Marinating meat is a great way to flavour any piece of meat (or meat substitute). The flavour combinations in any marinade are designed to impart flavour into your dish. It is a food myth however, that a marinade makes your meat juicier. But there is one magic ingredient that will improve your marinade more than any other…
Marinades can come in all different flavours and varieties. But a marinade will generally contain at least some or all of the following flavours/ingredients: fat, salt, acid and a sweetener with some herbs and spices.
Contrary to popular belief, a marinade does not make your meat any juicier. If you marinate something for a number of hours try cutting it in half and you will see that the marinade has not penetrated any further than a few millimeters. This is perhaps one of the most common held myths of cooking. So the sooner you realise that a marinade will not somehow magically make your meat more moist and juicy the better. For this you will need to learn the technique of brining.
Marinating your meat will however, have the end result of maintaining a little more moisture in your meat. This is for the reason that when meat is exposed to extreme heat the proteins tighten in the meat and wring out the moisture much like water is wrung out of a dish cloth when it is squeezed. A lot of water is lost from meat when it is cooked. If you don”t believe me, then try weighing your piece of meat when it is raw and then after it is cooked and you will see it is significantly lighter.
So if a marinade doesn’t work to increase the water content of the meat prior to cooking, how will it help maintain moisture in your meat? The answer is that salt in the marinade will react with protein in a way that causes the cells it comes into contact with to contract and seal off. This means that when you marinate a piece of meat the outer layer that comes into contact with the marinade will be sealed off. This helps to keep in the natural juices of the food which in turn helps the meat hold on to its moisture content. So while a marinade may not make your food juicier, it will enable it to retain its juices, which essentially achieves the same end.
Salt in the marinade (and in fact not in a marinade) will also draw moisture from the outside layer of the meat, which will mean that when your meat hits a hot pan or oven it will start browning much quicker than it would without the salt. This is because before the Mallard reactions (i.e. the browning process) starts taking place the water will evaporate working to steam the meat initially. Salt reduces the amount of time this happens for.
Sugars in the marinade will also help speed up the Maillard reactions. This is because the browning process is essentially sugars in the food caramelising. So the extra sugar will aid in browning the food quicker. But not always – this will also depend on how much water content is in your marinade. A marinade with high water content will actually slow the browning process and therefore increase cooking time and therefore make your meat drier as an end result. Oil in a marinade will also speed up the cooking process because of its ability to transfer heat and therefore speed up the browning process (Maillard reactions occur at high tempertaures).
Fat/oil will also help carry flavour. Every marinade therefore must have a salt component, whether that be through soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce or just plain sodium chloride (salt). They also often contain a balance of sweet, sour, aromatic and spicy ingredients mostly for flavour. For the sweet component good ingredients to use are sugar, honey and agave syrup. The sour component is usually made up of vinegar, yoghurt, lemon or lime. The aromatic component usually a mix of garlic, spring oinion, ginger or herbs. And the spicy components can be chilli, pepper or other spices. But the best tip of all lies in a super special marinade ingredient.
If you want your marinade to penetrate further into your meat as well as tenderize it then consider using yoghurt in your marinade. The enzymes in the yoghurt (produced by the lactobacillus bacteria contained in good natural yoghurts) allow it to break down the meat molecules which tenderizes and penetrates better than any other substance. It also chars nicely to create an extra dimension of flavour. This is why tandoori meat tastes so amazing – because of yoghurt, and yummy spices of course!