The Best Marinade May Be No Marinade at All!

Three spoons with different spices

When most of us cooks and chefs think of marinades we naturally think of “marinating” i.e. throwing that steak or those chicken breasts in some highly seasoned, somewhat acidic concoction to result in a finished product that’s tender, flavorful and nicely browned. Well believe it or not Uncle Joe’s prized overnight marinade just might not be the best bet when it comes to getting the juiciest, best tasting result.
Here’s why.

Most of the time, marinades only coat the exterior of the meat. America’s Test Kitchen did a nice experiment last month and marinated chicken breast in three different marinades of soy sauce, yogurt, wine, and lemon juice & garlic for a whopping 18 hours. After that, they baked the chicken alongside plain (un-marinated) chicken at 300 degrees. After baking, they removed the top 3 millimeters of each breast and had tasters try both the marinated and un-marinated chicken. The findings: “Tasters could find no distinguishable flavor differences among any of the batches.”

Their conclusion: “Marinade flavors do not penetrate meat beyond the first few millimeters, no matter what the mixture.”

Still think Uncle Joe’s Secret Marinade is the way to go? Well, take a look for yourself and see just how much of that marinade gets into that chicken or beef you’re preparing.

As you can see, with most surfaces, whether beef, chicken or fish, the marinade adheres to the surface and doesn’t penetrate into the interior of the meat. Exceptions: zucchini and lobster tail. Who’da thunk! That garlic, rosemary, thyme and orange zest might not do so much for those rib eyes but soak some squash in there and wow!
Soaks are good for small pieces and pounded meats:

The rule with wet soak marinades is to use them with cuts that have a greater amount of surface area and not a lot of interior area. Thick steaks are wasted in a wet marinade. But get skinny slices of meat like milanesas (cutlets), carne asada or kabob cubes and you’ll be spreading the love around the outside of the meat whilst also providing flavor in every bite. Want to work up a soy, ginger, and sesame oil marinade for that chicken breast? Pound it and you’ll increase the surface area and achieve a more flavorful result. Scoring with that fork? Keep it up. Consensus is that it does help the marinate penetrate more deeply.

Hanger, flank and skirt steak will take on a marinade pretty well too but you want to help it along a bit with a one-two, before AND after marinade. Yup, soak that steak then pat it off and grill it. When it’s hot off the grill, slice against the grain and finish off with your cooked marinade (see here). Caution: don’t use the same marinade you soaked the meat in, that can POISON you!

Think that wine or beer is tenderizing your meat? Thomas Keller says alcohol does nothing favorable to meat. He recommends evaporating the alcohol out of the beer or wine you’re using by first cooking it in a saucepan and adding in your garlic, herbs and spices, then cooling prior to adding to raw meat or poultry.

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