Friday, June 15, 2012

Marinades: Give so much, but ask so little

Marinade Ingredients
Give them a moment of your time, and they perform a minor miracle... Poof! Generic meat is transformed into a gorgeous meal

It's magic that's worth understanding. The "how & why" can be deep, so this post is broken into two parts:

Part One: 
Two marinades that work for any cuisine, plus a recipe for Cajun Chicken Pasta that's so simple that it's embarrassing

Part Two: 
Learn why you shouldn't skip the salt, how flavor & oil are intertwined, some marination time guidelines, plus unexpected sources of acids and salt


Feeling Fancy Marinade:
When I feel like mincing garlic and using my whisk - this is what I do. It's cheap and makes enough for 1-2 pounds of meat. See the TIMETABLE for guidelines on marination times. In a medium mixing bowl or food processor combine:

1/4 cup vinegar and 1 tsp Dijon mustard (an optional natural emulsifier)
3/4 cup vegetable oil, poured into the vinegar as a very thin stream, while whisking or processing
Add 2 teaspoons of salt and 1 - 2 tablespoons of spices or dried herbs (Cajun blend, Italian herbs etc)
Optional - 2 cloves minced garlic (or shallots) and/or half a bunch of chopped fresh herbs

  • Chinese/ Thai: Reduce the oil to half a cup, replace the salt with 1/4 cup soy sauce, & add 1-2 tbsp of fresh ginger paste with the minced garlic.
  • Indian/ Pakistani: Substitute 1 cup of yogurt (not fat free) for the oil and vinegar. Use garam marsala for the spice blend.

Note: If you plan to freeze marinade, microwave any fresh ingredients like garlic, fresh herbs, or ginger for 1 minute to inactivate the plant enzymes. This will help prevent breakdown that changes the flavors over time.

Feeling Lazy Marinade:
Have a cook-out instead of getting take-out. This foolproof method literally goes as fast as you can open the containers. In a 1 gallon zip-lock bag, add:

1/2 of a bottle of store bought vinaigrette salad dressing: any kind that separates into layers
2 teaspoons of salt (eyeball the amount: 1 tsp = to the first knuckle of your index finger)
1-2 tablespoons of a spices blend (~ 1/4 of a standard sized spice jar)
Add 1-2 lbs meat, seal,  shake to coat evenly, and toss in the fridge

Cajun Chicken Pasta Recipe:
Lazy Marinade (I use Penzey's Cajun Blend and Girard's Vinaigrette)
4 Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts (~ a pound and a half)
2-3 Green Bell Peppers, cored and chopped in 2" pieces
1 Large White Onion, chopped in 2" pieces
1 box (16 oz) Penne Pasta
1 pint Alfredo Sauce, ready made from the refrigerator section

Make the marinade in one bag, then transfer 1/4 cup to a second bag. Put veggies in the bag with 1/4 cup marinade. Seal and shake to coat. Put the chicken in the other bag, marinate everything 2-4 hours in the fridge.

After marinating, remove chicken and veggies from fridge and cook penne pasta as directed. Grill Chicken on a hot grill (400-500 °F) about 4 minutes on each side, for 8 minutes total. We use gas, but according to this BBQ link, you can get charcoal grills that hot too.

  • Skillet Variation: Drain chicken and pat dry with a paper towel. Pan fry (two at a time) on medium heat in a little oil, until no longer pink and translucent in the center. Hold the cooked chicken in a oven set to warm, then saute veggies in the same skillet.

Toss pasta and veggies with Alfredo sauce, and slice the chicken into 1" strips. To serve, place a quarter of pasta mix on each plate and top with chicken strips slightly fanned out.

PART TWO - Acid, Oil, Salt, Spice, and Timing

Foods that taste sour contain natural acids. Marinades use acid to create microscopic holes in the outer layer of meat by breaking up the proteins. The channels make the meat act more like a sponge instead of a brick. The acid also contributes a "brighter" quality to the natural Umami flavor of the meat.

Vinegar and citrus juice are the most common acids in marinades, but sometimes the source isn't very obvious. For example: chili peppers are a good source of Ascorbic acid (vitamin C). It's a pretty gentle acid compared to lemon juice or vinegar, but on delicate protein like shrimp, it can be a meaningful factor. See common ACIDS SOURCES at the end of this post for more surprising acids.

Any liquid vegetable oil will work, plus some recipes may call for melted butter. Fats & oils keep the mixture from being unpleasantly sour and carries the flavor compounds from the flecks of spice into the liquid, so that it can move into the meat. 

Some people claim that butter is too thick to use in marinades, but it seems to work fine in Garlic-butter Chicken. Also, Clarified butter is also popular in Indian cuisine, and they take their cooking very seriously. Over there it's called ghee (ignore the H, it rhymes with key).

Logically, butter does have a reason to work: it's partially made of the same molecules as olive oil - which works great in marinades. About 30% of milk fat is from Oleic (Oh-lee-ick) acid, while olive oil has about 70%.

You must use salt or the marinade will not penetrate past the surface of the meat. Salt creates an osmotic (oz-Mott-ick) gradient that carries flavor deep inside the meat. Initially the marinade draws water out of the meat, trying to equalizes the concentration between the marinade and the meat... But when the meat juices are outside they mingle with the marinade liquid, and the combination is pulled back into the meat, carrying the flavors deep inside. Yes, technically salt does pull moisture from the meat...

