Marinating: A Guide to How it Works and What it Does

There’s no easier way to make everyday food sparkle a little brighter and taste a little bolder than by using a marinade. Once you’re familiar with the fundamentals of marinating, you can ditch the store-bought stuff and make your own with ingredients that are already in your pantry.

Pouring marinade over chicken inside a zip loc bag

Marinades are more than just a pretty face. In fact, this simple blend of ingredients can work together to add flavor and moisture to almost anything. Certain ingredients like salt penetrate beyond the surface of the meat and adding a whole new level of deliciousness to what you’re cooking.

Here, I’ll talk a bit about what each part of a successful marinade does to your food, as well as some tips for making marinades at home. It’s easier than you might think! Marinades used judiciously can work to tenderize meat, add moisture, and enhance the flavor of food, making tough cuts of meat much more palatable.

What is a marinade?

Whisk mixing homemade marinade

Marinating is a process of soaking meats in a seasoned liquid, called a marinade, before cooking. Marinades often use an acid (like vinegar or citrus juice) or an enzyme (like mango, papaya, or kiwi fruit) to enhance flavors and change surface texture. The acid or enzyme in a marinade causes the meat’s tissue to weaken on the surface but must be used minimally and not for extended periods of time. Otherwise, the meat will become mushy, tough, and dry. A successful marinade has the right balance of acid, oil, and seasonings.

Flavoring the surface

Chicken breasts with surface coating of marinade

Soaking a piece of meat in a marinade will only penetrate so far into the surface of the meat, millimeters at best. It’s a technique that works well with thinner, flat cuts or pieces of meat that have been cut into cubes or slices. When you make a marinade out of ginger, honey, and soy sauce, for example, the ginger and honey remain on the outside of the meat, but the salt in the soy sauce can penetrate a bit deeper into the interior.

Flavor absorbing inside

Salt first draws out the liquid from the meat by osmosis; then the brine is reabsorbed into the meat while breaking down muscle structures. The brine draws water-soluble flavors further down below the surface into the cut, like onions and garlic. Oils are also used to transfer fat-soluble flavors from the seasonings like herbs, chilis, and some spices onto the surface of the meat.

Marinating a flank steak in a baking dish

Benefits of marinating meat

Taste/Flavor: Here’s where you can get super creative! There are endless ways to make your very own custom marinade that’s suitable for every type of cuisine out there. With just a few basic pantry items, you can add a gigantic boost of flavor to otherwise ordinary tasting meats and vegetables. The choice is yours: add spice, smoke, or sweetness.

Texture: When you marinate, flank steak can melt in your mouth, and a grilled chicken breast is the juiciest thing in the world. Marinades soften leaner meats that tend to be dry and make tougher cuts tastier.

Moisture/Tenderness: Similar to brining, marinating is an effective way to introduce extra moisture into meat that can get too dry when cooked, as well as making what you marinate more tender. You may know that brining relies on salt to do its work, but a marinade is so much more than that, using acid, fat, seasonings, herbs, spices, sugar, and salt to not only tenderize but enhance the flavor of the food you cook.

Health benefits of marinades

Making your own marinades lets you control what you put in them, which is far better than buying a jar of something off the shelf that might contain dubious ingredients or unwanted calories.

Also, using marinades can help reduce the carcinogenic compounds from high heat grilling and broiling, called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), providing a buffer for the food while it cooks.

