A Complete Guide to Marinating: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why
As it turns out, marinating longer doesn't necessarily mean a more delicious dinner.
That moment you realize everything you’ve ever believed about marinating is a lie… Yeah, I had it recently.
Upon asking one of our in-house grill masters, Test Kitchens Coordinator Mark Driskill, to work on a few marinade recipes (because this seemed like a responsible food editor thing to do at this point in the summer), it became [borderline embarrassingly] obvious that I’ve been walking around for the entirety of my adult life misunderstanding a cooking concept I took to be fairly simple. As Driskill began to break down how he would like to go about giving folks the tools they need to marinate like champs, I grew increasingly mind-blown over how many pieces of conventional wisdom I, a home cook who lacks both experience and enthusiasm when it comes to standing over a grill, had previously accepted, blindly, as true.
And while I’m sure there are plenty of avid grill bosses out there who already know a good bit of what I’m about to share, I can tell you right now, there was more than one person around our office who was as intrigued as I was to learn that so much of what they knew about marinating was misinformed. So let’s start right there, with what’s not true.
Common Marinating Myths
1. The longer you marinate something, the more delicious it will be.
I mean, this is the basic law or marinating, right?? Wrong. According to Driskill, this is blatantly incorrect. When it comes to marinating standard cuts of meat from the grocery store, your marinade is only going to make it so far into the surface of the meat. In order for the marinade to penetrate deeper than surface level, one of the following must be true:
A. You are marinating vegetables or tofu, not meat.
B. You are marinating smaller and/or more delicate pieces of animal protein, such as shrimp or chicken that has been cut into pieces.
C. You are leaving your food in the marinade for an excessive amount of time.
If A or B is what’s going on in your world, your food will be filled with flavor and ready to rock within a couple of hours… you have found the exceptions that allow the flavors of a marinade to journey deep into your food. Congratulations, go forth and grill happily. However, if C is your case, you—like many of us—have put your faith in the unfounded longer = better law of marinating. As Driskill explains, leaving meat in a marinade past the point of reason (refer to the How Long Should I Marinate? section below) may eventually allow your marinade to saturate further, but it comes at the cost of denaturing the protein to an unappetizing point of no return. In other words, the acid in your marinade will begin to transform the exterior of your marinating meat into a not-so-cute, mushy mess the longer it sits. Takeaway being, let your marinade do the good it can do, and be done with it; longer does not = better.
2. Marinating is a great, foolproof solution for tenderizing big, tough cuts of meat.
Yes, as noted above, the acid in your marinade will start to break down and “tenderize” the exterior of the meat resting in it… but with the amount of time it would take for a marinade to make any real dent in a sizable hunk of meat—as in, tenderizing beyond the surface—the work of your marinade's acid would leave you with a largely inedible piece of weirdly-textured meat.
According to Driskill, pounding tougher cuts with a meat tenderizer or mallet is a far more effective way to go about tenderization. He also advises that if the cut isn’t a great choice for marinating, given the info above, it’s probably not a great choice for the cooking methods associated with marinating (see What Cooking Methods Pair Best with Marinating? section below). Instead, you're likely better off with a low, slow, moist cooking method.
3. A bottle of store-bought Italian dressing makes for an easy and effective all-purpose marinade.
This was the standard in my house growing up, we marinated everything in it. But compare the ingredient label of that bottled dressing to The Master Marinade Blueprint below… they’re not doing the same thing. Skip the bottle and whip up your own, it only take a few minutes.
The Basic Mechanics of Marinating Meat
Let’s talk about meat real quick. As this is the category of food many of us most oftentimes find ourselves marinating, taking a moment to touch on the science behind how your marinade interacts with meat seems in order. Note: When I say “meat,” I am lumping together chicken, beef, lamb, and pork… the common animal proteins that find their way into an oil + acid marinade.
Driskill explains that the moisture present in the proteins that make up your beef/lamb/poultry/pork flesh is what makes marinade absorption possible. Similar to how a dry brine works, the salt in a marinade draws moisture out of the meat, allowing the salt (as well as the marinade’s sugar component) to interact on the surface of the meat. Because of the moisture lost, the soaking meat will eventually start to draw moisture back in—thus, drawing in the salty and sweet elements of the marinade deeper into the meat (other flavoring components are largely restricted to the surface of the meat).
The Master Marinade Blueprint
Below is a general formula you can keep in your back pocket for whipping up a marinade anytime, with whatever you have on hand, no specific recipe needed. This is a blueprint for a basic oil + acid marinade; what you might consider “next-level” marinades, such as those involving yogurt (which is popular in Indian cuisine) or booze (we’ll touch on that in a bit more detail later) are going to follow different rules. That said, here are the baseline marinade building blocks:
(canola, avocado, olive, toasted sesame, and peanut)
This is the foundation of your marinade; use it to set the tone of your desired flavor profile. For a solid, all-purpose marinade, Driskill suggests using 1 part neutral-flavored oil, like canola, to one part extra-virgin olive oil. In terms of where you go from here, you’ll want your marinade ratio to consist of roughly 3 parts oil to 1 part acid. So, for 1/2 a cup of oil, Driskill calls for 3 tablespoons of acid.
