February 19, 2020
There’s truly nothing better than biting into a succulent, tender, and flavorful piece of beef. But, how do smart chefs and mindful home cooks create such intense flavor in each bite? Often, that cut of beef started with a marinade.
In this article, we’ll dig into the food science behind marinades and how they can amp up protein’s flavor and transform its texture. We’ll also share our favorite simple marinade recipes.
What is a marinade?
The dictionary definition of a marinade is a sauce usually comprised of oil, vinegar, spices, and herbs, in which protein is soaked before cooking in order to flavor or soften it. But, there’s a lot more to it than that!
How do marinades work?
Cuts of meat are made up of protein. Collagen proteins, in particular, are responsible for any degree of toughness in a piece of meat. Cooking processes turn these proteins into gelatin to different degrees, and the degree of gelatin transformation is directly proportional to the tenderness of the cooked cut. Sometimes, though, you need to create more gelatin than what’s created by the cooking process itself—that’s where marinades come in.
Most marinades include either an acidic or enzymatic ingredient that works to break down these tissues into tender morsels, and this breakdown also allows for the marinade’s moisture and flavors to enter the meat and stay there.
- Acidic marinades: These marinades often include lemon juice or vinegar and denature proteins through disruption of hydrogen bonds in the collagen fibrils.
- Enzymatic marinades: Enzymes increase the rate at which cellular reactions occur, and certain kinds of enzymes “attack” the protein networks of meat. Some enzymatic ingredients include ginger and pineapple juice.
All this scientific talk really means: Tougher meat + acid or enzymes = broken down protein fibers = more tender meat.
Interestingly, other sources report that dairy products are actually the best tenderizers. Fine Cooking suggests that buttermilk and yogurt, which are slightly acidic, will help cooks achieve truly tender cuts thanks to calcium content.
Which cuts of beef are best for marinades?
Because marinades require direct surface contact to penetrate the meat, flat, thin cuts are best suited for marinating. Here are some grass fed beef cuts to try:
Wondering what other cuts you can marinate? Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner. has a great resource on this topic.
How long should you marinate beef?
Beef is heartier than other ingredients like vegetables and can stand up to longer marinating processes, between one and 12 hours. However, don’t over-marinate your meat. Too much marinating time can make your meat tough or mushy. It’s best to follow your specific recipe instructions.
Our Favorite Beef Marinade Recipes
Okay, enough technical talk. Let’s focus on marinades you can make now …
1. Pomegranate & Safflower Marinade
Marinate steak in chopped rosemary and thyme, black pepper, pomegranate juice, and safflower oil. The result is a sweet-and-savory showstopper. Get the full recipe.
2. Balsamic & Mustard Marinade
Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner. combines two big-impact ingredients for a tangy, tenderizing marinade you’ll want to use weekly. Get the recipe.
3. Tangy Lime Marinade
This is another classic marinade from Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner. They use lime juice, vegetable oil, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, and minced garlic to give beef cuts a Mexican-inspired twist. Get the recipe.
Let us know how your marinating adventures go—follow us on Instagram!