To marinate or not to marinate?

Using less tender cuts of meat for grilling by marinating stretches the food dollar.

How long to marinate a piece of meat depends upon the cut, kind and size.

How long to marinate a piece of meat depends upon the cut, kind and size.

Grilling does not have to be just hot dogs and hamburgers. Less tender cuts of meat can be made tender and flavorful when a marinade is used. Marinades can be used for the purpose of providing flavor to meat.

What is a marinade? A marinade is an herb rich acidic sauce that is used to tenderize and, or flavor foods, particularly protein foods. To marinate a food means to soak the food in an acidic sauce to tenderize and, or flavor the food.

Historically, marinades were briny, salty, sauces used to flavor, preserve or tenderize foods. What are the ingredients in a marinade? Traditionally, marinades have herbs, spices, an acid and oil. As the food stands in the marinade, the oil and the acid infuse the flavors of the herbs into the food. The acid acts as a tenderizer, breaking down the cells and allowing the flavored oil to infuse itself.

The purpose of the marinade is to infuse the flavor as deep as possible in to the food. However, some foods do not allow the marinade to infiltrate far. What this means is that if a particular food is marinated too long it becomes tough, which is exactly the opposite of what is intended.

How long to marinate a piece of meat depends upon the cut, kind and size. Denser meat such as beef, pork or venison can be marinated 24 hours or longer. A light meat such as chicken can be marinated anywhere from two to 24 hours, whereas, seafood should only be marinated 15 to 60 minutes.

Thin cuts of meat take less marinating time. The thick cuts of meat will only have the flavor of the marinade in the outer layers, while the interior will not have the flavor at all.

When planning on how much marinade to make, the general formula is a 1/2 cup per pound of meat.

Keep in mind the three elements of a good marinade: Acid, flavoring and oil. The acid content is used to tenderize the meat. As the acid acts on the protein content of the meat, little pockets are created where the flavors can enter, creating a tender flavorful cut. A less tender cut of meat will benefit from the use of a marinade, when grilling. But for an already tender, more expensive cut of meat, the marinade should only be used to provide flavor. Too much acid will make the meat bitter. There needs to be a delicate balance between acid, flavor and oil. Common foods used as an acid are citric, tomato juices and vinegars.

Oil moistens and flavors the meat. Any kind of cooking oil may be used in a marinade. Flavors come in a wide variety of fresh and dried herbs and spices. Salt can be used to both flavor and tenderize meat. Molasses and sugar will give the meat a sweet flavor and increase the brown color of the meat. Garlic, ginger and soy sauce are commonly found in Asian marinades.

Michigan State University Extension recommends the following food safety tips for using a marinade:

  1. Always marinate in the refrigerator. It is important to keep the meat out of the temperature danger zone. (40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit) so foodborne illness bacteria cannot grow.
  2. Never marinate in a metal container. The acid content of the marinade will react with the metal and cause a chemical poisoning. Use a plastic or glass container with plastic wrap. This method will require turning of the meat. A plastic re-sealable bag can be used, which will make the coating of the meat much easier.
  3. Do not cross-contaminate! Never carry cooked meat on an unwashed plate that was used to transfer raw meat to the grill. The bacteria in the raw meat juices will be transferred to the cooked meat creating a foodborne illness situation. If you are planning to use some of the marinade to baste the meat during grilling, it is best to set aside the basting sauce before adding the meat to the marinade.
  4. Use a food thermometer to check that the meat has reached the required internal temperature.

The grilling season is upon us. Marinades can provide the opportunity to use a less tender cut of meat when grilling. Give some thought to food safety when deciding whether to marinate or not marinate.

For more information visit:

Marinating Meat Safely

Marinating Meat Guidelines – Marinating 101

Barbecue and Food Safety

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