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Marinades Demystified: How, When, and Why to Marinate

Pouring marinade over a baking dish of beef short ribs to make galbi

This week we’re settling some of the hardest-hitting questions and myths in the marinade game. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering things like “How long should I marinate this for?” or “How does a more acidic marinade impact my finished meal?” then this one’s for you.

We’ve even developed a marinade cheat sheet to help out when you just need a quick reference on general marinade recommendations. Feel free to go ahead and print it out so you can stick it on your fridge like the little piece of functional art that it is.

What do marinades actually do?

First, and most obviously, they flavor your food. The acids and aromatics chosen for your marinade work to gradually penetrate the surface level of your food and impart their own distinct flavors.

Second, they can help to tenderize food. The addition of acids like vinegar, wine, and/or citrus juice can help to break down tough or gamey cuts of meat to a more desired texture, but beware — meats left to marinate for too long may become overly mushy or tough depending on the nature of your marinade. Pro tip: Use pineapple juice! Pineapple juice does way more than add a nice tropical touch to your flavor. It also contains an enzyme called bromelain, which dissolves collagen fibers — tenderizing your meat to the max and enabling it to absorb even more flavor.

Third, because marinades usually contain salt, they can also act like a brine — preserving moisture in the food you’re marinating. How? The presence of salt alters the structure of some proteins in the muscle. This also creates more gaps to be filled with marinade, storing additional moisture.

Marinated teriyaki chicken breast sliced and served on a bed of white rice

Do all foods benefit from a marinade?

The short answer is that the benefits of a marinade are all down to the food you’re marinating, what you’re using to marinate it, and how long you choose to marinate it.

Meats that are bland and/or super easy to dry out on the grill (we’re looking at you, chicken breast) are some of the best candidates for marinating — benefitting from moisture retention and added flavor during the grilling process. Having said that, over-marinating is most definitely a thing. Aromatics from marinades don’t actually seep their way that far into the meat; in fact, they are only able to penetrate just a few millimeters below surface level. Because of this, a shorter marinade time of around an hour can be just as effective as several hours, especially when dealing with more delicate foods, such as fish.

The amount of time used to marinate different cuts of meat can make or break your marinating experience. Too long in an acidic marinade can affect the protein structure of your meat, leading to an undesirably tough texture. Too long in an enzymatic marinade like pineapple juice can break your food down past the point of enjoyable — crossing over from perfectly moist to outright mushy.

General rules of thumb:

  • Fish and seafood: 15 to 30 minutes
  • Chicken: About 2 hours
  • Pork or Beef: Up to 12 hours
  • Tough root veggies: Up to 2 hours
  • Softer veggies: About 30 minutes
  • The strength of your marinade may dictate a shorter or longer marinating time.
  • When in doubt, follow your recipe or search the internet to see what results people have had using a similar marinade.
  • Keep this simple reference guide on your fridge:

    Slices of beef in a kimchi marinade sealed in a vacuum-seal bag on a wooden cutting board

    Myth: Chamber or vacuum sealing will help your marinade seep into your food faster

    In the myriad of marinade myths, this is perhaps the biggest of them all and we’re happy to bust it. The answer is no, but both of these options can be more efficient because, in an airtight environment, you’ll need less marinade to fully coat your protein or vegetable. Plus, you don’t have to worry about your bag leaking all over your refrigerator.

    Why doesn’t it speed the process up? Meat marination is a chemical, not physical, process — just because the marinade is pulled tightly against the surface of your meat, it won’t force the liquid into the pores of the food. There’s no way to make that happen any quicker than the chemical process allows, so airtight seals aren’t a magical solution to making your meat quickly imbibe its marinade.

    Placing a vacuum-seal bag of marinated ribs in a water bath to cook sous vide

    Can I sous vide my food in marinade?

    Technically yes and no. Flavor-boosting marinades without a lot of salt and citrus are fine to cook in due to their mild nature. Those with tenderizing or brining capabilities (and also alcohol) will be detrimental to the food, as it will cause over-marination. Another thing to note is that cooked meat doesn’t absorb marinades, and the outside of meats cook in roughly 5 to 10 minutes sous vide, so you always want to marinate first before sous vide cooking — even if you leave the marinade in the bag.

    Chicken wings in a sweet and spicy marinade sealed in a zipper-lock bag on a wooden cutting board

    Can I marinade in anything that will hold liquid?

    Although we wish you could, there are definitive restrictions that you need to keep in mind when it comes to marinade containers. Reactive metals and glazes can impart unwanted, dangerous chemicals into your food when they come into contact with acid from marinades. Check out the list below for our safety recommendations.

    Don’t use:

  • Aluminum foil
  • Glazed or porous ceramic bowls
  • Metal containers other than stainless steel
  • Do use:

  • Vacuum seal or zipper-lock bags
  • Make sure they’re high-quality and freezer-safe. Knock-off bags are often made from lower-quality plastics that are much more likely to leech unwanted chemicals into your delicious meal.
  • Glass containers
  • Stainless steel containers
  • Rigid food-safe plastic containers
  • Korean Galbi

    What are some of the best recipes to get me started?

    Unsure of where to begin the road to marinade mastery? Try some of our community favorites from the Anova recipe site.

