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All About Marinades

Posted by Jake Eller on

All About Marinades


Ever has a grilled steak that was just PACKED with flavor? I mean, don’t get me wrong... An untouched, undiluted steak, seasoned with nothing more than salt and pepper is a glorious thing to behold…

But sometimes, you want a little something more. 

Now, there are several ways to impart more flavor into your meat before grilling. Dry and wet rubs for instance, are one way to do this. Brining is another. And then, there are marinades.

What Is a Marinade/Marination

Marination is the process of immersing foods in a liquid made of 3 main parts. An oil, such as sesame, olive, or vegetable; an acid, such as vinegar, citrus juice, or mustard, and herbs & spices.

This liquid acts both as a tenderizer and flavor enhancer for grilled meats.

How Do Marinades Work for Grilling Meat?

Well, to answer this question, we’d have to look at the components of raw meat. Let’s get science-y for a minute. Hope in with me as we zoom (Magic School Bus style) into a tough piece of meat - A Flank steak for example.

Tougher cuts of meat, such as a flank steak, have tons of collagen and elastin fibers within their connective tissue. The key to making this tough cut of steak more tender is to break down this collagen and elastin fibers… This can be done a few ways; by either cooking the meat low and slow over indirect heat, in a liquid, for a long period of time (such as braising or stewing), or, alternatively, through marination, or pre-soaking the meat in a marinade and allowing it to do the work before the meat ever touches the hot, hot grill.

Okay, back to the life-size world.

There are two types of marinades that we can work with to get these results; Acidic Marination, and Enzymatic marination.

What’s the difference? Glad you asked!


What is Acidic Marination?

Acidic marination, as the name implies, uses an acid to help break down those connective tissues. Acids, such as lemon juice, or vinegar, work by denaturing, or breaking down,  the proteins within the meat. One key to working with an acidic marination (or any marination, for that matter - and for different reasons!) is to not over-marinate your meat.

You see, an acidic marination, when left for prolonged times, can actually toughen the meat! This occurs because the proteins can become completely denatured, and as the water content within the meat decreases, they tighten, causing the meat to get much tougher.


What is Enzymatic Marination?

Enzymatic Marination, again, as the name implies, employs enzymes to break down the tough connective tissues of the meat. Enzymes increase the rate at which cellular reactions occur, and (certain enzymes) can help attack the proteins in tough cuts of meat.

These enzymes can be found in fruits, like pineapples and papayas, or even in ginger.

One key when working with an enzymatic marinade is, again, to not let the meat soak in the marinade for too long as enzymatic marination can have the opposite effect of meat left too long in an acidic marinade - meaning the enzymes can actually completely digest the proteins in the meat, causing it to become mushy. I don’t know many people that like mushy meat.

Getting Started:

To marinate, simply decide whether you’d like to work with an acid, or an enzyme. Next, choose an oil to compliment the flavor of your chosen marinade style, then add spices and herbs to deepen the flavor.

Below is an example of a classic Teriyaki style, marinade (can you guess whether this is an acidic or enzymatic marinade?):

In a bowl, mix together the following ingredients:

  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • ⅓ cup soy sauce
  • ⅓ cup brown sugar
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
  • ½ teaspoon pepper

Once your mixture is created, you’ll want to find a way for it to come in complete contact with your meat. One way to do this is to put your meat in a Ziploc® bag, then pour the marinade over it, and sealing the bag, ensuring all the air has been removed.

As for how long the meat should marinate? Well, that depends on the cut you’re using.

For thin cuts of meat, and hour usually does the trick, however, larger cuts may not benefit from the Ziploc® bag approach.

Instead, it’s recommended that, for larger cuts of meat, you inject the marinade into them so you don’t run the risk of making them too tough or too soft.

Now you've got a little bit of knowledge on how marinades help tenderize and add flavor to you meat before grilling, and it's time for you to get out there and try. So, what are you waiting for?

Until next time! And as always, Happy Grilling!