Pre-portioned ingredients for a marinade

Basic ingredients in a marinade

  • Fat: You need some fat in a marinade because it helps transfer fat-soluble flavors onto the meat and also helps retain moisture. Fats help round out flavor profiles and keep sharp or acidic flavors from dominating. This could be olive oil, sesame oil, yogurt, buttermilk, tahini or mayonnaise.
  • Salt: Salt will help the water-soluble flavors in the marinade penetrate the tissues and remain behind after cooking. Salt also restructures the protein in the meat to create more gaps for moisture to fill in. It also loosens the muscle fibers to make tough cuts easier to chew. Examples of salty stuff include miso, pickle juice, sea salt, soy sauce, or fish sauce.
  • Acid: Weakens the surface proteins in the meat and naturally boosts flavors. This is a large family of ingredients such as citrus juice, pickle juice, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, hot sauce, and buttermilk.
  • Enzymes: Helps to break down the connective tissue in the meat, mostly on the surface. Papaya or papain (a protein-digesting enzyme that used as a common meat tenderizer) can be used.
  • Seasonings: One word- flavor. That dry rub mix can be turned into a marinade. Or add chili powder, adobo seasoning, peppercorns, ginger, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, curry paste, tamarind paste, and mustards of all kinds.
  • Herbs: Adding herbs to your food, no matter what it is, can only be a good thing. Used fresh or dry, herbs of every variety under the sun have the power to up a marinade’s ante. Thyme, chives, basil, marjoram, tarragon, dill, lovage, oregano, parsley, or mint are all good candidates.
  • Sugar: Adding some type of sweetener adds to the complexity of the food you’re making. Ketchup, honey, agave, barbecue sauce, molasses, even soft drinks can be used to sweeten up a marinade.

Advantages and disadvantages

Even though making a marinade is fun, easy and completely adaptable, there are some things to keep in mind.

  • Time: Marinating some food too long can result in tough, dry, or poor texture. That means that you can’t let those shrimp sit all weekend in their marinade, you have to cook them.
  • Adding Acid: Lime juice can do wonders for a pork tenderloin, but too much acid in a marinade can dry out and toughen chicken or meat, so finding the right oil/sugar/acid/salt balance is critical. It can also “cook” delicate meats like seafood and shellfish.
  • Sugar: Marinades containing sweeteners like sugar, agave, honey, or molasses will burn quicker, so keep an eye on the food and move whatever you’re grilling to indirect heat if it starts to burn.

Piece of salmon marinating in a zip loc bag in the refrigerator

How to safely marinate meat

Because raw seafood, poultry, pork, and meat may contain harmful bacteria which could contaminate the marinade, it’s important to take a few safety precautions:

  1. Marinate in the Refrigerator: Keeping raw food cold while marinating inhibits bacterial growth. Never allow the meat to marinate at room temperature.
  2. Do Not Reuse a Marinade: By all means, make extra marinade if you’d like to serve a sauce alongside your grilled food, but put it in a separate container and don’t use it to marinate the meat, seafood, or poultry. Never serve marinade that has come into contact with uncooked meat, seafood, or chicken.
  3. Use Non-reactive Materials: Acid in marinades can react with some metals and pottery glazes, therefore use glass or food-safe plastic to marinate foods. Never marinate in aluminum cookware or aluminum foil.

How long to marinate foods

Chicken breasts on a sheet pan showing the colors difference of marinade times

Depending on the type of marinade recipe you’re using, meats could be marinated in the refrigerator for anything from 30 minutes to overnight. Vegetables should only be marinated for up to 10 minutes or so. With both acid and enzyme marination, be careful not to over-marinate meat, as prolonged exposure to acid can cause it to become tough, or especially in the case of seafood, break down entirely.

Salmon fillet marinating in sauce

Types of food to marinate

Seafood: Fish and shellfish should marinate for only 30 minutes to an hour; any longer and the flesh might start to “cook” in the acid and yield mushy results.

Chicken: A chicken marinade is great for the whole chicken or individual parts. If you’re planning to cook a whole chicken, consider using a technique called spatchcocking to flatten the carcass. Furthermore, cutting a chicken into smaller pieces or removing the skin will help absorb the marinade. Two hours of marinating is plenty of time for the meat to soak up the flavor, but poultry can marinate for up to two days in the refrigerator. Very acidic marinades can toughen the meat over time, so read the recipe and follow the recommendations.