(fresh citrus juice and vinegars)
The #1 point to remember about the acid in a marinade is this: Don’t overdo it. Acid is the element that can have a detrimental impact on your food over time, particularly if you’re marinating an animal protein, so keep it in check. Remember, 3:1 oil to acid.
(granulated, brown, honey, maple syrup, agave)
Use whatever sweetener you have on hand, like best, or think would work well in the grander scheme of your flavor profile. For every 1/2 cup of oil in your marinade, you’ll want about 2 tablespoons of sugar.
(soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, fine sea salt)
Driskill recommends using a sodium-rich liquid, such as soy sauce, to deliver salinity in your marinade, because they are easily and evenly blended with the other components to create a homogeneous mixture. An ingredient like kosher salt, on the other hand, will often settle out of the marinade and to the bottom of your mixing bowl and/or marinating container—which is a complete buzzkill in this scenario. Salt does you no good at the bottom of a bowl! As Driskill points out, salt and sugar are the 2 elements of a marinade that will really be able to penetrate deeper than just the surface layers of whatever your marinating—be it steak, chicken, etc.—so the majority of your salt not making it to the party means you’re majorly missing out on flavor. A fine-grained sea salt is also a good option for marinades, as it is easier dissolved into the other liquid ingredients and less apt to settle out.
While you should still season your food with salt during the cooking process post-marinating, do be conscious of how salty your marinade is to begin with. Soaking meat or veggies in a more sodium-dense marinade means you’ll want to pinch-and-sprinkle with a lighter touch once you get to the grill.
*Aromatics and Dried Spices
(fresh herbs, citrus zest, fresh garlic, fresh onion, fresh ginger, lemongrass, dried pantry spices, etc.)
Use these additional flavor boosters to complete your desired flavor profile like the kitchen wizard you are. Wanna go Asian-inspired? Toss some grated fresh ginger and chopped fresh cilantro and mint into the mix. Add a delicate warmth with some sliced fresh chilis or really turn up the heat with a teaspoon of crushed red pepper.
Based on the blueprint above, Driskill created 4 distinct and delicious, multifunctional marinades. All are simple to whip up and worth keeping on-hand for the entirety of your grilling career.
This all-purpose marinade offers a universally tasty flavor profile that’s great for just about anything you’d throw on the grill. That said we especially loved it with a mix of summer vegetables.
Smoky-sweet, with just enough spicy kick, this Latin-inspired marinade is the light, the truth, and the way when it comes to chicken thighs.
This boldly spiced, dynamic marinade is a tasty choice for any protein, but is particularly amazing for lamb. Everyone in the kitchen was downright smitten with this combo.
This savory Asian-inspired marinade rocked our world when used on crunchy green veggies, like broccolini and baby bok choy, but it’d also be fantastic for chicken or pork.
What Foods Are Exceptionally Awesome for Marinating?
Beyond the usual suspects, here are a few specific foods that are particularly well suited for marinating:
OK, this one is less "specific," but look... most vegetables are world-rocking when marinated and grilled. Obviously, unlike meats, veggies aren’t packed with protein. However, they are packed with fiber, which helps them soak up marinade like a sponge, making for a seriously flavor-packed experience. Real talk, I'll say it again, marinated and grilled vegetables are a GOOD THING.
Similar to raw vegetables, tofu’s porous nature makes it a superb candidate for marinating.
Bringing up the subject of marinating—or really, anything to do with cooking—in a test kitchen (particularly in Driskill’s shared area of the test kitchen) is a direct solicitation for everyone within earshot’s input. Which in this case, turns out to be a dandy fact of life. Recipe developer and tester, Robin Bashinsky, added that he finds shrimp to be about as perfect a food for marinating as there could be. Because of their petite size and inherent leanness, shrimp have an easy time soaking up the full flavor of a marinade quickly (you should be good to go within 30 minutes). And in turn, their size allows them to cook quickly, which Bashinsky notes is ideal in terms of preserving the lively flavors contributed by the fresh components in your marinade (like herbs). The longer you cook, the more you loose the nuances of those fresh flavors—meaning, you’re going to experience a brighter, bolder flavor from a marinade if it’s used on a skewer of shrimp vs. a hunk of pork that you smoke for hours.
*Side note: For any sort of marinated skewer, shrimp or otherwise, always marinate your food before assembling the skewers… as opposed to skewering, then marinating that entire assembled stick of food.
