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Thursday, 31 July 2014 12:23

Marinades, Brines and Spice Blends

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We all have our favorite spice mixes, marinades and such for our grilling and BBQ foods. But, what's the differences, myths and well, just how do they actually work?

This can be quite a daunting task to tackle as these topics delve deeply into areas that combine chemistry, biology and nutrition disciplines at its very core. I prefer to just cook great tasting food and not tread too deeply into these deep waters. But, what I can bring to the party is basics of how we flavor foods and essentially, what goes on in the process of marinating and such.

Marinating 101

Most marinades are thin water-based liquids that foods swim in before cooking. But marinades themselves are bathed in myth and mystery.Marinades usually have a number of ingredients such as salt, oil, flavorings, and acidic liquids (SOFA). The molecules of each are different sizes and some are attracted to the chemicals in meats and some are repelled by them. Some can flow easily into the microscopic voids between muscle fibers, some are too large.

Marinade myths

Let's debunk some myths about marinades, and then we can get into how to make them and how to make them work. Some facts:

Myth: Marinades penetrate deep into meat. Marinades are primarily a surface treatment, especially on thicker cuts. Only the salt penetrates deep. Period. End of story.

Meat is a protein sponge saturated with liquid. About 75% of meat is water. There's not much room for any more liquid in there. Think of a sponge. When you are wiping up a spill, as it gets fully loaded you just can't get any more liquid in there.

Marinades, unless they are heavy with salt, in which case they more properly are called brines, do not penetrate meats very far, rarely more than 1/8", even after many hours of soaking. Especially in the cold fridge where molecules are sluggish.

Salt penetrates because it is a smaller molecule than water but, most importantly, because it reacts chemically and electrically with the water in the meat. But molecules like sugar and garlic are comparatively huge. Water is three atoms, two hydrogens and an oxygen, H2O. Salt is made of just two atoms, sodium and chloride, NaCl. Sucrose is C12H22O11, that's 45 atoms. Garlic's active ingredient is allicin, C6H10OS2, and it has 18 atoms, and garlic powder is even larger and more complex than that. It takes salt almost 24 hours to penetrate meat 1" deep.

On top of this, most marinades have a lot of oil in them. And meat is mostly water. As we all know, oil and water don't mix. That oil is just not getting past the microscopic cracks and dents in the surface.

Sugar can move inward a bit after days of marinating, but most ingredients go no further than the surface. There are important exceptions: Fish, shellfish, eggplant, and mushrooms, for example, absorb marinades more rapidly and deeply. But for most meats and veggies, the benefit of marinades is that they flavor the surface. We are often bamboozled into thinking the marinade has soaked in because the knife, fork, and liquid on the plate are full of marinade flavor, because the flavors on the surface get on our tongue, and they get pushed down into the meat by our teeth.

Try this experiment: Marinate a 2" thick pork chop as long as you like in whatever you like. Since your marinade probably has some salt in it, take another 2" chop and just salt it. Cook them side by side, bring them in and rinse them off to remove as much surface flavor as possible. Then cut off the outer 1/4" of both. Be very very careful to not let the juices from the outsides touch the center. Now have a friend serve you tastes of both without telling you which is which. Hard to tell apart, aren't they? They both taste like plain ol' pork. You might taste salt, but no sugar, garlic, pepper, or whatever.

If you marinate thin slices of meat, say 1/2" thick skirt steak, the flavors may penetrate 1/8" on either side and so it will get close to the center, especially since skirt steak has loose fibers running parallel to the surface, but not thick pieces. Think of prime rib. The outside crust really tastes like the seasonings while the center tastes like plain old beef.

But in most cases it is good that marinades don't penetrate very far. If that red wine marinade you used on your flank steak penetrated all the way, would you and your guests prefer purple meat to bright red?
But let's not demean surface enhancement. A touch of sugar can help with browning and add flavor and color. Spices and herbs on the surface can make wonderful aromas and moist surfaces attract smoke. And oil can conduct heat to the surface and help with browning and crust formation.

