Print this Article

A Good Soak

How to Marinate Meats and Fish for Best Results


To marinate or not to marinate? That is the question we posed to expert chef Bruce Aidells, author ofThe Complete Meat Cookbook and founder of Aidells Sausage Company. His answers to this and other questions were generous, open and friendly, like the chef himself. In general, he says, “Different cuts call for different approaches.” Red meat, chicken and fish can all benefit from simple marinade recipes, with fantastic results.

What is a Marinade?

Aidells defines a marinade as a liquid made up of ingredients and spices that have the intended result of increased flavor. Chicken and certain cuts of meat, such as a top round of beef or some cuts of chuck, sirloin or loin of pork, and leg of lamb, are all good candidates for flavor enhancement. “I’m not of the school that marinates meats to tenderize them,” he stated.

“That said, you do need to think about texture,” he added. If there are acidic ingredients such as citrus, vinegar, tomatoes or wine, and the meat or chicken is left in the solution for too long, the fibers can break down. The result is a texture that’s too soft. “A mushy texture is not what I call tenderizing,” Aidells said. Marinades for fish, chicken and delicate cuts of beef should be done with a light hand and a short time frame so that texture is not affected – an hour or two at most, since flavors are absorbed into these delicate foods more rapidly.

Marinade Components

Most marinade recipes have an acidic element such as lemon or other citrus, and oil – often flavorful olive oil. A large number, whether Asian or not, contain soy sauce. Aidells thinks soy sauce both tenderizes the meat and its salty pungent character also effectively penetrates meat.

As for sweet elements, Aidells warns that if sugar, brown sugar, Hoisin sauce or honey is used in a marinade, the cook has to be especially careful to avoid high flames. The sugar in these marinades will easily burn over high heat, leaving a decidedly unpleasant taste behind.

Aidells also has a warning about garlic. “Many rubs use garlic powder. It has its place, and this is where it belongs, but smell it – make sure the brand you use doesn’t smell like burnt garlic. And avoid pre-peeled garlic. It has an oxidized, metallic taste.”

Food Safety When Marinating

Two important food safety factors to consider when marinating are temperature and time. To avoid bacteria growth, meats should marinate in the refrigerator and can do so overnight. At room temperature, meat marinates more quickly but this is only safe for an hour or two, at most. On a hot summer day, stick with the fridge.

Never re-use a marinade. Once it has had meat soaking in it, a marinade has been exposed to bacteria, and its flavors dilute and diminish. To use a marinade for basting or for cooking off into a sauce, reserve some of the original marinade in a separate container, and don’t expose it to the raw meat. Use this reserved portion for a flavorful, bacteria-free ingredient.

Now, Here’s the Rub…

…the dry rub, that is. “Dry rubs pack all the flavor right on the surface of the meat and can help form a crust,” Aidells explained. “That’s the basis of classic barbecue; the rub creates the ‘bark’ which is that really dark exterior on pulled pork and brisket.” Components of a dry rub are usually salt, finely chopped herbs and/or spices, and some version of pepper, whether black, cayenne, chili powder or paprika. Rubs that contain sugar or raw garlic also carry the same admonition to take care about burning. Meats covered with a dry rub can usually sit in the fridge overnight without negative effect, and surprise ingredients like coffee, ground coriander or ginger can be used to startling and exciting effect.

Whether you’re ready to give your meats a good soak or a quick rub, experiment with flavors that appeal to your palette, and savor the results.

Here are some recipes with great marinades or rubs to try:
Pork Fajitas with Mango, Peppers, & Onions
Skirt Steak Tacos

Comments are closed.