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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
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