To marinate or not to marinate?

Using less tender cuts of meat for grilling by marinating stretches the food dollar.

Grilling is not just for hamburgers and hot dogs. Less tender cuts of meat can be made tender and flavorful by using a marinade.

What is a marinade?

A marinade is an herb rich acidic sauce that is used to tenderize and add flavor to foods, particularly protein foods.  Marinate is the verb form of marinade, meaning to soak the food in an acidic sauce adding flavor and tenderizing protein foods. Historically, marinades were briny, salty, sauces used to flavor, preserve or tenderize foods.

What are the ingredients in a marinade?

Traditionally, marinades have herbs, spices, an acid and oil. As the food stands in the marinade, the oil and the acid infuse the flavors of the herbs and spices into the food. The acid acts as a tenderizer, breaking down the cells and allowing the flavored oil to infuse itself into the food.

How long should you marinate your meat?

How long to marinate a piece of meat depends upon the cut, kind of meat and size. Denser meat, such as beef, pork or venison, can be marinated 24 hours or longer in the refrigerator. A light meat, such as chicken, can be marinated anywhere from two to 24 hours, whereas, seafood should only be marinated 15 to 60 minutes.  Thin cuts of meat take less time to marinate than thick cuts of meat.  The marinating process should take place in the refrigerator for food safety reasons.

How much marinade do you need?

When planning on how much marinade to make, the general formula is a 1/2 cup per pound of meat.  Keep in mind the three elements of a good marinade: acid, flavoring and oil. The acid content is used to tenderize the meat. As the acid acts on the protein content of the meat, little pockets are created where the flavors can enter, creating a tender flavorful cut of meat. When grilling a less tender cut of meat try using a marinade to tenderize it.  If the cut of meat is already thin, the marinade should only be used to provide flavor. Too much acid will make the meat bitter. There needs to be a delicate balance between acid, flavor and oil. Common foods used as an acid in a marinade are citrus, tomato juices and vinegars.

Oil moistens and flavors the meat. Any kind of cooking oil may be used in a marinade. Fresh and dried herbs and spices can provide a diversity of flavors.  Salt can be used to both flavor and tenderize meat. Molasses and sugar will give the meat a sweet flavor and increase the brown color of the meat. Garlic, ginger and soy sauce are commonly found in Asian marinades.

Michigan State University Extension recommends the following food safety tips for using a marinade:

  1. Always marinate in the refrigerator. It is important to keep the meat out of the temperature danger zone (40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit) so foodborne illness bacteria cannot grow.
  2. Never marinate in a metal container. The acid content of the marinade will react with the metal and cause a chemical poisoning. Use a plastic or glass container with plastic wrap. This method will require turning the meat. A plastic re-sealable bag can be used, which will make the coating of the meat much easier.
  3. Do not cross-contaminate! Never carry cooked meat on an unwashed plate that was used to transfer raw meat to the grill. The bacteria in the raw meat juices will be transferred to the cooked meat creating a foodborne illness situation. If you are planning to use some of the marinade to baste the meat during grilling, it is best to set aside the basting sauce before adding the meat to the marinade.
  4. Use a food thermometer to check that the meat has reached the required internal temperature.

The grilling season is upon us. Marinades provide an opportunity to use a less expensive cut of meat to stretch the food dollar when grilling.  Using marinades carefully, is another key to keeping food safe when grilling.  So the question is, are you going to marinate or not?

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