Is Your Marinade Doing Your Meat More Harm Than Good?

It’s grilling season, and while we love the smoky, charred notes that this cooking method imparts, a killer marinade can help to amp up the flavor even more.

“When done properly, marinating adds lots of great flavor to meats and vegetables,” Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe, American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame pitmaster, told HuffPost. He says a marinade is “a great tool, but when done improperly, 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, flavorful piece of meat or a mushy mess. To help us achieve marinade magic, we consulted some expert chefs.

If you over-salt your marinade, it’ll become a brine

At their core, marinades are made of a combination of salt, acid and fat (and they’re usually flavored with a variety of herbs, spices and sometimes sweeteners, too). In the marinades chapter of his book, “Flavorize: Great Marinades, Injections, Brines, Rubs and Glazes,” Lampe explains that marinades are all about adding flavor. “A marinade is a liquid that is highly seasoned and used to flavor and tenderize meats, seafood and vegetables before cooking,” he writes. “A marinade can be as simple as bottled Italian salad dressing 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 in it for too long, however, you may end up brining your meat instead of marinating it. And there are upsides and downsides to each.

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

Every type of meat requires a different ratio of salt and acid to fat

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

A fattier 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’re marinating can dictate the rest of the marinade. “For example, a skirt steak doesn’t have much fat, whereas a rib-eye might,” he said. “Because fat mutes flavors like salt and acid, you might want to add more salt and acid to the marinade for the rib-eye to brighten the flavors and hold up to its higher fat content. Fat content, along with acid and salt, need to be in an appropriate ratio so that one doesn’t outshine the other.”

Fattier cuts of meat can benefit from more acid and salt in the marinade, to cut through the mellowness of the fat.

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

For seafood, you’ll want to go easy on any 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 a lot faster, so make sure you use one that is well balanced.” For the acid, Arturo typically adds the zest of a lemon or lime instead of the juice as using the latter will “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 ceviche.

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

As for the 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 using 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 making your marinade, be sure to taste it to see if that balance of flavor is there before adding it to your meat. “If you don’t like how it tastes as a marinade, you probably won’t enjoy it on your meat,” Andrew Lim, executive chef of Perilla in Chicago, told HuffPost. “Make sure you are crushing your garlic, ginger or herbs, and cutting your vegetables down so you are actually bringing out those flavors into the marinade.”

Timing is key

The thickness and type of protein you’re cooking will impact how long you need to marinate it. Recommendations for ideal marinating times varied between the chefs we interviewed for this story, and we encourage you to experiment at home and learn what works best for you.

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

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

Arturo recommends marinating meats like beef and pork for four hours. “For seafood, because there are less proteins and the flesh is more delicate, I’d recommend about one hour,” he said. “Thinner filets, shrimp and scallops all fit within that range and I’d recommend adding more herbs and oil than salt and acid.”

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

Match your marinade to your cooking technique

The biggest mistake that Arturo sees most often is home cooks not thinking about the cooking process as it relates to their marinade. “If there’s a ton of sugar or honey in your marinade, searing will be very difficult, almost impossible, to execute correctly,” he said. “The sugars will burn before any Maillard reaction has a chance to take place.” For meat coated in a sweet marinade, he recommends a quick sear on a hot grill, then finishing the cooking process in the oven. If you’re planning on keeping it on the grill, scrape off the marinade before cooking it longer.

When grilling marinated meat, Arturo recommends cleaning off the marinade as best you can before throwing it on the heat. “The excess oil will almost always cause a flare-up from the grill, leading to a fire hazard and your meat tasting like propane,” he said.

All in all, marinades are perfect for experimentation, so start playing with your ratios and ingredients, and you’ll find your ultimate marinade before summer’s over.