Marinades and the Science of Meat Tenderisation

Marinade Bowl

Tenderising a tough cut of meat is a challenge that can leave even the most skilled cooks in a quandary. But what if you could tenderise a tough meat portion and make it flavourful at the same time? This is where the right marinade can come to your rescue. Even though there are claims that dispute marinades’ widely accepted tenderising effects, it has been used to convert the chewiness of meat into finger-licking succulence since time immemorial. All it takes is the knowledge of which ingredients to use and the length of time for which a particular marinade should be rubbed on the meat.

The science behind marinades

For as long as we can remember, marinades have been used in our kitchens to soften the gristly bits of meat. Now even science has thrown its weight behind this traditional wisdom. Ed Mills, a meat scientist and assistant professor at College of Agricultural Sciences, Pennsylvania, believes that when meat is coated in a suitable marinade for sufficient amount of time, it can reach the desired level of tenderness.

Mills highlighted a couple of things that can increase the effectiveness of any marinade when used as a tenderiser:

  • The effect of time – According to Mills, allowing the marinade enough time to penetrate into the meat tissue is of utmost importance. When allowed to soak in the marinade for the required time, the connective tissues within the fibres disintegrate and help loosen up the meat. This is why food connoisseurs recommend marinating the tough meat portions at least overnight and keeping them refrigerated as they absorb the flavours.
  • The role of ingredients – Typically speaking, a marinade could be anything in which you decide to drench the meat. When it comes to tenderising the meat, however, you need to make sure that you add acid to the marinating mix. In order to attain greater succulence out of meat, Mills suggests using an acidic element in the marinade. The acid could come from different sources like vinegar, vegetables, fruits and even buttermilk. The penetrating effect of acid helps it to enter deep into the meat and break down the collagen interspersed within its fibres.

Essential components for a marinade

Whether being used to add flavour or as a meat tenderiser, a complete marinade should essentially contain the following three components:

  • Seasonings – Since enhancing flavour is one of the primary functions of a marinade, using the right amount of spices and flavourings is absolutely imperative.
  • Alcohol or acid – To add acidity to your marinade, you can make use of ingredients like tomatoes, yogurt, buttermilk, vinegar, citrus fruits, vegetables and fruit juices. Alcohol, on the other hand, can be used as a substitute for acidic elements. Choose from the liquor of your choice, such as cooking sherry, white wine or even beer. Bear in mind, though, that the tenderising properties of alcohol are significantly lower than acid.
  • Salt – Salt would ordinarily be included in the seasonings, but in conjunction with acid, it plays a major role in ascertaining greater tenderness. As acid cuts through the connective tissue, it can make the meat lose its natural water content. The addition of salt minimizes water loss and maintains the inherent moisture of meat.

Marinades vs. tenderising agents

For quick and effective results, many people make use of different tenderising agents. Most of these products comprise a substance called papain, which is derived from papaya. While papain helps achieve an acceptable level of tenderness, it usually requires more time to pierce into meat. This is because it has a much more complex molecular structure than the acidic components. For this reason, it takes much longer to enter the meat fibres and after application, remains on the meat’s surface for a considerable amount of time. The lengthier marinating time quickly turns the outer side of meat squishy, even though the inside portion requires much longer to tenderise.

Secondly, tenderising agents do not impart any flavour to any dish to which they are added. This means that even when they are used to marinate meat, they are used as an ingredient for the marinade and cannot produce a flavourful dish on their own.

Using a marinade, on the contrary, offers greater advantage. When made using the right ingredients and applied on the meat for just the right amount of time, a marinade can help you yield soft, juicy and delicious meat.

Conflicting opinions

Not everyone agrees that marinades can be used as tenderising agents. A conflicting theory holds that marinades act only on the surface and have no effect on the tenderness of the meat, whatsoever. The only exception, according to this opinion, would be if the marinade is packed with salt, in which case it should more appropriately be called brine.

Some marinade recipes to try

With all this talk of marinade over meat, it is impossible not to start craving for some. Here are a few delicious marinade recipes to try: