Is your marinade doing your meat more harm than good?

It’s grilling season, and while we love the smoky, charred notes this cooking method imparts, a killing marinade can help boost the flavor even more.

“When done well, the marinade adds a lot of flavor to meats and vegetables” Ray “Dr. BBQ,” Royal American BBQ Hall of Fame stall chef told HuffPost Lampe. He says a marinade is “a great tool, but when done poorly it doesn’t change much and is a waste of time, money and ingredients.”

It turns out that the ratio of ingredients, time and cooking technique are the main variables that can lead to a tender and tasty piece of meat or a mushy mess. To help us achieve the magic of the marinade, we consulted with expert chefs.

If you salt your marinade too much, it will turn into a brine.

Basically, marinades are made from a combination of salt, acid, and fat (and they’re usually flavored with a variety of herbs, spices, and sometimes sweeteners). In the chapter on marinades in his book, “Flavorize: Great Marinades, Injections, Brines, Rubs and Glazes,” Lampe explains that marinades are all about adding flavor. “A marinade is a highly seasoned liquid used to flavor and tenderize meats, seafood and vegetables before cooking,” he writes. “A marinade can be as simple as a bottled Italian vinaigrette or it can be complex using a long list of exotic ingredients.”

If you add too much salt to your marinade and let your meat sit there too long, you risk brining your meat instead of marinating it. And there are pros and cons to each.

The high salt content of a brine helps retain moisture in lean cuts of meat that typically dry out when overcooked, as well as thick cuts of meat (like roast pork or beef) that require a longer cooking time. Marinades will add more flavor than a brine, but they won’t stop you from drying out your meat if you overcook it.

Each type of meat requires a different salt / acid / fat ratio

Remember that key combination of salt, acid, and fat we talked about earlier? Balancing these building blocks is the key to a flavorful marinade that won’t overpower your protein. Different types of protein will force you to change your ratios, but for those who like to keep it simple, Christopher Arturo, chief instructor at Culinary Education Institute, shared the following ratio for a simple marinade:

A fatter cut of beef will benefit from more acid and salt than a leaner cut. And vice versa: a leaner cut will require less acid and salt.

Arturo explained that the fat content of the meat you marinate can dictate the rest of the marinade. “For example, a skirt steak doesn’t have a lot of fat, whereas a rib eye might have some,” he said. “Because fat dampens flavors like salt and acid, you may want to add more salt and acid to the marinade for the rib-eye to brighten the flavors and maintain its raw content.” higher fat. The fat content, as well as the acid and the salt, should be in an appropriate ratio so that one does not outweigh the other.


Fattier cuts of meat can benefit from more acid and salt in the marinade, to reduce the moistness of the fat.

If you marinate pork, Arturo noted that people usually don’t add enough acid to their marinade. “Chops have a decent amount of fat, but loins and fillets need something to help them break down to make them more pliable,” he said.

For seafood, you’ll want to take it easy with whatever marinade you use. Arturo recommends not using salt in a seafood marinade. Instead, wait to season with salt until the last minute. “Seafood and fish flesh are much more tender than other meats,” he said. “They also take on the properties of a marinade much faster, so be sure to use one that’s well balanced.” For the acid, Arturo usually adds the zest of a lemon or lime instead of the juice, because the use of the latter “cook” the fish by denaturing its proteins. If you leave raw fish in an acid like citrus juice for too long, you’ll end up with a ceviche.

Become crazy! It doesn’t always have to be oil and vinegar

When it comes to what ingredients to use in your marinade, there are many options to choose from within each category. Star Maye, Executive Chef of Anzie Blue, told HuffPost that when marinating meat, she prefers to use fats like extra virgin olive oil, canola oil and unsalted butter. “Eggs and milk also have a great texture, which I like to use for seafood,” she said. When marinating chicken, Maye likes to use buttermilk. “Don’t forget the acids in your marinade – lemon juice, orange juice, and tomato juice all work well for all types of meat,” she said.

When preparing your marinade, be sure to taste it to see if this flavor balance is present before adding it to your meat. “If you don’t like its taste in a marinade, you probably won’t like it on your meat” Andrew Lim, Executive Chef of Perilla in Chicago, said the HuffPost. “Make sure you crush your garlic, ginger or herbs and chop up your veg to bring out those flavors in the marinade. ”

Timing is the key

The thickness and type of protein you cook will impact the length of the marinade. Recommendations for ideal marinating times varied between the chefs we interviewed for this story, and we encourage you to experiment at home and find out what works best for you.

Leaving seafood too long in an acidic marinade will essentially cook it, turning it into a ceviche.

Elizabeth Barbe via Getty Images

Leaving seafood too long in an acidic marinade will essentially cook it, turning it into a ceviche.

Arturo recommends marinating meats like beef and pork for four hours. “For seafood, because there is less protein and the flesh is more delicate, I would recommend about an hour,” he said. “Thinner fillets, shrimp, and scallops all fit into that range and I would recommend adding more herbs and oil than salt and acid.”

For Maye, the ideal marinating time for meat is one to two hours. “The purpose of marinating meat is to break down muscles and tendons, but marinating for more than two hours actually begins to break down compounds in healthy parts of the meat,” she said.

Adapt your marinade to your cooking technique

The biggest mistake Arturo sees most often is that home cooks don’t think about the cooking process when it comes to their marinade. “If there is a ton of sugar or honey in your marinade, the searing will be very difficult, almost impossible, to execute properly,” he said. “The sugars will burn off before a Maillard reaction has a chance to occur.” For meats coated with a sweet marinade, he recommends searing them quickly on a hot grill, then finishing cooking in the oven. If you plan to keep it on the grill, scrape off the marinade before cooking it longer.

When grilling marinated meat, Arturo recommends cleaning up the marinade as best you can before putting it on the heat. “Too much oil will almost always cause the grill to push up, causing a fire hazard and your meat will taste like propane,” he said.

Overall, marinades are great for experimenting, so start playing around with your ratios and ingredients, and you’ll find your ultimate marinade before summer is over.

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