Marination, or marinading, is the process of creating a flavored liquid in which to soak foods prior to cooking them. Common ingredients in a wet marinade might include water, oil, wine, liquor, sauce (such as soy or Worcestershire), an acid such as citrus or vinegar, salt, pepper and a variety of spices. A dry marinade includes the dry spices but not the liquid although sometimes mustard is included to help adhere the seasonings to the food.
Wet or dry, the purpose of marinating is to tenderize tougher cuts of meat and/or impart both flavor and moisture to the food, that will last through the cooking process.
Although brines are similar to marinades in that both immerse food into liquid, a brine is a heavily salt based liquid, without much if any acid, that allows liquid to travel in and out of the meat, thus seasoning it from the inside out.
The acid in a marinade causes the tissue of meat such as beef, chicken or pork to break down. That, in turn, allows the meat to absorb moisture and whatever flavors are in the marinade. It is important, however, not to leave meat in the marinade for too long or else the acid will break down the meat too much. It's also best to start with fresh, not frozen meat because the marinade's acid can turn frozen meat mushy.
Marinades can also include enzymatic ingredients such as pineapple, ginger or papaya. These foods contain enzymes that help break down muscle fiber and collagen, helping to tenderize meat. And, of course, they can also impart some delicious flavor.
Finally, keep in mind that raw meat, chicken and seafood contains bacteria that can cause illness. Therefore, keep the marinating meat refrigerated and remember that the liquid will be contaminated and should be discarded once you remove the meat from it. Try to use a glass dish or zip top plastic bag for marinating as metal can react badly with the acid.
But with just these few safety tips, you can give bland chicken, seafood and tough steaks a big shot of flavor and moisture without adding much in the way of fat and calories.
Choose flavors for your marinade that you enjoy because a good balance of acid, oil and seasoning will make a huge flavor difference to the cooked meat. Beef and pork can marinade overnight in the fridge but keep it under 2 hours for seafood or the acid in the marinade will start to cook it.
Here are a few marinade recipe ideas using a variety of different proteins. You're bound to find one you love.