“Whenever I marinate steaks or chicken, I think I'm adding tons of flavor. But my marinades never deliver as much as I think they should. What am I doing wrong?” reader Arden Moore Reynolds of Andover, Massachusetts asked Milk Street.
It's an understandable frustration. Marinades are the showboaters of the culinary world. They look and sound good, but a lot of the time don’t actually do much.
You soak the meat in a slurry of bold, bright seasonings and herbs, yet somehow those flavors never seem to make it into the meat. Turns out, the problem comes down to solubility—the ability of one substance to dissolve into another. After all, that's what we're asking of a marinade—for the flavors of the seasonings to permeate the liquid, then dissolve into the meat.
For this to work, something in the marinade needs to draw those flavor molecules into the meat. Acids and oil, common marinade ingredients, do a poor job of penetrating meat proteins. The same is true for ingredients such as garlic. The flavor compounds in garlic are only 2.5 percent soluble by weight in water, which means little of it permeates the liquid. In addition, these flavor compounds dissolve best in fat, so the flavor remains either in the oil in the marinade (if there is oil) or on the outside of the meat.
Salt, however, is highly soluble. This is why brining works. Salt dissociates completely in water, producing ample sodium and chloride ions (weak acids such as vinegar produce few ions). These ions have electrical charges (sodium positive; chloride negative) which are attracted to charged meat proteins. This means they readily penetrate the meat, drawing liquid—and flavor—with them.
So to get more flavor from a marinade, always add plenty of salt or a salty ingredient, such as soy sauce. Don't want to use salt? Your best bet is to cook the food first, then bathe it in a marinade just before serving.
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