As “stay at home” and “stay safe” initiatives persist around the world to stem the spread of COVID-19, international travel for fun is still on the “no-no” list of activities. Of course health and safety must be prioritized, but I’m sure right now many people are looking forward to the days when they can see and experience new surroundings. One of the best parts of travel is trying foods of different cultures. They can literally add spice to our lives and allow us to appreciate flavors found all over the world. But while nothing can replace the actual experience of trekking to another spot on the globe and sharing a meal with local people, migration and trade have allowed flavors and recipes to travel, as well. One great way to add international flavor to any meal is to use a marinade with the blank canvases of chicken breast, pork loin, beef steak, and other versatile proteins.
In my research for this post, I came across the handy acronym SOFA (salt, oil, flavorings, and acid) that describes the makeup of most marinade recipes (Goldwyn, 2013). One of my favorite go-to recipes, chicken fajita bowls, includes a marinade that follows this formula perfectly: salt, vegetable oil, spices and sugar, and red wine vinegar. The recipe for this marinade is at the bottom of the post. What makes this formula work so well, you ask? Let’s look at each component in turn.
Salt will draw water out of meat, and, once the surface of the meat is wetter than the interior, liquid enhanced with salt and flavoring will migrate inwards (Lenz, 2017). That’s osmosis in action. When preparing a marinade, be sure to dissolve salt completely with vigorous whisking, or instead use a salty liquid like soy sauce, fish sauce, or Worcestershire sauce (Lenz, 2017).
Oils can be used to impart flavor and serve as a background for any marinade, and one useful tip is to use a 1:1 ratio of neutral (e.g., canola) and flavorful (e.g., extra virgin olive) oils (Lenz, 2017). I also like the protective layer that oil provides when I add marinated meat to a hot pan or grill.
Flavorings can range far and wide, and, as I mentioned above, give a taste of cultures from all over the world. Try a mix of cinnamon, coriander, cumin, turmeric, saffron, and paprika for the flavors of Morocco, add allspice, chiles, cloves, cumin, oregano, and cilantro for a Mexican inspiration, or try any other combination of ingredients to travel the world without leaving your kitchen (Peterson, 2010). Opinions on whether alcohol of any kind should be added to a marinade vary: some say a small splash of wine, spirits, or beer can carry flavors into meat and our sensing organs (Joachim & Schloss, NA), others promote wine in marinades but not distilled spirits for the “gaminess” they can leave behind (Peterson, 2010), and some suggest cooking down alcohol and cooling it before use (Lenz, 2017; Goldwyn, 2013). If you’re curious about how your favorite bevvy might work in a marinade, feel free to experiment, but remember that with alcohol in marinades, as in many other situations, moderation is key.
In my earlier post Just Raised That pH like a ‘Phos, I mentioned how raising and lowering pH of meat increases water holding capacity. Both alkaline (basic) and acidic marinades can keep meat juicy, but acidic marinades can also cause collagen – the most abundant protein in the animal body and a principal component of connective tissue – to swell and experience disruption of hydrogen bonds within fibrils (Aberle, Forrest, Gerrard, Mills, 2001).
The amount of collagen and connective tissue found in muscle correlates to the level of activity demanded of a muscle, so cuts of meat from limbs of an animal benefit more from a marinade containing acid than cuts such as chicken breast or pork loin (Aberle et al, 2001). The figure below shows the structure of muscle with the layers of connective tissue that become tougher the farther they are from the muscle’s center.
While moist heat cookery is perhaps the best option to break down collagen and make large shoulder roasts, for example, more tender, cuts meant for quick, dry heat coking can be trimmed of excess connective tissue, sliced thinly against the grain, and be marinated for a limited amount of time. How long should meat marinate, you ask? That depends on meat type (Gavin, 2018).
- Seafood: limit to 30 minutes to prevent mushy meat.
- Poultry: thinner cuts can benefit from as little as 2 hours while thicker cuts can soak in marinade for a day.
- Beef and Pork: Tougher cuts in thin slices can marinate for up to 24 hours, but high-quality steaks with relatively less collagen do not need marinating at all.
Perhaps the SOFA acronym can be extended to become SOFAT, as tenderizing can be achieved through the use of enzymatic tenderizing and mechanical tenderizing through pounding and gashing meat (Aberle et al, 2001). Enzyme tenderizers are naturally found in papaya (papain) and pineapples (bromelain), and while these can certainly tenderize meat, they do their job incredibly well, and too much application can leave meat with a mushy texture (Aberle et al, 2001). This is the science behind why only canned pineapple tidbits should be used to stud Jell-O molds: the canning process destroys enzymes, but the active bromelain in fresh pineapple will eat away at gelatin that makes up Jell-O, leaving the dessert a disgusting blob.
So there we have it: marinades can enhance taste and change the texture of meat through salt, oils, flavors, acids, and tenderizing. While we’re all encouraged to stick close to home, we can use this time in our own kitchens to try new recipes, witness science playing out as we cook, and look forward to traveling again to try new foods in new lands among new friends.
Fajita Marinade, modified (General Mills, 2006)
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp dried oregano leaves
- 1 tsp chili powder
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp pepper
Mix all ingredients together in a glass or plastic dish. Place 1 lb. cubed chicken breast, or thinly sliced pork or beef in a resealable bag and cover with marinade. Squeeze out extra air and seal bag. Place bag in refrigerator and let sit 2-4 hours. Cook meat as desired on grill or in saute pan. Discard excess marinade.
Aberle, E.D., Forrest, J.C., Gerrard, D.E., Mills, E.W. (2001) Principles of Meat Science (4th ed.). Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.
Altersberger, I. (Dec. 2018). “Structures of Skeletal Muscles.” Bioactive Collagen Peptides. Retrieved from https://bioactive-collagen-peptides.com/effects-muscles/.
Buehler, M.J. (15 Aug. 2006). “Nature designs tough collagen: Explaining the nanostructure of collagen fibrils.” PNAS 103 (33) 12285-12290. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0603216103.
Gavin, J. (9 July 2018). “Marinating: A guide to how it works and what it does.” Jessica Gavin Culinary Specialist. Retrieved from https://www.jessicagavin.com/marinade-guide/.
General Mills (2006). Betty Crocker Cookbook New Edition. Wiley Publishing, Inc.
Goldwyn, M. (22 March 2013). “The Science and myths of marinades, brinerades, and how gashing can make them work better.” AmazingRibes.com. Retrieved from https://amazingribs.com/tested-recipes/marinades-and-brinerades/science-of-marinades-and-brinerades.
Joachim, D., Schloss, A. (date unavailable). Accessed 29 June 2020. “Alcohol’s role in cooking.” Fine Cooking (104) 28-19. Retrieved from https://www.finecooking.com/article/alcohols-role-in-cooking.
Lenz, D. (19 July 2017). “Our complete guide to marinating: what works, what doesn’t, and why.” MyRecipes. Retrieved from https://www.myrecipes.com/how-to/marinating-guide.
Peterson, J. (2010). Meat A Kitchen Education. Ten Speed Press.