Beef and Pork: A steak marinade is ideal for tougher cuts like flank, skirt, sirloin, round, and hanger. It also does wonders for pork tenderloin and pork loin, if the loin is cubed into smaller pieces. These cuts can marinate up to 24 hours. Flat cuts of meat benefit the most from tenderizing marinades. Stay away from better-quality steaks, like porterhouse or ribeye, because marinating can ruin them.

Tofu: Unlike meat, tofu can absorb flavor and can be marinated for as long as 24 hours.

Vegetables: Avoid marinating soft vegetables longer than about 10 minutes; they will throw off water and become soggy before they hit the grill. Firm vegetables like potatoes, carrots, squash, etc. can marinate for up to 30 minutes.

Preparing foods to marinate

  • Size- Whole vs. Pieces: Marinating works best with thinner, flat cuts of meat, or more substantial cuts if they’re cut into uniform sized cubes or thin slices. Of course, this depends on what you’re cooking, but larger roasts don’t generally fare as well.
  • Skewers: Keeping smaller cut-up pieces of meat and shrimp in place and turning them while cooking on a grill can be a little tricky. I recommend using skewers to keep the parts out of the coals, even if you’re not making kabobs. The pieces can be removed from the skewer after they’ve cooked for serving.

Grilled flank steak sliced on a cutting board

Best ways to cook marinated foods

  • Grill: Go ahead and grill to your heart’s content! The heat of the grill can caramelize the sugar in some marinades, so watch the food carefully. Grilling is a perfect way to cook up some kabobs or flank steak to slice up thin and enjoy in tacos.
  • Broil: If you’re curious about the top feature inside your oven, by all means, broil! Try some garlic, parsley, olive oil, and lemon zest marinated shrimp which cook up fast under the direct heat of the broiler.
  • Bake: Chicken breasts can get very dry if baked all by themselves, so this method works well with a marinade. Try a yogurt, turmeric, garlic, and garam masala mixture slathered over the pieces.
  • Roast: Roasted pork roast might taste fabulous in a marinade of apple cider vinegar, coriander, honey, and garlic.

Tools for marinating

  • Resealable Bags: A zip-top bag makes marinating super easy and mess-free, and ensures that the meat gets direct contact with the marinade. You can mix everything without getting your hands dirty, too.
  • Skewers: Using a skewer is a wonderful way to grill marinated meat efficiently. Bamboo skewers should be soaked in water for at least twenty minutes, so the wood doesn’t burn on the grill. Stainless steel skewers can be used right away.
  • Whisk: A stainless steel whisk works wonders when mixing up all those herbs, mustards, and oils.
  • Bowl: Bowls of various sizes are always handy, and especially so for marinating without using a bag. Use glass. Make sure the bowl you’re using is glass, stainless steel, or food-safe plastic. Avoid pottery bowls that may have lead glazes or react with the acid in the liquid.
  • Baking Dish: A glass baking dish or casserole is a nice thing to have on hand for marinating a flank steak or larger cut of meat because it provides the space and surface area without crowding.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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44 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Goetz Von Berlichingen says

    I would like to add one more ingredient to your marinade list – alcohol. There are flavors that are only alcohol soluble.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      I definitely think some alcohol could be a nice addition. Just caution to not add too much as it could cause the muscle fibers to squeeze out moisture if the concentration is too high of the alcohol.

  2. Adam Kesingland says

    Hi Jess

    I am a big fan of Sate or Satay. I find over marinading chicken and beef can make it furry on the outside. Especially beef I only like to marinade that day (4 to 8 hours). I am sure you must have heard of Heston Blumenthal here in the UK? Not classically trained but has three Michelin Stars, I have been lucky to eat at one of his restaurants twice. He did studies with marinating chicken breasts for Tandoori chicken and actually put them in an MRI machine after marinating to see how far the marinade penetrated, you are right it is not far, millimeters in fact. I love your approach.

    Love and Peace Adam x

  3. Aberch says

    Thank you so much for the information. do you thinks using herbs and spices can be a replacement for salt in the marinate or is it a must to add salt to the marinate?

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