But it's like squeezing out a sponge that's still underwater - liquid goes right back inside!

Some people will argue that salt makes it a brine and not a marinade, but I'm not going to get into that here (feel free to leave a comment if it interests you). The source of salt may not always be obvious, so check out the common SALT SOURCES below.

What About Dry Rubs?
Dry rubs work differently than marinades. The salt draws out moisture from the outer layer so it can be seared properly. Searing creates a barrier that holds natural juices inside the meat during cooking. The meat should rest a few minutes after cooking before it's cut so the juices can be redistributed evenly throughout the meat. Salt can also be used on raw skin to reduce the ratio of water vs. fat, making it easier to crisp (i.e. roasting a turkey).

Herbs and Spices:
The flavors in herbs and spices come from molecules called aromatic (arrow-matic) compounds. That's science speak for a molecule that has six carbon atoms connected into ring, plus some other molecules sticking out from the top. Aromatic compounds occur naturally in certain plants,usually to discourage insects from eating them. For example the flavor of cinnamon is from a single molecule called cinnamaldehyde (Sin-am-al-duh-hide).

Aromatic compounds mix into oil easily, since it's also a string of carbon atoms. (it's basically mixing oil and oil). Cooking oil acts like a solvent to pull the flavor molecules off the flecks of herbs into the liquid so the flavors can be drawn into the meat.

Acid works from the outside-in breaking up protein as it tunnels into the meat. It kind of "fluffs up" the surface. This break down continues at a steady pace, so that meat that's marinaded too long becomes mushy and waterlogged. The excess water acts as a heat-sink that makes it harder to achieve proper browning on the outside without over-cooking the inside. It also creates a texture flaw...

...Mushy isn't the same as moist!

How Long is Too Long?
The right amount of time depends on the structure of the meat plus the size of the pieces. Smaller pieces have more surface area, so they absorb marinades more quickly. had some GREAT time tables, for marinating meat so instead of reinventing the wheel, I've summarized them below.

Beef, roasts and brisket: 8-12 hours
Beef, most steaks: 4 - 6 hours
Beef, tenderloin, T- bone, and rib eye: 1-2 hours

Pork, Shoulder and Roasts over 8 lbs: 10- 12
Pork, Shoulder and Roasts less than 8 lbs: 6-8 hours
Pork, Loin and Chops: 2-4 hours

Lamb, Bone-in Leg: 10-12 hours
Lamb, Boneless: 4-6 hours
Lamb, Chop: 1-2 hours

Chicken, Whole: 6-8 hours
Chicken, Parts: 4-6 hours
Chicken, Parts, Boneless & Skinless: 1-2 hours

Firm Fish, 30 min - 1 hour
Flaky Fish, 30 min
Shrimp, 15 - 30 min depending on size

Common Acid Sources
Citric Acid - Orange, Lemon, Lime juice, Most fruit, & Tamarind
Acetic Acid - Vinegar, Beer, Cider, Wine, Salad Dressing, & Mayonnaise
Lactic acid - Yogurt, Sour Cream, & Buttermilk
Malic acid - Apples, Grapes, Pineapple, Tomatoes, and Most Fruit
Phosphoric acid - Soda & Other Soft Drinks
Ascorbic acid - Chili Peppers, Guava, & Most Produce
Tartaric Acid - Cream of Tartar, & Wine

Common Salt Sources
Asian sauces - Soy Sauce, Oyster Sauce, Fish Sauce, Sweet and sour
Canned Veggies - Vegetable Juice, Canned Tomatoes, Spaghetti Sauce
Condiments - Pickles, Olives, Capers, Salad Dressing, Mayonnaise, Sardines, Gravy
Soup - Stock Concentrate, Bouillon, Tomato, Cream of Mushroom
Crystal - Table Salt, Kosher Salt, Sea Salt, and Blends like Season Salt and Garlic Salt

That's the How & Why of marinades... if you liked this post - please share it with a buddy, everyone should know how this stuff works!



  1. Hi Jade,

    What a lovely blog you have here, a fizzing mixture of information (fun and much appreciated chemistry tips), attention to detail and humour :)

    The world of corporate chemistry may have lost your talent, but equilibrium was restored through a welcome gain for the world of smart and tasty cooking.
    Looking forward to read more,

  2. Silvia,

    Thank you SO much for the kind words! I'm really trying to dive in! Are there any specific cooking topics that appeal to you?

    Kindest Regards,

  3. Although I've been trained as a biochemist, I've recently worked in the food industry and loved every minute of it. Although I've done a couple of different things, it all revolved mainly around emulsions, so if you could address them, I'd be very interested to read them. Salad dressings, mayonaise and margarine are all very tasty emulsions...

  4. Stijn,
    I'm always happy to connect with another scientist. Feel free to send me a connect on LinkedIN.

    I'm actually connecting with a couple local food scientist trying to see if anyone know how oil works to balance the flavor of acid. It may be a bit of a mystery - exciting!


    1. I've sent the invitation. Thanks for the suggestion to connect. Another article idea: have you looked into foodpairing? is an online database that connects foods based on shared aromatic molecules.


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