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

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

Want to make your food taste better? Try my chicken marinade recipe, carne asada marinade, and easy steak marinade.

Pouring marinade over chicken inside a zip loc bag.

Marinades are more than just a pretty face. A simple blend of ingredients can add flavor and moisture to almost anything. Certain elements, like salt, penetrate beyond the surface of the meat and add 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 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 it must be used minimally and not for extended periods. 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 cut into cubes or slices.

For example, when you make a marinade out of ginger, honey, and soy sauce, the ginger and honey remain on the outside of the meat, but the salt in the soy sauce can penetrate 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 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 custom marinade suitable for every type of cuisine out there. With just a few essential pantry items, you can add a gigantic flavor boost 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 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. You may know that brining relies on salt to work, but a marinade is so much more than that, using acid, fat, seasonings, herbs, spices, sugar, and salt to tenderize and enhance the flavor of the food you cook.

Health benefits of marinades

Making 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 questionable ingredients or unwanted calories.

Also, 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 marinade ingredients

  • 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 break down the meat’s connective tissue, mainly on the surface. Papaya or papain (a protein-digesting enzyme 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, minced 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, and mint are good candidates.
  • Sugar: A sweetener adds to the complexity of your food. Ketchup, honey, agave, barbecue sauce, molasses, and even soft drinks can sweeten 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 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 essential 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: 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 marinade recipe, 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 break down entirely, especially in the case of seafood.

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 excellent for the whole chicken or individual parts. If you’re planning to cook an entire 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.

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

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

Vegetables: Avoid marinating soft vegetables longer than 10 minutes; they will throw off the water and become soggy before hitting 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 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 grill’s heat can caramelize the sugar in some marinades, so watch the food carefully. Grilling is a perfect way to cook 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, ensuring that the meat directly interacts with the marinade. You can mix everything without getting your hands dirty, too.
  • Skewers: Using a skewer is a beautiful 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, especially so for marinating without using a bag. Make sure your bowl 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 a 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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64 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Donna Marie Gomez says

    Should I allow a simmering marinade to cool before adding it to the chicken or beef to marinade in fridge overnight?

  2. Matthew says

    You might want to sound a word of warning about yogurt (in the Fat category,) as it has active enzymes that will break the meat down fast. I read somewhere to only marinate in yogurt for an hour or less.

  3. Karen says

    Exceptional article! BRAVO!!! It was concise, informative and written flawlessly. If your cooking is even half as good as this article, you might be the best chef on this planet. Thank you soooo much!!!

  4. Denise says

    Hi. Could you please tell me if I am doing 18 kg pulled pork in a marinade, and the recipe is for 1 kg pork, do I need to X’s the marinade by 18 or would that be too much.
    Thankyou
    Denise

    • Jessica Gavin says

      I think you’ll need to gauge the amount of required marinade once you add the pork to the container. The meat should be submerged unless you plan on rotating so that all sides get evenly covered over time.

  5. Andy says

    Hi Jessica,

    If I were to marinate chicken breast one day with olive oil in the marinade, and then cook it on a pan the next day, do I still need butter or olive oil spread on the pan to still cook the chicken breast properly? Or will the olive oil in the marinated chicken be enough to cook the chicken without burning it?

    • Jessica Gavin says

      I recommend using some fat in the pan to help brown the chicken and prevent sticking. Make sure to not move the chicken to create a golden crust, and let the proteins hard to make it easy to remove from the pan.

  6. Marilyn says

    How much does marinating pork or beef cut down the cooking time. For example, I have an old recipe for country style ribs that I want to marinate for 4 to 8 hours. Would I cut down both the roasting temperature and time? If so, by what percentage? Thanks.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Marilyn- Great question! Marinating won’t impact cook time or the temperature applied. Unless it’s something acidic like making ceviche and using the acids to “cook” the protein, I would still follow the directions from the specific recipe and carefully monitor doneness.

  7. Russ says

    I’m marinating a Brisket. I accidentally put it in too early. Recipe calls for overnight and I’m doing it a day early. Possibly 24 hours of marinating. Would that be too long?

    • Jessica Gavin says

      The additional marinating time of the brisket will add more flavor but may make the meat on the surface a little chewy because of the salt drawing to the moisture. There is a lot of connective tissue in the brisket, so I don’t worry about the meat getting mushy. Let me know how it turned out!

  8. Sue Bowling says

    If a recipe uses a 5lb pork roast in marinade for 6 – 8 hrs, if using a roast half that size, do I adjust the marinade time? I think it use the lower end of the marinade time, my hubby says cut the time in half.

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