Marinating and grilling meat is one of the easiest ways to improve the taste and texture of any type of meat while also being incredibly easy and quick, though a little bit of prep beforehand is required.
For those that like to meal prep you can prepare most of the dish in advance up to the night before, giving you more time to relax when it comes to cooking the dish in a short time. Perfect for outdoor grilling in BBQ season, you can also marinade meat to cook under the grill indoors or even broil in a very hot oven.
As marinated meats cook quickly and have plenty of flavour they are perfect for a midweek meal and also make an excellent addition to any BBQ. And with so much variety there are numerous options when it comes to flavours. This makes marinated and grilled meat perfect for entertaining as well as a simple but tasty dish to have after a long day.
Below we have set out everything you need to know about marinating meat, from how it works, to what ingredients to use. So whether you are a novice cook wanting to experiment with something new, or a seasoned grill master wanting to learn a bit more about the science of how marinades work, read on to find out more.
A marinade is a particular blend of ingredients that are put together in order to improve the taste and texture of various meats. Marinades are found across the world in all different types of cuisine and styles of cooking, and the underlying principles are always the same. Marinades in one form or another work with all types of cooking but are particularly well suited to being used with grilled meats. Some of the most popular styles of marinated and grilled meat include kebabs, satays, and tandoori.
The main difference between a marinade and a rub is that while a rub and a marinade both infuse the meat with flavour through the use of salt, herbs, and spices, rubs do not contain an acidic element through the use of vinegar or citrus, nor do they use enzymes found in fruit. Rubs tend to be dry, and marinades are liquid. All of this means that while rubs add flavour like marinades do, they do not contain the elements needed to tenderize the meat in the same ways that marinades do.
Marinating meat works by adding flavour to meat and also aiding the texture to become more tender. Marinades often have some acidity added to them, whether this is from types of vinegar or from citrus like lemon juice, or enzymes that are commonly found in fruits like mangoes. These break down the surface of the meat itself to both make the meat more tender and also allow for the flavours of the marinade to penetrate deeper.
Salt has a particular purpose in a marinade as well, first it draws moisture out of the meat which then allows for both the lost moisture and the marinade to be absorbed into the meat by a process called osmosis. This allows for the flavours to be absorbed deeper into the meat, and the use of oil can aid this process even further as oils are able to carry flavours from garlic, onions, spices, and herbs.
Simply put, marinading your meat will add more flavour. How much will depend on the ingredients you use in your marinade and how long you choose to marinade your meat for. The choice is almost endless when it comes to creating a marinade of your personal choosing though there are a few underlying principles which will be looked at below.
A good marinade can also vastly improve the texture of your meat. The acidity and enzymes break down any toughness in the meat and the oil and salt aid in adding more moisture.
The result is meat that is incredibly juicy and tender while bursting with flavour.
There are a few essential types of ingredients to put in a marinade to ensure that it works properly.
Salt helps the flavours of the marinade penetrate deeper into the meat. It works by breaking down some of the structural proteins found on the surface of meat which allows for other flavours found in the marinade to seep in. This breaking down of proteins also allows for the meat to become less tough. Lastly, salt draws out moisture for the meat that then allows for both the meat juices and marinade to be sucked in which makes the marinade more effective. In your marinade you can use salt by itself, but can also use salty additions like soy sauce. Salt is also particularly effective in bringing out the other flavours in your marinade.
Fats play a very important role in how marinades work. Fats allow for the moisture of the meat to be locked in and stops the meat from drying out too much. Fats can also be used to carry flavours into the meat like onions, garlic, herbs, and spices. Lastly, fats are ideal for smoothing out the flavours of a marinade which stops your meat from tasting too salty or acidic. Popular fats to use are different types of oil, but you can also use yoghurt or even coconut milk depending on what you are cooking and the flavours you want to create with your marinade.
Like salt acids also aid in breaking down the proteins found in meat which can dramatically improve the texture, and also help the marinade to more deeply flavour the meat. Acids also add flavour to a marinade and can be used to add a note of freshness and tanginess. Some of the most common acidic elements of marinades include lemon juice, vinegar, and even yoghurt.
Serving the same purpose as acids, enzymes found in fruit are even more effective in breaking down the proteins found in meat while also adding in plenty of flavour. Popular examples include mangoes, pineapples or pineapple juice, papaya, melons, figs, and even ginger which all serve this purpose well.
There are simply just too many to list and too many combinations. The seasoning used in a marinade can include a mix of anything from fresh and zesty Mediterranean herbs like basil, oregano, thyme, tarragon, or mint to the spicy heavier flavours found in South Asian cuisine from using spices like cumin, coriander, garam masala, and chilli. Other options include pepper, tamarind, and mustard.
Adding a little bit of sugar into your marinade can really bring a depth and complexity to the flavours, particularly for balancing out the acidity. People often use honey, barbecue sauce, ketchup, or even soft drinks for this purpose. Adding sweetness to a marinade can also help the proteins on the outside of the meat react more quickly to heat which makes for a particularly nice sear and charred appearance to your meat.
A very simple way of marinating your meat is to add all of the ingredients of your marinade into a ball and combine thoroughly. Then simply place all of your meat into the bowl, make sure every piece of meat is covered, cover with cling film, and place in the fridge. You can then periodically shake up the bowl to ensure an even coating.
Another easy way is to dip each bit of meat into the marinade, cover in a coating of the marinade, then place into a freezer bag. You can fill this about half way with your covered meat, close tightly to prevent spillage, place in the fridge, and then shake up the bags periodically. This method is particularly good for saving space in your fridge and if you are transporting your meat from the kitchen to be cooked at a BBQ.
Due to the reactive elements found in marinades, for example the enzymes and acids, you want to be very careful in choosing what to make and store your marinade it. Glass is a good choice for a mixing bowl, as is food safe plastic. You can also use a glass casserole tray to allow your meat to marinade in the fridge, just make sure the pieces of meat are not too crowded. You want to be very careful in avoiding anything made of clay or using tin foil as these may react badly to the marinade and spoil your meat.
This will largely depend on what type of meat you are preparing. Some types of meat will be able to be marinated for longer to enhance the flavour and texture, but others may start to break down if left too long. The smaller your pieces of meat the more they will absorb the marinade and therefore take less time to reap the full benefit.
You don’t want to marinate fish or other seafood for too long as the meat may start to go mushy. Generally you would not want to marinade most fish for longer than 30 minutes to an hour, and allow even less time for smaller pieces. This is because the acidity in a marinade can be quite harsh on delicate fish and break it down.
You can marinade chicken in large pieces, or in smaller pieces like cubes or goujons. Chicken is perfect with a marinade as it stops chicken from drying out while adding plenty of extra flavour. If you are marinating things like thighs or drumsticks you may wish to ‘score’ the meat which involves adding small cuts so that the marinade will penetrate deeper into the meat. The smaller the pieces of chicken the more of the marinade they will absorb, therefore times can vary quite drastically. Smaller bits of chicken will be fine for a few hours, and larger bits of chicken and chicken on the bone can be marinated up to overnight.
These red meats are perfect for marinating and can be left in a marinade for up to 24 hours.
The best way to cook marinated meat is on the BBQ, or failing that with an indoor grill on a very high heat. A very hot oven can also work, as can cooking in the oven and then finishing up by placing under a hot grill until the outside of the meat chars slightly and a sear forms. You will want to rotate your meat regularly for the full benefit. This is the last process of the marinade, where the heat from the cooking process reacts to the ingredients of the marinade and the protein of the meat to bring out all of the flavours to their fullest potential.