20,000 Leagues Under the Sauce: The Science of Marination

It seems like fairly common knowledge that if you want a tender and flavorful piece of meat, you throw that meat in a marinade, but have you ever really stopped to think about why? Turns out there’s a lot more to marination than just mixing together a tasty sauce, it’s actually a complex chemical process that goes from the moment the marinade hits the meat to the moment the meat hits your mouth. Take a dip in the cool, tenderizing waters of marination and experience the difference the right marinade makes, or enjoy the results of a marinade without the effort using any of Oliver’s made-in-house Marinated Selections! With everything from steaks to chicken and much, much more, they’re the perfect way to make marinating your dinner even easier, plus stop in this week for exclusive deals on a variety of our favorite Marinated Selections!

*Sale prices good through 3/3/20.

Visualize, if you will, a steak. This steak is the most glorious steak you’ve ever seen, all golden and caramelized and whatnot, but when you go to take a bite, when you’ve almost entered the meaty gates of Steak Heaven, that’s when you realize… it’s… TOUGH! And, sacrebleu, not only is it tough, it’s…it’s…. DRY. Thus, what should have been a rapturous dance through a field of delicious flavors and textures becomes an arduous crawl through the dry, desiccated landscape of a desolate meat desert. Yes, nothing ruins a good meal faster than a badly treated piece of meat, but it doesn’t have to be like this – there is another way. There is a way to turn out glorious, tender and flavorful meat every time, and it can be prepared in only a few short minutes right in your own kitchen.

Introducing, the marinade.

Alright, obviously marinades are nothing new, but how many people can honestly say they know exactly what it is about marinades that makes them such a fantastic spa treatment for meat. Is it the acid factor, is it the liquid? Can you over-marinade meat or under-marinade it? And why exactly are people so fired up about pineapples and papayas? As it turns out, marinades are not only packed with flavor, they’re packed with one of our favorite seasonings of all time – science! Marinating meats is the most delicious chemistry experiment on the planet, and understanding the science behind it makes for even better marinades and way tastier meals. Join us on a journey deep into the marinade as we take you through all the science to make your marinades even better and give you total meat mastery!

Let’s Talk About You & “Meat”

Now, before we can get lost in the sauce (so to speak), we need to break down what it is about meat that makes it tender or tough in the first place. What we call “meat” is essentially just the muscle tissue of an animal, as well as connective tissues made from collagen and elastin. Muscles are made of bundles of muscle cells known as muscle fibers. These tightly bound fibers are themselves made of a combination of different protein filaments, and it’s these filaments that are responsible for making muscles contract and move. Movement itself requires a huge amount of energy, which the protein filaments find in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP has the unique ability to bind with certain molecules in the body and carry them to the muscles to induce a contraction; this is a process that starts in the brain, and it’s a process that ceases when the animal dies. With no more electrical impulses or chemical reactions being started by the brain, muscles have to looks elsewhere for energy to move, which is found in the form of glycogen.

This sugar, which is stored in the muscles in case of food shortages, breaks down quite rapidly and causes the creepy twitching that can sometimes go along with a death, as well as a rapid production of lactic acid. Lactic acid is a natural byproduct produced by cells when they use energy; in a living animal, this acid may build up in the muscles following exercise or heavy exertion, but it will eventually disperse thanks to the flow of blood through the body. In a dead one, it will stay in the muscles much longer, and this can affect the texture of the meat greatly. Too much, and the meat will be watery and mealy; too little, and the meat becomes tough and dry. Additionally, as the lactic acid builds up in the muscles, it produces calcium, which then causes the muscle contractions scientists call rigor mortis. If an animal is butchered and the meat is frozen before the muscles have exited this stage, the fibers in the meat will remain tightly bunched together, leading to an insanely tough piece of meat. Aging meat slightly before freezing helps to tenderize it thanks to enzymes that eventually begin breaking down the bundles of proteins; as a result, high quality meats are often aged for a time before being served. Cooking further helps to break down collagen, softening it and turning it to the compound gelatin, but tissues made from elastin will not break down at all and need to be trimmed before cooking begins.

Unfortunately, aging and trimming a piece of meat can only do so much, particularly if the cut contains a lot of tough connective tissues or if it came from a part of the animal that saw a lot of stress during the animal’s life. It can also be very expensive to purchase well-aged pieces of meat, and I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t have the space or time to dry-age my own steaks at home. Luckily, marinades exist!

Love “Meat” Tender

So, we’ve established what meat it is and why you would want to tenderize it – let’s get into the “how”. Marinating meat is a cooking twofer: you tenderize your meat in less time than it would take to dry-age it, and you saturate what might otherwise be a bland or dry piece of meat in flavor and moisture. Your basic marinade is going to contain a few different components:

  • Oil, for sealing in moisture and carrying flavor
  • Spices/Herbs, for adding flavors
  • Acid/Enzymes, for tenderizing

You’ll notice we included both acids and enzymes as tenderizers, but there is a significant difference in the way each goes to work on a piece of meat, and understanding that difference can be the line between the perfect dinner and a meal gone horribly wrong. Acid can be found in everything from citrus fruits to yogurt to vinegar, and acidic marination is actually fairly similar to the process of cooking with heat. Remember those tightly bundled proteins we mentioned earlier? The individual protein strands are actually coiled up within the bundles; when heat is applied, those proteins begin to unravel or denature, naturally tenderizing the meat. If you cook meat long enough with a lot of liquid, those proteins will eventually come apart entirely, which is why most recipes for tough cuts of meat require a long stretch of braising. Marinating meat in an acidic solution beforehand can reduce the amount of cooking time needed to produce the desired tenderness, and acidic flavors have the added benefit of increasing salivation, which in turn helps tenderize the meat further as you chew it! Acidic marination does come with a few unfortunate drawbacks, namely the possibility of over-marination. Much like overcooking a piece of meat, over-marinating with acid can cause the proteins to denature to such a degree that they begin to lose water, causing the meat to become dry and tough. The acid also doesn’t break down any of the proteins, just denatures them, so while it might improve the flavor and tenderness of a thin cut of meat with a lot of surface area, it’s going to do a load of bupkis against anything dense and chunky.

