For years one of the most important steps in many grilling recipes was the marinade. Marinades promised many things, some of which they delivered and others they didn’t. They became so popular that almost every food brand from Jack Daniel’s to Lowry’s began introducing marinating kits, premixed with zip-top bags for convenience and profit. Perhaps it is this commercialization of something so simple that has lead mythbusters, debunkers, and even a few celebrity chefs to say no to marinades. This is unfortunate and shortsighted on their part.
Marinades are one of the easiest items to make. The simplest of recipes for a general marinade would be equal parts vinegar and cooking oil. The basic idea is to use an acidic food substance, like vinegar, citrus juice, wine, or even yogurt paired with an oil. The cooking oil can be virtually anything in the pantry from olive to canola. From here, salt will enhance the flavors with the addition of spices and herbs. Mixed well, these flavors will evenly distribute and coat the surface of whatever is marinated. Simple and so much cheaper than the prepackaged items currently sold on grocery store shelves today. So then, what is the problem? I suppose marinades have become too mainstream for those who now argue against their use.
The backlash against marinades is largely centered on the false claim that marinades can turn a flank steak into a filet mignon. It would take much more than a marinade to pull off this kind of magic. Marinades do not tenderize a cut of meat to the core. They do tenderize the surface of meat, the part that is going to be in direct contact with cooking grates and exposed to intense heat. A marinade acts as a preventive measure to reduce drying with high-temperature cooking. It will not eliminate the drying, but it will help.
It is also a myth that marinades can carry flavors to the center of a cut of meat, however, it does transfer flavors through the surface. In low-temperature cooking a dry rub will blend with natural juices and seep into the surface, but with hot and fast cooking this must take place beforehand to be effective. Marinades do bond flavors into the surface of foods and provide a greater variety of flavors than spice rubs. Imagine a skirt steak without a rich, lime flavor. Marinades expand the flavor potential of any dish and can be as subtle or extravagant as desired. They can be thick with seasonings and can incorporate anything in the pantry. Most vinegars or oils used can be infused with additional flavor. Marinades can be as strong or as delicate as needed. They can be whatever they need to be.
Glossed over in the debate of the usefulness of marinades is the single most important factor. Those that say marinades are passé or pointless are simply being irresponsible. Cooking, regardless of the method, changes the fundamental nature of the foods we eat on a chemical level. This is where we create the caramelization, break down collagen, and build rich flavors. Unfortunately, when cooking at high temperatures, harmful cancer causing agents can also be created. These heterocyclic amines (HCAs), pose a significant danger with high-temperature cooking methods like hot and fast grilling. Fortunately, studies have found that there is a way to reduce the formation of these chemicals by as much as 99% according to the American Cancer Research Institute. This magic solution? An acidic marinade. Research has shown that marinating a cut of meat for as little as 20 minutes can have dramatic benefits to health, so when someone says that marinades do nothing, they are simply wrong.
Don’t forget about marinades, particularly on the grill. These magic solutions do so much for the flavor and the safety of the foods we eat, that they should be a part of everyone’s cooking routine. The simple truth is that for most meats, marinating times of 20 to 30 minutes are enough, and marinades can be made with ingredients most of us already have in our homes. Avoid store-bought marinades since they can have high concentrations of sugar and salt. Once you start making your own marinades, it will become second nature, setting you on a path of experimentation that will change the way you cook forever.