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A Guide to Marinating: Tips, Tricks and Myths

We’re finally heading into grilling season, so it’s a good time to step away from the fire and take a good look at marinades before proceeding. What do they do best? What don’t they do so well? And how long should foods marinate?

Here’s a quick rundown.

Flavoring

Bathing your food in even the simplest ingredients will enhance everything from fish to pork chops to veggies. That said, marinades won’t necessarily penetrate all foods. Beef and poultry, for instance, have molecular structures too dense to allow most compounds beyond their surface, so flavor will be concentrated on the exterior. A few porous foods like eggplant and mushrooms can absorb huge amounts of marinade, and marinade is also trapped in the irregular surfaces of some foods like shrimp and broccoli. Generally speaking, maximizing surface area maximizes flavor, as it does for these Chile-Orange Swordfish Kabobs.

Tenderizing

Acids like vinegar, yogurt and citrus juices have some ability to tenderize meats, but again this is concentrated on the surface; these ingredients won’t penetrate very far beyond the exterior. For greatest impact, use thinner cuts like skirt or flank steak, as we did in our Korean-Style Steak with Grilled Veggies. Seafood is an exception: Due to the shorter protein fibers of seafood, acids can actually start to “cook” the food if soaked too long, so keep seafood marinating time brief.

Juiciness

Marinades add moisture to the surface of foods, and that can keep them from drying out on the grill. A marinade that contains oil also helps seal in juices and prevents sticking — particularly important with seafood. And while I’ve pointed out that most ingredients won’t penetrate meat, salt is the exception. Salt’s molecular structure allows it to flow into meat and increase the liquid retained in its cells, making meat juicier, so do use salt or a salty ingredient in your marinades. You can try this Fresh Mango Marinade to add a sweet tartness to just about anything.

Crustiness

Helping foods form a beautiful, flavorful crust when they hit the grill is something marinades can do in spades. Small amounts of sugar and oil are the most effective in helping your foods sear and brown quickly, but remember that too much of either will result in burning or flare-ups. Try Vietnamese Grilled Pork Chops for a good example of how a small amount of sugar can have delicious impact.

How Long to Marinate?

Fish and seafood do best with just a short soak; an hour or two at most, and no more than 20 minutes if your marinade is very acidic. Thirty minutes to an hour is good for porous tofu and most vegetables. For beef, pork and poultry you have a pretty open window: Most benefits occur in the first few hours, but overnight or 24-hour marinating is fine as well, and often the most convenient. The good news? Even a few minutes will give you fantastic flavor and aroma.

Soak on! What are your favorite marinating mixes? Share your tips and suggestions in the comments section below.