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In Defense of Marinades

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Marinades have been under attack for years. The problem is the arguments against don’t address the facts. In defense of marinades, it is important to understand what they do, how they work, and why they might just save your life.

in defense of marinades
in defense of marinades

For many years, one of the most critical steps in grilling recipes was marinating the food. Marinating promised many things, some of which they delivered and others they did not. They became so popular that well-known food brands from Jack Daniel’s to Lowry’s quickly introduced marinating kits. Some included premixed flavors along with zip-top bags for convenience and profit. Perhaps it is the rampant commercialization of something so simple that led mythbusters, debunkers, and a few celebrity chefs to say no to marinades. These actions are unfortunate and shortsighted on their part and precisely why I’m defending the use of marinades.

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Marinades are one of the most straightforward items to make. A simple marinade would include equal parts of vinegar and cooking oil. The basic idea is to use an acidic food substance, like vinegar, citrus juice, wine, or even yogurt, paired with a fat like cooking oil. The cooking oil can be anything found in your pantry, from olive to canola. From here, salt is added along with herbs and spices for additional flavor. When well mixed, these items will evenly coat the surface of the food. Certainly a much cheaper option than the prepackaged items currently sold in grocery stores. So then, what is the problem? I suppose marinades have become too mainstream for those who now argue against their use.

Don’t Believe the Debunkers

The backlash against marinades is centered on the false claim that they can turn flank steak into a tender 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, the actual part that comes into direct contact with cooking grates and 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 the 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 for optimal effectiveness. Marinades do bond flavor into the surface of foods and provide a greater variety of distinctiveness than a spice rub. Imagine a skirt steak without a vibrant, lime piquancy. Marinades expand the flavor potential of any dish. They can be thick with seasonings and can incorporate any herbs and spices in your pantry. Most vinegar and oil benefit from additional infused flavor. The finished product can be as pungent or as delicate as needed. They can be whatever you need them to be.

Who’s Behind it?

The argument against marinades goes way back, but recently, it has been made primarily by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby. From articles in the New York Times to America’s Test Kitchen. The irony is that their argument is that marinades do nothing. Yet, in every explanation, they talk about how acids in marinades break down proteins, allowing them to bond with flavors in the marinade. The argument they make is that food coloring in a marinade does not penetrate into the meat and that if you cut off the marinated surface, you don’t taste the marinade.

But this argument could be made against almost any seasoning. If you apply spices to the surface of the meat and then cut off the surface after it is cooked, how much of the seasoning can you taste? Marinades are a flavoring tool. They are not the best tool for every food item, but a great tool when used correctly and with the right cuts of meat. The problem with those who say that marinades do nothing is that they end up presenting their own defense of marinades in their arguments.

These arguments are the classic strawman fallacy. Instead of arguing the actual facts, they make false claims about what marinades actually do, and then they disprove those arguments.

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Glossed over in the debate of marinade usefulness is the single most crucial factor. Those who say marinades are passé or pointless are simply being irresponsible. Cooking, regardless of the method, changes the fundamental nature of food on a chemical level. This is where we create 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 95%, 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. They are, in fact, being irresponsible.

In Defense of Marinades:

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. Honestly, 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. Even better, marinades can be made with ingredients we already have in our homes. I recommend avoiding store-bought products as they contain high concentrations of sugar and salt. Once you start making your own, it will become second nature, setting you on a path of experimentation that will change your cooking forever.

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