When it comes to a perfect marinade, the search for the right ingredients has more to do with science than taste buds. In addition, the same science responsible for flavor infusion and tenderness may also help keep you healthy.
For most home cooks, the process of marinating is quite simple: grab a jar from the same aisle where they sell barbecue sauces, follow the instructions on the label. Few realize, buried in the list of ingredients and nutritional facts, chemistry is afoot.
Marinades improve the flavor and moistness of cooked meats, but scientists have also proven marinated meats reduce the risk of cancer. Studies have proven marination prior cooking has an overall reducing effect on heterocyclic amines, cancer-causing compounds known as carcinogens.
Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) form when meats are cooked at high temperatures. Research has proven marinades cut HCA anywhere from 90-99%. Eating meats at lower cooking temps, such medium-rare or rare, also decreases carcinogens.
Marinades are typically acid-based solutions designed to denature (in this case “soften” or “tenderize”) meat. The lower the pH of the solution, the more acidic the marinade, the more denaturing that occurs. For example, a marinade with balsamic vinegar (pH of 3) as its main ingredient will significantly denature proteins in the meat, especially over longer periods of time. On the contrary, a marinade with mostly pineapple juice (pH of 6) will less affect the composition of proteins.
For a reference chart on acids and alkali, check out the following website:
When it comes to wild game, such as deer, hunter cooks like to marinate tougher cuts of meat—leg or shoulder steaks—in order to tenderize and enhance the flavor of their meal. Acids in marinades open up outer protein cells, allowing flavors to penetrate deeply into the meat. During this process, these same acids break down muscle tissue on the exterior of the meat, thus creating a tender texture. Food scientists assert, however, marinades rarely penetrate more than an 1/8-inch per day. Some experts claim marinades will never penetrate more than a 1/4-inch.
Perhaps they have never cooked with Coca-Cola.
My former kitchen manager, Kevin Russell, of The Elk Public House in Spokane, Washington, has an amazing pulled pork recipe—sear cube cuts of pork shoulder on the flattop, place in a 4-inch hotel pan and cover with a few cups of Coca-Cola and pineapple juice, diced onions and hot peppers, minced garlic, cover with aluminum foil and roast in oven for two hours. The result was some the most tender and flavorful pulled pork one has ever tasted. Tossed in a house-made barbecue sauce, needless to say, it is a hit.
Granted this is more of a braising and roasting method, rather than a marinade, but the same marinade science applies—the low pH of Coca-Cola infused the pork with sweetness while also creating a succulent sensation with every bite.
Another popular recipe at the restaurant is the roasted lamb sandwich. The Elk marinates shaved legs of lamb in a balsamic vinegar-based marinade for a minimum of a few hours. Because I believe lamb and venison have similar flavors and textures, I have applied a similar marinade recipe to venison, in such dishes as baked venison-stuffed acorn squash.
Regardless of what food scientists claim in regard to the penetration strengths of marinades, it is important to consider the thickness of your cuts of meat when soaking them in your favorite marinade. Roasts, for example, won’t benefit very much from a marinade, no longer how long you leave it in there. On the other hand, thinly shaved slices of shoulder steaks, such as the recipes mentioned above, will accept the flavors more readily and soften in texture.
Veteran cooks may argue marinades, especially more acidic ones, will turn meat to mush. As with most arguments, there is some validity to this view. Again, keep in mind the thickness of your cuts, the overall acidity of your marinade, and the time for which you marinate it.
When making your own marinade, it is important to remember the pH principles. Will the addition of alkali (or bases) such as lemons or watermelon reduce the pH of your marinade? (Keep in mind, though fruits such as lemons and pineapples are alkali, when combined with water, as in lemon juice, they become acids.)
Marinades are a game of balance. Know what you are putting together. Bases with a pH of 10, such as onions, perhaps pureed and added to your marinade, will affect the overall acidity of your marinade. However, if your main ingredient, which should far exceed any other ingredient, is soy sauce or some sort of vinegar, you have nothing to worry about—the marinade will doctor the meat.
The pursuit continues endlessly for the best in class marinade. Still, it is good to know we have science on our side, and, as cooks, we can enlighten taste buds and elevate levels of happiness in bodies and minds.