The Secret to Marinating Meat

The food universe is infinite, which makes learning about it a never-ending pursuit. For decades I've been marinating various meats, but it wasn't until I caught a rerun of America's Test Kitchen on the local PBS station that I gleaned the secret to getting a marinade to truly penetrate and add flavor to beef, pork, whatever. It has to do with molecules.

I won't get into the science, but a reaction of two specific ingredients will ensure that your grilled meats will burst with flavor this summer.

First, a few minor tips, some of which you might know:

  • Use citrus peel rather than citrus juice; the latter breaks down meat and makes it mushy.
  • Use table salt rather than kosher or sea salt; it dissolves better.
  • Sugar will help to caramelize the meat.

But here's the first part of the main tip: Soy sauce contains the compound glutamate, "which often translates to deep, meaty flavor"; plus, it's one of only a few ingredients that really sink into the meat (salt is another). Because you might not always want an Asian flavoring in your marinade, another ingredient rich in glutamates is tomato paste. So be sure to use one or the other in your marinade.

And here's the corker: Add beef broth to the marinade (preferably low-sodium). There are two flavor-enhancing molecules in beef broth: glutamates and nucleotides. The nucleotides multiply the flavor factor of glutamates by 20 times. So salt penetrates the meat and adds flavor, tomato paste or soy sauce penetrates and adds flavor, and beef broth penetrates and boosts the flavors 20 times.

You can watch the episode, which uses the marinade for beef kebabs, or you can read the kebab recipe (kebab tip: skewer the meat separately from the vegetables to compensate for the different cooking times involved for each). The show also offers the best recipe I've ever seen for spanikopita.

Anyway, now you know the secret to preparing a marinade, as host Christopher Kimball says, "that actually works."

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