Flavor & Menu Trends

The Art of Marinating

The use of a flavored acid, oil, or combination thereof, to season, preserve, tenderize, or lubricate protein, is a technique that has been used by cooks of every civilization for thousands of years.

The use of a flavored acid, oil, or combination thereof, to season, preserve, tenderize, or lubricate protein, is a technique that has been used by cooks of every civilization for thousands of years. A marinade can be a vinaigrette used to enhance the flavor of chicken, or it can be a flavored oil to help preserve the life of a meat or fish. Marinating is not confined to savory foods, but extends to the maceration of fruit in liquor or the use of simple syrups. The amount of protein connective tissue, texture, balance of flavors, seasoning, amount of marinade, and time, are important variables to be mastered by any aspiring chef.

With regard to proteins, one of the primary considerations is that of connective tissue. The more fat, the greater the amount of time in the marinade. A skinned, boneless chicken breast, for example, has little if any connective tissue and therefore would require less than two hours in a properly seasoned marinade. A piece of flank steak, by comparison, contains much more fat and consequently could be marinated overnight or longer. In banquet cooking, the issue of connective tissue is paramount because it often determines the choice of meat based on how far ahead of the function it can be prepared. Similarly, a meat with a dense texture requires more, and longer, seasoning than one of delicate structure. Marinating an eight ounce tuna steak, for example, requires more time than, say, an eight ounce fillet of sole. One other point of consideration regarding texture lies in the decision to marinate at all. When preparing fish like the aforementioned sole, one must ascertain the possible damage to the fillet as a result of marinating, as an acidic marinade could cause the fish to fall apart, thus ruining the presentation.

For purposes of our discussion, “balance of flavors” refers to the proper combination of acid to oil and any herbs or spices added thereafter. “Seasoning,” on the other hand, relates only to the use of salt and black pepper to enhance the previous flavors. Most chefs advocate an acid as part of any marinade, since it is this component which has the capacity to break down connective tissue, thereby tenderizing protein. In today’s restaurant kitchen, however, acids are frequently avoided, at least to some extent, for that very reason. That is, by breading down connective tissue, they actually start to “cook” the food. In cases where this is not desirable, one of two solutions is possible. A marinade of flavored oil (garlic infused olive oil, basil oil, etc.) is substituted, or a marinade containing a very small amount of acid is utilized to inhibit the “cooking” process.

The amount of marinade used to flavor/tenderize protein is also open to debate. The obvious avoidance of having meat such as a flank steak “swimming’ in a marinade is self-evident in the case of grilling, as excess oil causes excess flame and charring of the meat. Too little marinade, on the other hand, accomplished nothing other than lubrication. My particular preference is to coat the food enough that there is an ounce or two of liquid leftover in the bottom of the container, using an assertively seasoned 2:1 ratio of oil to acid. There are exceptions, of course, as noted in the recipes that follow this article. The primary consideration is to provide a balance of all elements so that there is not too much marinade, too little flavor, or too much acidity. Herein lies the thesis of this article: The mastery of marinating takes time, experimentation, common sense, and above all, a good palate.

Note the follow diagram showing my preference for slightly underseasoning food going to the table, and overseasoning a marinade:

Marinade _______________________
Normal Seasoning for a finished Dinner------------------
Too Bland ==============

The concept of “time” has been previously mentioned with regard to the amount of connective tissue contained by a particular protein. Chicken, shrimp, delicate fishes such as sole or flounder, and scallops require less time in the marinade. Beef, pork, lamb, and heavier fishes like marlin or tuna can survive much longer without losing their own flavors in favor of the marinade.


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