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A complete guide :
How to Marinate your
Meat to Perfection


For a lot of home cooks, marinating meat is almost as automatic as cooking the meat itself. Douse the meat in some kind of flavored liquid, pop it in the refrigerator overnight and cook it the next day.

Seems straightforward enough, but there are reasons to put a little more thought into how you marinate. More and more, we’re hearing as much about what marinades can’t do as what they can. And in some cases, you may be doing more harm than good.

Think about what goes into your marinade.

Marinade ingredients generally fall into three categories: acids, oils and aromatics. Acids — think of them in terms of sour flavors — can include citrus juice, vinegar and yogurt. Oils, which help keep the meat from drying out, can be neutral in flavor (canola, vegetable, peanut); in-between (olive, nut); and assertive (sesame). The world of aromatics is wide, including garlic, onions, ginger, herbs, chile peppers and spices. Make sure your marinade contains a salty component, because that is one of the most effective flavoring agents. But “it doesn’t have to actually be salt,” so feel free to use soy sauce, miso or fish sauce.

A marinade’s flavor will evolve as it cooks, but it should taste good even before you use it. Especially if you’re winging it, be sure to sample along the way (before it goes on the food, in other words).

Don’t expect it to penetrate that much.  

Turns out, marinades are essentially a surface treatment. Most flavors will not go farther than a few millimetres into meat. However, is fine with that, because, as he points out, the surface is what you taste first. The limited distance traveled is another reason marinades are generally better for lean proteins — chicken breasts, flank steak, shrimp: You’ll get a better ratio of flavored surface per serving than you would in a larger, thicker cut of meat.

Longer does not mean better.  

 Marinating for hours on end does not change the very shallow depth that a marinade penetrates. You can often get the same results in an hour or less as you would overnight. Still, it’s hard to argue with the convenience of preparing meat in advance and using it later. But how long should you marinate?

  • Very large pieces of meat (brisket, prime rib, pork shoulder, leg of lamb, turkey): 24 hours
  • Large pieces of meat (beef and pork tenderloins, pork loins, rack and butterflied leg of lamb, whole chickens, large whole fish): 6 to 12 hours
  • Medium pieces of meat (porterhouse steaks, double-cut pork chops, chicken halves or quarters, small whole fish): 4 to 8 hours
  • Medium-to-small pieces of meat (steaks, pork and lamb chops, bone-in chicken breasts or legs, fish steaks; also tofu, mushrooms and vegetables): 1 to 3 hours
  • Small pieces of meat (boneless chicken breast, fish fillets, shrimp): 15 minutes to 2 hours

The times will also vary somewhat on the strength of your marinade,an herb marinade won’t impart its flavors as quickly as one with strong spices or chile peppers. Also keep in mind that extended marinating does not further tenderize meat. The “tenderizing” effect the acids in marinades have is, in fact, the breakdown of proteins on the surface of meat or seafood. (Ceviche, raw seafood treated with a very acidic marinade, is a good example of how powerful ingredients such as lemon or lime juice can be in changing texture.) Use too much acid or leave something in it too long, and what you get is mushiness.

Do it safely and smartly.  

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