Food scientists (and research chefs) know that a well-designed, functional marinade system alters protein structures, increases water-binding abilities, adds flavors and actually increases yields. However, many meat scientists rarely use the term “marinade” at all. In fact, in Meat Science and Applications (Y. H. Hui and Robert W. Rogers, Marcel Dekker 2001), the word marinade is given less than 100 a 700-page book! Many chapters are devoted to brining, curing, flavoring and seasoning. In fact, the gourmet chef using a secret marinade and the food scientist with a Ph.D. are both working to achieve the same objective: added value. Be it called a brine, cure, bath or soak, it is still a marinade. Today's high-tech flavors and processes improve products and add value.

Some chefs tell us that “marinade” is derived from the Italian word “marinare,” which means to soak or pickle in brine. The true origin of the word may be lost in history. Wherever the technique was created, marinades were used, traditionally, on lean, dry cuts of meat and had three primary functional ingredients: acid, oil or other liquid and aromatics. Acid was added to tenderize the meat by breaking down muscle fibers. Oil and other liquids were used to coat the meat so it remains moist during cooking. Aromatics, which were the heart of the marinade, created distinct flavor profiles or enhanced the primary protein.

From Kitchen Counter To Vacuum Tumbler

When designing a marinade system, the two most important functional ingredients are, perhaps, salt and phosphates. When combined, phosphate and sodium chloride work synergistically to modify muscle fibers by promoting swelling and myosin extraction. During rigor mortis, certain components of meat-muscle change, actomyosin forming from myosin and actin, which reduces water retention. The addition of phosphates—via a functional marinade—inhibits actomyosin formation. This will help hold water in the system. However, it is important to note the USDA restricts the concentration of phosphates to 0.5% in all final products.

Salt can be used to control purging of moisture, by modifying ionic strength in the solution. And, of course, salt increases water binding in meats by solubilizing proteins. Today's consumers are far more sodium-conscious than those of years past. Therefore, typical commercial marinades contain levels of sodium below 1%, compared to levels as high as 2% a decade ago. Of course, every chef knows that salt is a key flavor component. Caution must be exercised when reducing sodium levels lest the final flavor of a product be negatively impacted.

While restaurant chefs may simply toss tonight's special into a Cambro container and cover the product in a flavorful liquid, modern processors use a variety of mechanical aids to speed and improve “pick up” and retention of the marinade.

Simply allowing meat to soak in a solution will yield only a shallow surface penetration. Meat tissue that comes in contact with acids or enzymes present in most marinades will begin to breakdown. If allowed to continue too long, the surface may become “mushy” long before the internal fibers absorb the desired flavors and fluids. The answer to this problem is injection, massaging and/or vacuum tumbling. While every manufacturing situation is different, generally, marinade temperatures should be as low as possible. All ingredients must be incorporated properly into the solution, and any particulates must be small enough to be effectively injected via needle. Injector dwell time, percentage of vacuum and time in the tumbler all need to be adjusted to each product.

How a marinade is incorporated must be based on the product size and the desired function of the marinade. Applying a marinade either by injection, tumbling/soaking or dry rub will change how the flavors are perceived. Injecting distributes the functional ingredients evenly throughout the product. The impact of tumbling and soaking actually depends on the size of the product. On a smaller item, the flavors will be distributed throughout the entire product while marinade particulates remain on the meat surface. When tumbling larger cuts of meat, the marinade will not easily penetrate or distribute evenly throughout the meat. Using a dry rub or tumbling the meat is best when trying to concentrate flavors on the meat surface.

From “Everyday” To Gourmet

Yakitori, Bombay Chicken Tikka and Sate' Ayoun are all simply grilled chicken until the bold and distinct flavors are provided by a marinade. Each of these chicken dishes acquires its unique character by soaking up the solution, creating a solid flavor foundation.

Like a sauce, a well-designed marinade will enhance and lend unique flavors to the product to which it is applied. Examples of this are on grocery store shelves. Consumers have developed an increasingly sophisticated palate and crave something unique. Due to this desire, the variety of commercially produced marinades is expanding rapidly. The flavor profiles of the marinades are becoming defined. For example, instead of just finding jerk marinades on the shelf, there is a tropical fruit jerk marinade or a spicy jerk marinade. Instead of Asian or Teriyaki sauce, it is Thai Red Curry, Korean Honey Sesame or Balinese Tomato sauces.

Various products are added to pre-marinated raw meat products to mimic the taste or appearance of a particular cooking process. In a Kansas City-style marinade for barbecue, a liquid or dry hickory smoke will be added to the ribs to achieve a “smoked over an open pit taste” out of the consumers' oven. Though barbecue marinades are a large group of products that use natural flavor ingredients to create a particular cooking method, they are not limited to barbecue alone. In a Chimichurri marinade where a “seared on a cast iron grate over a roaring fire” taste is desired, an ashy mixed hardwood smoke is used. In a “grilled” herb marinated skinless breast of chicken, grill flavors are added to lend an “off the grill” taste—whether cooked in the oven or placed on the grill. Certain coloring agents are added to marinades to aid in color development. For example, a marinade for roast pork will contain a browning agent to lend a uniform caramelized appearance every time, instead of the grayish hue that often appears if it is not seared prior to roasting.

Typically, raw ingredients are used in a marinade but, in some, the ingredients are cooked to lend a smoky note or richness in flavor. A Mexican Adobo marinade is made with charred chilies, onions, garlic, and tomatoes. A Moroccan Berber spice marinade is made from toasting the spices before they are ground and added to the marinade. Chinese salted black bean marinade obtains a pungent ashy flavor by fermenting the black beans. Just as natural smoke or grill flavors are used to mimic the taste of a cooking process for a protein, they can be used in marinades. A standard mesquite smoke would be used in the Mexican Adobo. An ashy dry smoke would be used to create the char notes found in the Moroccan Berber. In the Chinese salted black bean marinade, a yeast-based mesquite smoke would be used to obtain a pungent ashy quality. Grill flavors are not always used in marinades to create a full flavor grill taste. They sometimes are used at lower levels to lend a rich, meaty flavor without having to use a particular protein.

Marinades vs. Carcinogens

Perhaps the most interesting new development in the use of marinades is the possibility that they reduce the formation of cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). These carcinogens have been found in grilled meats and are more prevalent in the “leaner cuts” being recommended by nutritionists.

Recent testing by both the American Institute for Cancer Research (Washington) and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Livermore, Calif.) have indicated very significant reductions in the amount of HCAs present in grilled meats that had been marinated before cooking.

While the final verdict may still be out on this topic, everyone does agree on the fact that marinades and smoke flavors add value and improve the palatability of foods. From America's finest restaurants to the world's largest food processors, meats are being improved through the use of flavorful, well-designed marinades.

Website Resources — Good information about meat jerky marinades 2001/2001_01/0101dfch.htm — Working with meat marinades — Interesting marinade factoids — For barbecue enthusiasts

For more information

R. T. Toledo, Marination Technologies, University of Georgia/Food Science Dept. Y.H. Hui, Wai-Kit Nip, et al., Meat Science and Applications

Basting, Brining and Marinating, “Marinades and Smoke Flavors 'Cure' Meat Headaches,” USDA - Food Safety and Inspection Service