The Secret to Marinating Meat

Categories: Food, Home Cooking
Thumbnail image for steaks_opt.jpg
Lee Klein
This secret will boost marinade flavor by a factor of 20.
The food universe is infinite, which makes learning about it a never-ending pursuit. For decades I've been marinating various meats, but it wasn't until I caught a rerun of America's Test Kitchen on the local PBS station that I gleaned the secret to getting a marinade to truly penetrate and add flavor to beef, pork, whatever. It has to do with molecules.

I won't get into the science, but a reaction of two specific ingredients will ensure that your grilled meats will burst with flavor this summer.

First, a few minor tips, some of which you might know:

  • Use citrus peel rather than citrus juice; the latter breaks down meat and makes it mushy.
  • Use table salt rather than kosher or sea salt; it dissolves better.
  • Sugar will help to caramelize the meat.

But here's the first part of the main tip: Soy sauce contains the compound glutamate, "which often translates to deep, meaty flavor"; plus, it's one of only a few ingredients that really sink into the meat (salt is another). Because you might not always want an Asian flavoring in your marinade, another ingredient rich in glutamates is tomato paste. So be sure to use one or the other in your marinade.

And here's the corker: Add beef broth to the marinade (preferably low-sodium). There are two flavor-enhancing molecules in beef broth: glutamates and nucleotides. The nucleotides multiply the flavor factor of glutamates by 20 times. So salt penetrates the meat and adds flavor, tomato paste or soy sauce penetrates and adds flavor, and beef broth penetrates and boosts the flavors 20 times.

You can watch the episode, which uses the marinade for beef kebabs, or you can read the kebab recipe (kebab tip: skewer the meat separately from the vegetables to compensate for the different cooking times involved for each). The show also offers the best recipe I've ever seen for spanikopita.

Anyway, now you know the secret to preparing a marinade, as host Christopher Kimball says, "that actually works."

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The reason they used regular salt rather than kosher is that they put the salt into the marinade and claimed it dissolves more fully than the larger crystals.

FCI Alumni '87
FCI Alumni '87

IMHO I think "Diamond Crystal" kosher salt(red&white package) is preferable to table salt. If you do a side by side taste test, you will find that the kosher salt actually enhances the flavor of the product whereas the table salt just has a metalic, salty flavor


Best way to avoid burning and sticking from a wet marinade is to pat the meat totally dry before placing on the grill. It may seem as though you're wiping off all of the marinade, but by the time it's ready for the grill, the flavors from the marinade should be inside the meat.

FCI Alumni '87
FCI Alumni '87

I have found that using wet marinades with any kind of sugar in them, tends to caramelize and burn if put on a hot grill or flat top for a quick sear. I generally use a dry rub and a small amount of some type of flavored oil and maybe some fresh herbs and fresh, crushed garlic cloves and mirepoix(thin cut onions, celery, carrots). I will sear the meat first and then baste with a wet marinade(that may have some type of sugar content in the ingredients) about halfway through the cooking process. This will help the meat caramelize with a nice finish, rather than a charred piece of meat that has a bitter flavor to it from over caramelization...


Hi Eleanor, Soy sauce may not always taste Asian, but there are recipes where you may not want that flavor. For instance, the kebab marinade on the show uses tomato paste rather than soy because fresh rosemary is one of the other marinade ingredients -- when soy was used, it tasted like "rosemary teriyaki" according to the host, which isn't what they wanted.

Philipe Chow
Philipe Chow

Go work @ PF Changs, sounds like u are the expert

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