid in marinades, so keep an eye on the clock.

  • Most seafood should not stay in for longer than an hour
  • Boneless chicken breasts only need about two hours
  • Pork loin can soak for four hours
  • Lamb can go from four to eight hours
  • Beef can marinate for 24 hours or more

Remember, always marinate in the refrigerator to avoid the growth of bacteria.

Grilled Marinated Salmon

Photo by cookin’mama

Can I Eliminate the Oil in a Marinade to Reduce Fat?
To reduce the fat but keep the moisture, try replacing the oil with milk, coconut milk, buttermilk, or yogurt. Using low-fat versions of dairy products also helps reduce the fat.

What Containers are Good for Marinating?
Glass dishes or resealable plastic bags work best. Metal containers and aluminum foil can give food a metallic flavor.

Can I Reuse the Marinade?
We recommend discarding the marinade. If you intend to use the same mixture to baste, either set aside a small amount before marinating, or boil the marinade for five minutes before using it as a basting sauce.

How Much Marinade?
You want your meat to be completely immersed in the marinade. Generally, 1/2 cup of liquid marinade for every 1 pound of meat will do the trick. If you can’t completely cover the meat, turn it over occasionally in the marinade.

Pretty Chicken Marinade

Photo by Rock_lobster

What’s Happening as My Meat Marinades?
When meat is exposed to an acidic marinade, the bonds break between protein bundles, and the proteins unwind, forming a loose mesh. Initially, water is trapped within this protein “net” and tissue remains moist and juicy. But after a while, the protein bonds tighten, water squeezes out, and the tissue toughens. Acid bases include vinegar, wine, citrus juice, and tomatoes.

Acidic marinades might actually toughen chicken. So when using a highly acidic marinade for chicken, add a little olive oil and/or minimize marinating time. Two hours is usually more than enough time.

On the other hand, enzymatic marinades work by breaking down the muscle fiber and connective tissue (collagen). Kiwi, papaya, raw pineapple, honeydew melon, and figs all contain protein enzymes (proteases). Again, they might work too well if the marinating goes on too long. Chicken might turn to mush without passing though an intermediate stage of tenderness. Two hours is usually enough time to marinate chicken.

Dairy-based marinades, such buttermilk or yogurt, are probably the only marinades that truly tenderize. Only mildly acidic, they don’t toughen meat the way strongly acidic marinades do. It seems that the calcium in dairy products activates enzymes in meat that break down proteins; this process is similar to the way that aging tenderizes meat.

Does Marinating Affect Cooking Times?
Marinating for 12 hours or more does cut cooking time by about 1/3, so keep an eye on the grill.