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Marinating Tips for Success

By Cook's Illustrated Published June 2009

Years of testing have taught us that while marinades will never turn a tough cut tender, they are an important flavor contributor. Here are our tips and techniques for getting the most out of a marinade.

To determine how far flavors in different marinades might penetrate into meat, we place boneless skinless chicken breasts in four different soaking liquids (variously made with soy sauce, yogurt, wine, and lemon juice and garlic). We soaked all four batches a full 18 hours, then cooked them in a 300-degree oven until the internal temperature registered 160 degrees. We then cut off 3 millimeters from the exterior of each breast (a good 2 millimeters beyond where it was clear the soy and wine marinades had penetrated). Finally, we tasted the trimmed chicken side by side with the breasts we baked at 300 degrees without marinating. Tasters could find no distinguishable flavor differences among any of the batches. Our conclusion: Marinade flavors do not penetrate meat beyond the first few millimeters, no matter what the mix.

We've found that following the steps below ensures the most possible flavor and juiciness from marinated meats.

Use Lots of Flavorings and Seasonings: In tests we've found that a high concentration of salt in a marinade (and we use plenty) can inhibit meat from absorbing the flavors of other ingredients, unless they're included in copious quantities (i.e., 3 or 4 cloves of garlic and at least a tablespoon of chopped herbs, if using).

Score Meat Before Marinating: To help the marinade penetrate as deeply as possible (especially thicker cuts like flank steak), prick the surface of the meat with a fork or score it with a knife.

Flip and Stir: Place meat in a zipper-lock bag with the air squeezed out or use a large baking dish covered with plastic wrap. Flip the bag or stir the meat halfway through the soaking time to ensure that the meat is thoroughly coated.

Refrigerate While Marinating: To eliminate the risk of microorganisms spreading in raw meat, don't leave meat on the counter—refrigerate it. This keeps it out of the temperature danger zone of 40 to 140 degrees, within which bacteria spread rapidly.

Remove Marinade Before Cooking: To prevent flare-ups on the grill and ensure properly browned meat when sautéing or stir-frying, wipe off most of the excess marinade before cooking. Keep just a little marinade on the meat surface to maximize flavor.

Don't Recycle Used Marinade: Used marinade is contaminated with with raw meat juice and is therefore unsafe. If you want sauce to serve with the cooked meat, just make a little extra marinade and set it aside before adding the bulk of the marinade to the raw meat.