For the heftier players out there, we present enzymes! As we said before, acids can only denature proteins, not break them down. This poses a problem when working with cuts that contain high amounts of tough connective tissue, particularly elastin. Unlike collagen, elastin won’t liquify when exposed to high heat or acid; instead, it remains tough and chewy, and no amount of cooking or marinating will help. Sometimes this tough connective tissue is easy to spot and can be cut away before cooking, but more often, it’s laced throughout the meat and can’t reasonably be removed – time bring in the enzymes. Enzymes are funky little fellows: they’re considered catalysts, so they speed up chemical reactions within organic material, and in humans, they can be found in practically every system in the body, especially the digestive system. In fact, we owe a lot to our own digestive enzymes, as they’re responsible for breaking down proteins at the molecular level and therefore powering our bodies. These same digestive enzymes can also be found in a number of fruits, including papayas, pineapples, and kiwis, and many fermented foods are also great sources of digestive enzymes.

Unlike acids, enzymes require a certain amount of heat to go about their business, and they won’t start working until heat is applied. This means that dishes like Korean Beef Bulgogi or Mexican Pork Al Pastor – which include enzymatic fruits in their marinades – don’t really get too much tenderization from their marinades. Instead, the marinade’s main job is to load the meat full of flavor and moisture, with a little tenderization on the side; it isn’t until the meat hit the grill that the enzyme magic starts to happen. Enzyme-based marinades tend to work best for dishes that require high heat and fast cooking, namely because this curtails their natural tendency to keep digesting protein until there’s nothing left to digest. You wouldn’t want to braise a pork roast in pineapple, for example, because the relatively low heat and long cooking time would result in a porky puddle of pineapple slop – not nice. It’s for the same reason that would also not want to over-marinade with enzymes, as it will result in weirdly mushy, very unpleasant meat. Thirty minutes should be plenty of time to get lusciously tender cuts of meat!

More Than “Meats” the Eye

So far, we’ve talked a lot about why you would want to use a marinade and how a marinade actually works, but we haven’t said much about what you should marinade at all. As with all of life, some cuts of meat are better to marinade than others, though there are techniques to get the most out of your marinade even with larger cuts. The main concept to keep in mind is contact. In order to work, marinades but be in contact with as much of the meat as possible, and any area not covered in marinade will unfortunately miss out on the many benefits of marination. To combat this, choose cuts with a thin and flat, with a large amount of surface area. The more surface area there is, the more area for the marinade to absorb into the meat and do its marinade-thing. While you can inject marinades in thicker cuts, it still won’t have the same kind of effect as a full-contact marinade and may still result in patchy flavor and tenderness, not to mention all the moisture that will escape through the holes you poked. Instead, we prefer a brine for larger, more dense cuts – you can check out our blog on the wonders of brining here! To the same end, you’ll also want to remove as much air from between the meat and the marinade as possible. Many people achieve this by marinating meats in resealable, airtight plastic bags, as it allows them to remove the majority of the air from the bag before leaving it in the fridge. While it may not give you the same kind of seal or pressure as a vacuum sealer machine would, it will still get rid of enough air for any home cook to use.

There’s also the connective tissue to consider; we know we keep coming back to it, but it’s one of the main reasons we’re here. Certain cuts contain vast quantities of connective tissue while others really contain very little. This discrepancy means that certain meats are going to prefer a long marinating time, while other require a very short time, and still others will be somewhere in the middle. Delicate meats like fish and shellfish require very little marinating time at all and will often become over-marinated if left for more than a half an hour before cooking. Some dishes don’t even require cooking, such is the power of the acidic marinade – fresh ceviche is one of the most popular, with the fresh fish never seeing fire at all and instead being cooked entirely by the lime and lemon juice in its marinade. Thin cuts can also be susceptible to over-marination, even they contain more connective tissues than fish. Slightly tougher meats, like pork chops or chicken breasts, are much easier to marinade and can be left for anywhere from an hour to several days, depending on the ingredients in the marinade. Even tougher cuts like certain steaks benefit from long periods of marination, and some really high-end cuts are left in their delicious flavor baths all the way up to a week! Take the time consider what cut of meat is being used in your dish and as well as the ingredients in your marinade and adjust the marination time accordingly.

All this chemistry is making us hungry! This week, harness the power of the marinade for yourself with the help of Oliver’s Markets. We have all the ingredients you need to begin preparing fresh, flavorful marinated meals tonight, or let us do the work and pick up one of our house made Marinated Selections! With everything from tenderloins and chicken, even whole tri tips, it’s the perfect way to make a delicious dinner with half the effort – check out these recipes to help get you to marination station!

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