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All About Meat – Marinade

Looking for the secret to a flavor parade? Check out this article to know all there is to know about Marinade!

Understanding Marination

Marination, encompassing a wide spectrum of culinary practices, involves immersing food in a flavored liquid prior to cooking, typically for durations spanning from 30 minutes to a full 24 hours. This process entails the submerging of meats in a seasoned liquid referred to as a marinade before they are subjected to the heat of the stove or grill. Marinades often incorporate the utilization of an acidic component, such as vinegar or citrus juice, or an enzyme, such as mango, papaya, or kiwi fruit. These ingredients serve the dual purpose of elevating the taste profile and modifying the external texture of the meat.

The acid or enzyme found within the marinade assumes the role of inducing a weakening effect on the surface tissue of the meat. However, it is important that these elements are applied sensibly and for limited duration. Prolonged exposure to the acid or enzyme can lead to an undesirable outcome, rendering the meat overly soft, tough, and desiccated. A well-executed marinade, therefore, hinges on striking a harmonious equilibrium between acid, oil, and an assortment of seasonings.

Enhancing Surface Flavor

When meat is submerged in a marinade, the extent to which the flavor permeates is somewhat restricted, with only a few millimeters penetrating into the meat’s surface, at best. This technique is particularly effective when dealing with thinner, flat cuts of meat or portions sliced into cubes or strips. Consider an instance where a marinade comprises ginger, honey, and soy sauce. While the ginger and honey tend to remain concentrated on the meat’s exterior, the salt component within the soy sauce possesses the capacity to infiltrate deeper into the inner layers.

Absorbing Flavor Internally

Salt plays a pivotal role by initially extracting liquid from the meat through osmosis. Subsequently, the brine is reabsorbed into the meat, concurrently dismantling the muscle structures. However, this mechanism does not extend to larger constituents like spices, which tend to remain confined to the outer layer of the meat.

Ingredients in Meat Marination


Salt, being a small molecule, easily traverses the semipermeable membrane of meat tissue. In contrast, aromatics like pepper and garlic consist of larger molecules. The highly charged nature of salt attracts water more effectively than less charged (non-polar) molecules.

Molecular weight loosely corresponds with permeability through meat, as smaller molecules tend to pass through the semipermeable membrane more effortlessly. Additionally, molecules that dissociate into ions when in contact with water can permeate meat tissue to some degree.


Sugar, with its substantial molecular size (342.3 g/mol compared to salt’s 58.44 g/mol), cannot penetrate meat tissue effectively. Similarly, piperine, responsible for the pungency of black pepper, presents another sizable molecule (285.35 g/mol) devoid of magnetic charge, and its flavor doesn’t permeate the interior. Cuminaldehyde, the aromatic oil imparting cumin’s taste, is also relatively large (148.21 g/mol) and, therefore, does not deeply season the meat.


Interestingly allicin in garlic (162.28 g/mol) and eugenol in five-spice (164.2 g/mol), both relatively large molecules compared to salt, exhibits faint flavor penetration. This might be attributed to their slightly greater polarity (charged nature) in comparison to compounds like cuminaldehyde or piperine.

Interestingly, MSG with a molecular weight (169.11 g/mol) akin to allicin or eugenol, it readily dissociates into sodium and glutamate ions in water. This charged nature possibly facilitates its passage through meat tissue.

However, for the most part, seasonings do not permeate beyond the meat’s surface. To achieve deeper seasoning penetration, opt for ingredients with smaller flavor molecules, preferably those capable of dissociating into smaller, charged ions in water. Alternatively, consider modifying the meat itself, such as cutting it into smaller portions to increase the surface area, injecting a marinade, or using techniques like pounding or massaging to break up muscle tissue, thereby facilitating greater marinade penetration.


When it comes to infusing flavor deeply into meat through the marination process, it appears that fats do not play a significant role. Viewing this matter from a molecular perspective, the observation aligns with the fact that the permeability of meat to various molecules is predominantly contingent on both their size and magnetic charge. Fats, being substantial nonpolar molecules devoid of charge, do not easily, if at all, permeate meat.

So why is oil a common inclusion in marinades? Despite their incapacity to transfer flavor within the meat, fats do manage to impart a rich flavor to the meat’s surface. Additionally, they serve a dual purpose of efficiently conducting heat and preventing food from adhering to a hot surface. However, when it comes to imparting discernible flavor throughout the entirety of the meat, this is an aspiration that may not materialize.


In practice, it is customary to introduce acids like lemon juice, vinegar, or buttermilk into marinades. These acidic components alter the pH of the mixture, which, in turn, leads to the transformation of protein structures. In the most favorable scenarios, this alteration in protein conformation can render the meat more tender but leave the meat too long in or use too strong acid mixture and the meat ends up to be an inedible mush. Acids also have the capacity to enhance the meat’s water retention ability.

Nevertheless, acids are merely one facet in the broader spectrum of additives that can modify the texture and juiciness of meat. Elevating the pH of a marinade (with substances like baking soda or baking powder) also enhances the meat’s water-holding capacity. This occurs because a higher pH level impedes the tight bonding of intramuscular proteins during cooking, enabling water to become trapped between the proteins. Consequently, the meat retains more water and remains succulent. Notably, baking soda is a customary inclusion in marinades within Chinese cuisine, particularly for velveting purposes.

Enzymes, specifically proteases, like those present in pineapples, offers an avenue for meat tenderization. Unlike acids, which unfold proteins, proteases cleave proteins (such as collagen) into smaller units, consisting of individual amino acids. Consequently, meat treated with protease tends to exhibit a remarkably tender texture, almost to the point of disintegration. Prominent proteases like bromelain (from pineapple), papain (from papaya), and ficin (from the fig tree) are often deployed in industrial food preparations to tenderize meat.

Be careful with concentrations and marinating times as the meat can swiftly be altered from being enjoyable to becoming overly soft (in the case of bromelain), developing a metallic taste (when using baking soda), or rendering it inedible (long exposure to acid). Furthermore, it is advisable to avoid combining acids and bases within a marinade since they nullify each other’s effects.

Marination Summary

  • Marinade doesn’t penetrate meat. It only flavors the surface.
  • Prolonged Soaking is Futile—Possibly Harmful
  • Marinades Best Suited for Thin Cuts
  • Using Acid/Base/Enzyme require precise amounts and timing for successful marination

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