    Precision™ Oven Recipes:

  • Korean Short Ribs
  • Teriyaki-ish Chicken
  • Marinated Tri-Tip
  • Bourbon-Brown Sugar Turkey Breast
  • Sous Vide Recipes:

  • Sous Vide Pork Belly Bowl
  • Chicken Thighs in Yogurt Marinade
  • Greek Chicken Pitta Wraps
  • Grain Food: Baking Bread with Whole Grain Flours

    Slices of whole wheat sourdough bread on a black metal background with one slice topped with butter

    At some point, every bread baker wonders if there isn’t more to life than refined flour and the fluffy, snow-white crumbed loaves it produces. Don’t get me wrong: I love white flour breads myself, and I still bake them regularly. But limiting yourself to working with just one type of flour, and a mild-mannered one at that, is akin to cooking with just one spice, exclusively. There is a whole world of possibilities in bread baking beyond what white flours alone can provide, and there are ever more options for the baker ready to make the leap into using whole grain flours.

    Of course, one reason we use white flour is that it is a grain that has been distilled to its structural essence—nearly pure gluten and starch, it is the scaffolding that breads and other baked goods require to have their appropriate shape and texture. Because whole grain flours contain all of the other components of the grain, they necessarily have less of these structural elements, so there is a risk when working with them that breads’ texture and rise will suffer. The good news is that in many instances results may change, but not necessarily for the worse, and there are ways to minimize these changes if that’s your goal. Meanwhile, even adding a modest amount of whole grain flour to your breads will pay major dividends in flavor, character, and nutrition.

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    How Chamber Vacuum Sealers Unlock Modernist Culinary Techniques at Home

    Stoneware bowl of potato gnocchi with pickled mushrooms and micro greens made using the Anova Precision Chamber Vacuum Sealer

    You may have seen chamber vacuums (or CVacs, for short) in restaurant kitchens. They are typically used for creating airtight seals on food items that may need to be stored or cooked sous vide, as well as for special techniques like compression and infusion. In this blog post, I’ll be breaking down some of the science of chamber vacuum sealers so you can decide if this is an appliance that would be useful for your own kitchen, professional or otherwise.

    For me, CVacs have always been one of those specialty appliances, alongside PacoJets and blast chillers, that make fine-dining cooking so difficult to replicate at home. At one fancy kitchen, we would use a CVac to compress persimmons in a light syrup until glossy and mosaic-like. At another, we used it to vacuum seal big bags of chicken bones with water and aromatics to be cooked sous vide — an excellent way to ensure proper stock consistency. During a stint interning at a seafood distribution facility, we used CVacs to seal small jars of ultra-luxe caviar so they would stay fresh longer. My favorite application, though, was probably watching pastry chefs aerate chocolate in them. What a delight to see those big bubbles captured in chilled chocolate form!

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    The Anova Precision Oven is a Parent’s Secret Weapon

    Homemade dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets with barbecue sauce in a blue-green kids bowl.

    When I first found out I was pregnant, I spent countless hours researching everything. I hopped from mommy blog to mommy blog looking for the best diapers, changing tables, swaddles, baby monitors, mattresses, and sound machines. And as a trained cook, I always thought that when it came to my kids, I would make all of their food from scratch and my desire to do so was supported by my research.

    I swore that I would never purchase store-bought baby food or microwavable dinners. I exclusively nursed my daughter until she was about six months old and then my husband and I decided to begin the process of introducing her to solids. Her very first meal was mashed sweet potatoes that I painstakingly steamed, blended, and served to our baby girl.

    For weeks, in the beginning of our journey to introduce our child to solids, I would carefully select only the best organic vegetables and fruits and spend hours making them into digestible purées and compotes, only to have my efforts end up on the floor—a treat for our two dogs.

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    4th of July Weekend Recipes

    Whether you’re bringing a single dish to a potluck or hosting a full-on feast for family and friends, your sous vide is a guaranteed ace up the sleeve over the upcoming 4th of July weekend.

    We’ve rounded up some of our favorite cookout recipes (both traditional and with modern twists) to get you off to a solid start. Think all-American BBQ classics, but forget anything and everything about all the times they’ve wound up too bland, burnt, and dry to have anyone heading back for seconds. Check them all out below.

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    Eating with the seasons: Sous vide recipes

    Eating with the seasons is one of life’s simple pleasures. In-season food is more flavorful, typically contains more nutrients, and is fresher than most food consumed out of season. The only down side is that summer only comes once a year, so you’d better take advantage while you can! What better way to celebrate this wildly bountiful season than by using sous vide to bring out the best in all the fresh food options at your fingertips?
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    Get to know #anovafoodnerd Mom Christina Toh!

    There is nothing we can say or do that properly conveys how much love we have for Moms across the world, but we are going to attempt it! Every so often, as we’re scrolling social media and our community pages, someone JUMPS off the page and stops us in our tracks. Christina Toh did just that. Ever since she unboxed her Anova Precision® Oven, she has been sharing her creations far and wide and has inspired thousands! Meet Christina below!

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    Meet #anovafoodnerd Super Mom Alice Wan!

    Mother’s Day is upon us food nerds! If you can, do Mom a solid and give her a call and tell her how much you love her. That will go a LONG ways.

    Our Mother’s Day series continues with #anovafoodnerd Alice Wan. Alice has been cooking with the Anova Precision® Oven and jumped at the opportunity to share her story about how using the APO at home is just what their small family needed!

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    Celebrate Earth Month with Fresh Local and Seasonal Seafood!

    It’s still Earth Month, food nerds, and we’re back with our second and final Q&A featuring Monique of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. For those who are unfamiliar, MCFA works to enhance the sustainability of Maine’s fisheries by advocating for the needs of community-based fishermen and the environmental restoration of the Gulf of Maine.

    Following last week’s Q&A, we received many questions about how to buy local seafood, the best way to store it, and of course how to cook that seafood once it’s in your fridge or freezer. We’ll let Monique fill you in!

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