Are marinades worth the effort?

Espresso marinade

It's pretty common for cooks to marinate meats before putting them on the grill or in the slow cooker. But do these concoctions do what they claim - tenderizing the meat and adding loads of flavor? Russ Parsons of The LA Times says no. He thinks that for the most part, marinades are a waste of time.

In fact, says Parsons, long-soaking marinades can actually have a detrimental effect. Marinades high in acids like vinegar or lemon juice can make the meat mealy. But even if it doesn't do harm, a marinade is unlikely to impart flavors into your food. Parsons notes that although "composing complicated marinades may be satisfying on a certain intuitive level, with few exceptions, the mixture won't do much more than coat the surface of the meat. It won't tenderize it, and it will only impart the more forceful flavors."

Most cuts of meat, he says, are too thick to get much of the flavor from the marinade, as it will only penetrate into the top few millimeters. That can be okay for thinner cuts of meat like chicken or steaks. But for the big cuts like pork shoulder or beef roasts, the marinade won't do much to add flavor. Brining these large cuts, on the other hand, does work, "because salty water can more easily penetrate the meat than an oil-based marinade. And brining does more than just give flavor. It actually makes the meat seem juicier by increasing protein's ability to retain moisture," Parsons notes.

Do you agree with Parsons' assessment of the usefulness of marinades? If not, what kinds of marinades do you use?

Photo of Espresso marinade and others from Marinades: The Quick-Fix Way to Turn Everyday Food into Exceptional Fare, with 400 Recipes by Lucy Vaserfirer 

2 Comments

  • Foodycat  on  8/14/2015 at 4:37 AM

    Totally agree! They usually either taste of nothing or taste so strongly you might as well marinade a kitchen sponge. And mostly they burn on the grill before the meat is properly cooked. I've made one tandoori-style marinade for lamb chops which contains some papaya - so it really does tenderise the meat and also gives a lot of flavour, but most of the time I'd rather serve a sauce on the side.

  • BethNH  on  8/16/2015 at 2:21 PM

    I learned all this from America's Test Kitchen years ago. That being said, they do recommend marinades for smaller cuts of meat. I use a marinade recipe from ATK for steak tips that is out of this world good. We wouldn't have steak tips any other way.

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