Myth: Marinades tenderize. Tenderizing is a process of making the proteins softer, both the proteins in the muscle fibers and in the connective tissues that sheath the fibers and connect them to bones. This softening is called denaturing. Since marinades do not penetrate very far they cannot denature the protein bonds much beyond the surface, so there is little tenderizing beyond the surface. In fact, some ingredients, especially acids, such as vinegar and fruit juice, can make some surfaces firmer, and some surfaces mushy. In some cases acid can even reduce water holding capacity. This can be good if you are trying to form a dry crust.

Myth: Marinades improve everything. Nope. Water based marinades such as wine, beer, soft drinks, and juices keep the surface wet so when they go on the grill or in a pan, the water evaporates, steaming the meat, and steam can impede browning and crisping of the surface and prevent the formation of the crust or bark we love. Crisp brown meat has more flavor, and one of the main reasons we like to grill. On the other hand, the wet surface can help prevent dehydration and the drying effect of the grill, producing moister meat.

Myth: You can use just about anything in a marinade. Be careful. If marinades contain sugar, they can burn and ruin the food. Sugar is less of a problem for low slow roasting over indirect heat with convection airflow. And oils can drip off causing flare-ups and soot deposits on the food. You can use sugar and oil, but judiciously.
Myth: Longer is better. Actually, longer is worse. The problem is that acids in marinates mess up proteins, faux cooking them. That's how ceviche is "cooked". Fish is marinated in citrus until the proteins get all unwound and the color changes and they sorta cook. The longer meat sits in an acid, the mushier it becomes.

Some Better Ideas

Injecting is much more effective in driving flavor down towards the center of the meat. Another excellent option is a spice rub. A blend of spices and herbs, it delivers more flavor per square inch than any marinade. And then there is a sauce. Pack in lots of flavor with a sauce which goes on just before serving. A great way to bring the brightness of herbs and the other usual flavors in marinades to the table with little effort is a board sauce. Or you can use all of these methods!

Making a Brinerade

A brinerade is a new word from the clever folks at Cooks Illustrated magazine to describe a marinade that has enough salt to do double duty as a brine, and in my humble opinion all marinades should be brinerades.


The best marinades usually contain four working components: Salt, oil, flavoring, and acid, and if you remember the acronym SOFA, you can create your own easily.

S is for Salt. Salt is the most important ingredient because it is a flavor enhancer and it is good at penetrating meat and altering proteins to hold more of its water during the trauma of cooking. Soy sauce is a great source of salt. Shoot for about 6% salt by weight.

O is for Oil. Oils are used in marinades because many herbs and spices are not water soluble, and oils are needed to release their aromatics and flavors. The flavors in most green herbs are oil based and therefore oil soluble. Oils on the surface of the meat aid in browning and crisping. Don't use olive oil because it solidifies at refrigerator temp during the marinating process. Use corn, canola, or peanut oil. Alas, they don't have much flavor. Other oils might work but give them thought because some, such as walnut oil and sesame oil, are too flavorful.

F is for Flavoring. Typical flavorings include herbs and spices such as oregano, thyme, cumin, paprika, garlic, onion powder, and even vegetables such as onion and jalapeño. It's a good idea to add some umami. That's the savory meaty flavor from glutamates found in meat stocks, soy sauce, and mushrooms. It is also a good idea to add some sugar. It aids in browning the surface, but go easy. Too much will burn the surface. You want it to caramelize after the water evaporates without burning.

A is for Acid. Citrus marinades were probably among the first, historically. They have it all, acid, sugar, flavor, aromatics. Acid can denature protein on the surface and make the surface of the meat mushy so use them judiciously, no more than 1/8 of the blend, and only for their flavor. Typical acids are fruit juice (lemon juice, apple juice, white grape juice, pineapple juice, orange juice, and wine work well), vinegar (cider vinegar, distilled vinegar, sherry vinegar, balsamic vinegar, raspberry vinegar, or any old vinegar), buttermilk, yogurt, and even sugar free soft drinks.

