The Magic of Marinades

Marinades are your secret formula for easy, healthy summer meals.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

What turns an ordinary lean steak into a flavor-packed entree? What transforms a plain chicken breast into an herb-intense experience? Marinades do!

For a small investment in effort, marinades give you big payoffs at the dinner table. They give you a chance to exercise your creativity, too. Once you have the marinade basics down, you can experiment with the ingredients. And marinating isn't limited to meat: tofu and veggies make great marinade mates, too.

Using marinades to flavor and tenderize your meat isn't a new concept: People have been using marinades for several hundred years. Of course, their marinades didn't come in plastic bottles, and they didn't get as fancy as the chef-inspired marinades made today. The marinades of yesteryear were made mainly of brine (salty water). We've come a long way, baby, with flavored olive oils and vinegars, citrus zest, wines, fancy fruit juices, etc.

Marinade magic requires three things:

  1. An acid ingredient to tenderize the meat: lemon or lime juice, wine, vinegar, or yogurt.
  2. Herbs and spices to add flavor and zest, maybe garlic, red pepper flakes, green onions, fresh herbs, rosemary, thyme, onion, or ginger.
  3. Enough time for No. 1 and No. 2 to work their magic!

And here are four ways marinades work their magic:

  1. They add flavor. The acid ingredient, as well as herbs, spices, and flavored oils (things like sesame oil, mustard, honey, soy sauce, citrus zest, catsup, and molasses) add zest to your meat.
  2. They add moisture. A small amount of oil in a marinade can help add moisture to the meat. Other ingredients that add moisture include buttermilk, yogurt, and coconut milk.
  3. They help tenderize. Acidic ingredients in marinades can help tenderize the proteins on the surface of the meat. But dairy products -- like buttermilk and yogurt -- are the only ingredients that seem to tenderize meat all the way through while keeping its texture mostly the same (not mushy).
  4. They reduce the production of potentially cancer-causing compounds in grilled meat. Marinating meats before grilling them may reduce the amount of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) that can form on meat exposed to high cooking temperatures. Studies have shown that in some cases, even briefly marinating foods can reduce HCAs by as much as 92% to 99%, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). Scientists aren't sure exactly what causes this: A marinade may act as a barrier, or the protective powers may lie in its ingredients. "Vinegar, citrus juice, herbs, spices, and olive oil all seem to contribute to the prevention of HCA formation," notes the AICR. (You can further reduce HCA formation by flipping your meat frequently, thus speeding up the cooking process).

Tips for Marinade

Here are my top 11 tips for cooking with marinades:

  1. If you plan to serve your marinade as a sauce with the meal, put some of the marinade aside in a separate container before adding the meat. As long as it hasn't come in contact with raw meat or fish, marinade works well as a sauce.
  2. If you forget to reserve some marinade before adding the meat, and you want to use some as a serving sauce, bring the marinade to a full boil for at least 5 minutes to kill any bacteria.
  3. When it comes to marinating beef, pork, lamb, and chicken, "more is better" -- more time, that is. Suggested marinating times for these meats are 6-24 hours.
  4. Fish is fast. Thin and flaky fish usually needs about 30 minutes in the marinade, and thick and fatty fish fillets can benefit from 1 hour of marinating.
  5. When marinating nonmeat items such as tofu and grilled veggies, give them at least 30 minutes. You aren't tenderizing here, just adding taste!
  6. The food you're marinating should be completely covered in the marinade. You'll need about 1/2 cup of marinade per pound of meat.
  7. Always store marinade in the refrigerator so as not to invite potential bacteria to multiply. And marinate in a nonmetal container, like a resealable plastic bag (for easy cleanup) or glass dish. If you use a plastic bag, place it in a bowl in case there's a leak.
  8. If you'll be grilling your meat, keeping your meat portions small means they'll spend less time on the grill. And that means less time exposed to potentially cancer-causing compounds. Using smaller pieces of meat also means there's more surface area to be flavored and tenderized by the marinade. So opt for smaller steaks or skewered kabobs, and cut your chicken breasts in half.
  9. Choosing lean meat and low-fat marinades is not only healthy but can help reduce your intake of another potential cancer-causing substance formed during grilling: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs form when fat from meat, poultry, or fish drips onto hot coals or stones, and the resulting smoke and flare-ups deposit them back onto the food being grilled, according the AICH. So go for lean cuts, trim them of any visible fat, and opt for lower- fat marinades.
  10. Two mildly acidic dairy products - low-fat buttermilk and yogurt -- work best as marinade ingredients. The calcium seems to activate enzymes in the meat that help to break down protein.