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Marinating Myths

By Cook's Illustrated Published June 2009

Over the years, we've encountered numerous marinade myths. Here are some of them—and why they're untrue.

MYTH: Marinades Penetrate Meat Deeply

FACT: Most Impact is Superficial

Contrary to popular belief, marinades do most of their work on the surface of meat or just below. Some ingredients in a marinade do penetrate the meat—but only by a few millimeters (and oil-soluble herbs and spices in the mix merely add flavor to the exterior). To prove the point, we soaked beef short ribs in red wine for intervals from one hour to 18, then measured the band of purple created by the wine. Our finding? Even after 18 hours of soaking, the wine penetrated less than 1 millimeter. Additional testing with marinated boneless chicken breasts confirmed that the flavors of other kinds of soaking liquids do not penetrate to the center of the meat.

MYTH: Acids Tenderize Meat

FACT: Acids Turn Meat Mushy

To tenderize meat, you have to break down muscle fiber and collagen, the connective tissue that makes meat tough, thus increasing the meat's ability to retain moisture. While acidic ingredients like citrus juice, vinegar, yogurt, buttermilk, and wine do weaken collagen, their impact is confined to the meat's surface. We find that if left too long, acids turn the outermost layer of meat mushy, not tender. To minimize mushiness, we use acidic components sparingly (or cut them out entirely) and only for short marinating times.

MYTH: The Longer the Soak, the Better

FACT: A Long Soak is Pointless—Even Detrimental

Because marinades don't penetrate deeply, a lengthy soak is pointless. Furthermore, too long a soak in an acidic (or enzymatic) marinade can weaken the protein bonds near the surface so that they turn mushy—or worse, can no longer hold moisture and dry out.

MYTH: Marinades Add Flavor to Any Meat

FACT: Marinades Are Best for Thin Cuts

With their influence limited mostly to the surface of the meat, we reserve marinades for relatively thin cuts like chicken breasts, pork chops, steaks, cutlets and meat cut into chunks or slices for kebabs and stir fries. A large roast or turkey breast is never a good bet; a spice paste that will adhere to the meat is a better option.

MYTH: Enzymes Tenderize Meat

FACT: Enzymes Make Meat Mushy

The enzyme in many plants—such as papain in papaya and bromelain in pineapple, to name two—can break down collagen in meat. But as with acids, their impact is limited to the meat's surface, where we find they likewise turn the meat mushy, not tender.

MYTH: Bottled Dressing Is a Great Time-Saver

FACT: Bottled Dressing Makes Mediocre Marinade

Due to high levels of acidity, salad dressings don't add complex flavor and only make meat mushy. Plus, they are laden with sweeteners, stabilizers, and gums, which add a gelatinous consistency and unnatural flavor.

Use any acids; such as vinegar, yogurt, and citrus with discretion.

Using thick cuts of meat with marinades is problematic.

Thin cuts of meat will provide optimal flavor impact.

Bottled dressings won't save you much time and ultimately make bad marinades.