Use a nonreactive container. The acids in a marinate can react with aluminum, copper, and cast iron, and give the food an off flavor. So do your soaking in plastic, stainless steel, porcelain, or, best of all, zipper bags. Pour the marinade and meat in the bag and squeeze out all the air possible and the meat will be in contact on most surfaces. Put it in the fridge and flip it over frequently.
What to marinate. Thin cuts are best for marinating.

Now here's a neat trick. Fresh pineapple, papaya, and ginger have enzymes that tenderize meat. Papain, the enzyme in papaya, is an enzyme in papaya and the main tenderizing ingredient in Adolph's Meat Tenderizer. These enzymes work fast. Within 30 to 60 minutes the meat is ready for the grill. Alas, pineapple and papaya add very little flavor to the meat in such a short time. Some people like the softer meat, others feel it is mushy. You decide. The enzymes are destroyed by the canning and bottling process, so be sure to use fresh pineapple, papaya, and ginger if you want the tenderizing.

Go nekkid first. Chicken and turkey skin are very fatty and they are a like a condom to marinades. If soaked, they only get soggy and won't crisp properly. So if the skin won't get crispy, what's the point? Get rid of it. Skinless chicken will drink up more flavor. And it's healthier. And yes, you can get skinless meat crisp.

Save money. Some recipes call for marinating in barbecue sauce. Don't do it. It's just a waste of expensive sauce because it is too thick to penetrate very far and most barbecue sauces are sweet. They can burn.

Warning. Remember, all uncooked meat has microbes and spores. If your marinade recipe calls for heating it, let it cool thoroughly before using it to discourage microbial growth. Used marinades are contaminated with raw meat juices so if you plan to use it as a sauce, it must be boiled for a few minutes. Better idea: Discard it.

A shortcut. If you don't want to make a marinade from scratch, just buy a bottle of your favorite oil and vinegar salad dressing. The thinner the better. Salad dressings usually have all the necessary ingredients, although they tend to be too acidic, so diluting it 3:1 with water is a good idea. Just make sure you don't get the Caesar. It has cheese and anchovies in it. We don't need no cheese or no stinkin' dead fish in our pork or steak. And watch out. Some salad dressings have a lot of gums (emulsifiers) and other additives that could burn or make the meat taste funny after they are heated so it is better to make something from scratch (see the recipe below).

Here's my recommendation

Take my spice mix recipes and mix them with oil to make a paste. Let it sit for a few hours so the oils will extract flavors. While it is sitting, dry brine the meat with salt if the mix recipe does not already have salt in it. If it does, skip the dry brining. Then apply the paste to the meat and cook. Start indirect to bake in the spices, and finish direct to create a crust.


Although not definitive, this study indicates that large flavor molecules as found in dyes and the herbs and spices in marinades do most of their work on the surface, within 1/16" of the surface, or in cuts in the surface. It shows that salt penetration goes deeper, so marinades should always contain salt. The exception to the rule are lobster and it's smaller cousin, shrimp.
This means that marinades are best on thin cuts of meat. Gashing the surface with a knife or stabbing it with a fork will help the marinade to get in deeper, but it also pushes bacteria down in. If you cook to safe temp with the aid of a quality digital thermometer, this is not a problem.

Some Rules of Thumb

Always marinate in the refrigerator and cover the meat so it doesn't drip on other food. Never reuse marinades.
Smaller and thinner pieces marinate faster, so consider cutting some meats into serving sizes.

Turn the meat every few hours.

Marinate fish for 30 to 60 minutes at most, depending on the thickness. Chicken, turkey, and pork need a minimum of 2 to 3 hours, but 6 to 8 hours is optimal.

Most beef needs 6 to 24 hours The most tender steaks, like filets and rib eyes, need only an 1 to 2 hours (but frankly, I never marinate these, they are so good with just salt, pepper and a little garlic).

Lamb tenderloins, lamb rib chops, and lamb tenderloins need only 15-30 minutes. Zipper or resealable bags are great for marinating and they need less liquid than bowls or Tupperware. When you are done, you can throw them away. No cleanup. If you use pots, use stainless steel, glass, or ceramic. Never marinate in aluminum, cast iron, or copper. They react with the acids and salts.

Armed with this info....go forth and grill like a pro!

Bon Appetite!


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