How Do Marinades Work?

Marinades are magical. No, really. What else can transform a budget cut of meat into a dish worthy of a five-star restaurant. Here’s the lowdown on marinades.

How Do Marinades Work?


Let’s explore the fascinating world of marinades. When used properly, marinades can make any cut of meat more tender and flavorful. But how?

 Kinds of marinades

There are three kinds of marinades. They work somewhat differently, but the results are the same — an added oomph in flavor, and meat that’s so tender it falls off the bone.

Contestant number one is an enzyme marinade. Did you know you can marinate meat with some kinds of fruit and dairy. Isn’t that crazy? Raw fruits, such as papaya, pineapple, kiwi, fig and mango, have the the enzyme protease, which breaks down meat proteins.

Dairy marinades (think Grandmother’s famous buttermilk fried chicken) are also enzyme marinades. Some people think that calcium might cause the protein breakdown, but no one knows for sure.

One thing to note about enzyme marinades, don’t leave them on too long or your meat will turn to mush. The enzymes will work overtime and your food will turn to jelly.

Contestant number two is an acidic marinade. This marinade uses acids (like lemon juice) to breakdown the proteins to tenderize the meat. Actually, the acid relaxes the proteins in the meat, making it tender. But don’t let it marinate food too long or it will actually get tough.

Contestant number three is a dry marinade.  This is an combination of herbs and spices that are rubbed all over the meat and let sit for a few hours before cooking. The spices help disrupt the tissue, which helps infuse the meat with flavor.

How long to marinate

The age old question, right? How long does it take to marinade? As mentioned before, if you marinate too long, your meat will be dry or mushy. The optimal time for smaller pieces of meat is no more than two hours. Larger pieces of meat can be marinated from eight hours to overnight. But only go that long if using an acidic or dry marinade. For the enzyme marinade, that would be way too long.

If you really want to up your game, pound your meat so it lies flat. Your marinade will cover more area, and infuse it with more flavor. Yay! But (yes, there’s a but) cut your marinating time waaaay back.


Pssst…Food safety PSA. Marinade your food in the refrigerator. It’s true that the flavor will penetrate faster at room temperature but it’s not worth the risk. Chill it while it soaks.

Amy Bowen

Amy had no clue how to cook until she became the food reporter for a daily newspaper in Minnesota. At 25, she even struggled with boxed mac and cheese. These days, Amy is a much better cook, thanks to interviewing cooks and chefs for more than 10 years. She even makes four cheese macaroni and cheese with bacon, no boxed mac in sight. Amy is also on the editorial team at The Cookful.