The Myth About Marinades

Red Wine Marinade.
Red Wine Marinade. (Mette Randem - for The Washington Post.)
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By Andreas Viestad
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Putting together my favorite marinade takes some time, not least because I allow it to.

I always start with red wine: one glass for me, one for the marinade. Then I set the two apart by adding garlic and chopped parsley to the wine I won't be drinking. When I pick some thyme from the veranda and rub the leaves between my hands, my kitchen fills with the smell of the Greek islands and never-ending summer. I throw the leaves in, along with grinds of black pepper, a crushed bay leaf and sometimes a drop or two of Tabasco, for temperament.

I taste and adjust, adding a little sugar, some soy sauce. When I am satisfied that the marinade is just right, I pour it over a couple of steaks.

While the meat is marinating, I indulge in a ritual to pass the time: I count to four. One, two, three, four. That's it. And finally I can dedicate myself to the masculine cooking technique that involves the burning of eyebrows, slight smoke poisoning and the charring of meat over red-hot coals.

Marinating meat is one of those mysterious fields in the world of cooking in which there are plenty of opinions and few facts; an area that many people -- mostly men -- claim to master but few can explain.

Why do we marinate our steaks? Fact-checking the list of benefits that marinating purportedly offers can be disheartening, like finding out that the magician you admired so much as a child has a secret compartment in his hat where he keeps a bunny, and that all the cards in his deck are aces of spades. The magic is gone. But by parting the veil of mystique and finding out how marinating works, we can improve the process and, most usefully, discard some of its most time-consuming elements. (As always with food science, illuminating one seemingly insignificant process can also help us understand processes that govern other aspects of cooking.)

The most common claim is that by penetrating the meat, marinades create more flavor, tenderize the meat and make it juicier. But is that really what happens? No; the assumption is based on a naive and conflicting understanding of how nature, and therefore cooking, works. The concept of penetration is a key element in marinade mythology.

Recipes for marinated flank and skirt steaks in an online recipe database illustrate the confusion. Using more or less the same marinade, one recipe calls for thin slices of meat to be marinated for no less than 24 hours, another for four to eight hours. One recipe instructs us to marinate a two-pound steak overnight; another says a four-pound steak should be left in the marinade for three to four hours, and on no account for more than 10. Wildly different instructions for what is basically the same process.

They are all probably fine recipes but a bit more difficult than they need to be.

Let's put aside pickling, brining and making seviche, techniques that warrant their own columns. Normal marinades, such as my simple wine-based one (see recipe), do not significantly penetrate the meat, no matter how long they are left in contact. Food scientists such as Harold McGee and Hervé This have measured the penetration and found it to be staggeringly small. An experiment conducted by This at a meeting of European chemical societies last year showed that after eight days, a slightly salty marinade gave meat a somewhat mushy surface but penetrated less than 1/8 inch into the flesh; a mildly acidic one (such as a wine- or vinegar-based marinade) showed next to no effect.

"This was very funny," This says, "and it has forced us to reconsider many of the assumptions we had about marinades."

The lack of penetration by the marinade refutes the idea that flavor enters along with it. And doesn't it also mean that the tenderizing effect is minimal?

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