Cubed Chicken Breast
Pretty much everything Bashinsky explains regarding shrimp, he likewise holds true for white meat chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces.
Thinly Sliced Skirt Steak
A less-tender, but super flavorful, cut like skirt steak is one folks tend to toss in a marinade in hopes of tenderizing if before getting to the grill. This brings us right back to the myth about tenderizing via marinating. You’re not going to make much of a dent in a whole hunk of skirt steak with a few hours of marinating, but if you go ahead and slice the raw beef, marinate it, and then grill—well, you may very well be on your way to the best steak tacos of your life.
Which Foods Aren’t so Awesome for Marinating?
Fish with delicate, flaky flesh (such as snapper, tilapia, or cod) can’t stand up to the acid in a marinade for long. In fact, even heartier/more oily fish have a fairly limited capacity for acidic marinades. Fish follow a different set of marinating rules, and in many cases, it’s not necessarily the best method for imparting flavor. That said, a good rule of thumb to follow if you do feel compelled to marinate seafood is to keep the marinating time under an hour—otherwise, you run the risk of “cooking” your fish with acid.
Given, all things considered, this isn’t the end of the world; you’ll just need to re-plan your menu around ceviche.
The Golden Marinating Rule
Before you add meat to a marinade, always set aside at least a couple of tablespoons for spooning over the cooked dish right before serving for a tasty finishing touch. Early in the cooking process, you can baste the the meat with the marinade it was sitting in, but that’s about the extent to which you want to “recycle” any used marinade. (This rule doesn't apply to vegetables.)
The Marinating Vessel
Driskill recommends keeping it classic, and using a large, plastic zip-top bag for your marinating vessel. His trick is to seal the bag of marinade and food to-be-marinated with air still inside to make it a large container. And then, you give that marinade bubble a few good shakes, providing the contents of the bag with a nice introduction to one another, before pressing all the air out. Just to play it safe—always place your marinade bag flat on a rimmed baking sheet or in a casserole dish so that any unexpected leaks are contained.
How Long Should I Marinate?
Ahh, the big question. What’s the sweet spot between long enough for the marinade to do its work and so long that the marinade begins to mess with the texture of your meat? According to Driskill, it depends on the protein. The tighter (i.e. tougher) the protein, the less succeptible to the marinade it will be—both the flavoring effects and the denaturing effects. Driskill advises marinating along the same lines that you cook; you wouldn’t cook a pork tenderloin as you would a pork shoulder, and you shouldn’t marinate a pork tenderloin as you would a pork shoulder.
As mentioned numerous times throughout this marinating manifesto, with time, acid breaks down protein—this is where the idea that tenderizing through marinating is an airtight plan. The thing is, much like cooking does, acid chemically changes a protein. Again, the longer meat is left in a marinade, the greater the impact of the acid on its exterior layers. When it comes to your “typical” cuts for marinating/grilling (chicken breasts/thighs/legs, steaks, pork tenderloin/chops), Driskill says that he generally wouldn’t leave them in a marinade overnight. He explains that your marinade is going to do as much (good) as it’s gonna do within 3-4 hours on these cuts, so leaving them to soak beyond that is kind of overkill.
A casual poll of every chef standing around Driskill’s kitchen at this point in the conversation led to a unanimous agreement that the absolute maximum amount of time they would leave any meat to marinate is 12 hours. And if you let it go to 24 hours, the panel likewise agreed, you might as well toss it.
What Cooking Methods Pair Best with Marinating?
Be it meats, veggies, or other, you should only marinate foods that you intend to cook using a hot, dry roasting method with plenty of air circulation. In other words: grilling (the obvious) or oven-roasting (less obvious, but totally valid as long as your food items are place on a rack). Both of these methods allow the marinade to drip away freely and provide for good air circulation.
Can you cook a marinated piece of meat in a skillet on your stovetop? Sure, technically, you can. Just don’t count on achieving great color or caramelization. These appetizing attributes come from a lack of moisture—and marinating directly combats that. As you heat a piece of marinated meat in a skillet, the marinade that has soaked into the flesh will begin to surface and, trapped in the pan as it is released, the marinade will create a sauna (admittedly, a delicious smelling one)… steaming your mighty meaty entree and preventing a glorious sear from taking place.
Marinating with Booze
I was curious about alcohol’s role in marinating given that every so often, you will see a recipe or restaurant touting “red wine marinated filet,” or something of the sort. Overall, the preferences and experiences across the test kitchen team did not favor utilizing boozy beverages for marinating. According to Driskill, alcohol denatures proteins more intensely than common acids like citrus juice or vinegar, and you have to be very careful with how long you leave any cut of raw meat sitting in wine, beer, or spirits. If you want to experiment with alcohol-inspired marinades, Bashinsky suggests cooking the alcohol down and cooling it completely before using it to marinate.