Does a marinade help in low & slow braising?
November 30, 2014 2:40 PM   Subscribe

I often see braising recipes that call for marinating meat for an hour or overnight, and then braising the meat low & slow in the same marinade (plus liquid and maybe an added spice or 2). E.g. lamb shanks, pot roast, short ribs. But does a marinade really accomplish anything that 2 or 3 hours under low heat cannot?
posted by LonnieK to Food & Drink (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Causes tenderizing to occur over time, it is a cellular action so yes.
posted by Freedomboy at 3:09 PM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, a marinade in most cases will start breaking down tissue at the molecular level, and thus makes it more tender.
posted by dejah420 at 3:14 PM on November 30, 2014

Marinades can have some impact on the protein structure, yes, but it's generally pretty minimal. Marinades are mostly about flavor.
posted by tau_ceti at 3:16 PM on November 30, 2014

Devil's advocate here, for the sake of discussion. I came across this matter earlier today when researching whether or not it makes a difference to sear meat prior to braising/slow-cooking.

People are definitely divided on the benefits of marinating. Whenever in doubt, I tend to look up what at least two or three trusted food scientists have to say about it; this individual makes reference to both Harold McGee (my personal go-to) and Herve This when discussing why marinades are ineffectual:

Here’s another thing. Both acids and enzymes penetrate meat poorly. Seafood turns to ceviche quickly because the muscle fibers are, for the most part, very short relative to those in meat. As food science guy par excellence Harold McGee notes, both acids and enzymes penetrate the surface of meat at the rate of mere millimeters per day, and are not particularly effective tenderizers unless injected. Hervé This – French food science guy par excellence, if you didn’t know – confirms this, and notes that the effects of aging the meat during the marination period are responsible for any tenderizing effect. Several years ago, This demonstrated that, after leaving meat in a slightly salted solution or an acidic solution for about a week, the marinade had penetrated not more than 1/8 of an inch (about 3mm), and that the meat marinated in the salt solution was somewhat more tender because age had relaxed some of the muscle fibers.

- From this post

YMMV, blah blah. I still like to marinate my meat, but I think it's more of a psychological/appearances only thing at this point - I can marinate meat overnight and still have it turn out bone dry if I don't know how to properly cook it. Different meats, different fibers, different cooking requirements for optimum tenderness/juiciness.
posted by nightrecordings at 3:17 PM on November 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's for flavor not texture
posted by JPD at 3:59 PM on November 30, 2014

Response by poster: OK. So let's separate the question into 2:
Before a slow braise, can a marinade significantly:
a) tenderize?
b) add flavor?

I appreciate everyone's comments. But my experience, plus my limited knowledge of chemistry & physics, incline me toward nightrecordings' take.
-- For tenderizing, the right heat over the right time can tenderize almost any meat.
-- And sure, in a stir-fry or on a grill, a marinade can add flavor. But in braising, don't the flavors of the braise do the trick completely?
posted by LonnieK at 5:17 PM on November 30, 2014

For most other kinds of cooking (stirfrying, grilling, etc) marinating makes sense, but I never marinate before a long braise, for exactly the reason you describe. I can't back it up with science, it just makes sense to me and I'm happy with the results, so...
posted by Dip Flash at 7:06 PM on November 30, 2014

I've been binging on the America's test kitchen podcast the past couple weeks, and they've mentioned this a couple times --- basically, science is correct as usual, marinades impart surface flavor but don't do much to tenderise meat. The exception is if the marinade is also acting as a defacto brine --- if it's got a lot of soy sauce or any other kind of salt in there, that will tend to make the meat juicer because of the usual osmosis that goes on anytime you brine a meat.

In the specific case of a meat you're then going to braise low and slow, however, I doubt there'd be much difference in the end because you usually end up squeezing a lot of the moisture out of a braised meat anyway --- it's the fact that the meat has become tender and the connective tissue has gelatinzed that gives you that luscious mouth-feel, plus you're usually eating it with the gravy or sauce made from the braising liquid. Meat qua meat braises are often pretty dry.
posted by Diablevert at 8:07 PM on November 30, 2014

In addition to the delicious sauce that you are making in the pan, liquids are more dense then air so the heat is being transmitted to the meat more uniformly and consistently when it is in liquid.
posted by mmascolino at 9:57 PM on November 30, 2014

Though I believe the science, as quoted above, I have different practical experiences.

Very often, I cook chicken legs for the kids. The recipe I use call for the legs to be marinated in a soy/chili/lemon mix for at least 1 hour. I've tried marinating overnight, for 8 hours, and for two minutes, I can't taste the difference. I use the interval setting on my oven, at very low heat.

On the other hand, sometimes I cook venison, and when I do that, I marinade it for 24 hours or even more in wine, because my experience is that it will be very tough and dry if I don't.

My unscientific guess is that fat makes a difference. Slow-roasted short ribs are good to go. A lean pot roast might benefit from spending a night in a bottle of wine.
posted by mumimor at 11:34 AM on December 1, 2014

I think the issue is that 'tenderization' is a very specific term in gastronomy. The consensus I am finding is that tenderization occurs because of *time*, not because of the marinade. So, a lot of people leave their meat to marinate overnight, or even a few days. Keeping it in an acidic marinade prevents early spoilage during that period of a few days; but it's the time itself that allows the meat to mature during that time, not the marinade itself. I suppose you could say that an acidic marinade works hand-in-hand with time to create a more tender meat, even if that tenderization is minimal (per McGee and This's aforementioned findings).

So, if you want slightly more tender meat, keep it in an acidic marinade for a day or two while the meat matures and naturally breaks down some of its fibers.

However, some of the other reading I've done points to the fact that 'tenderizing' meat is not as necessary today as it once was; much of the higher quality cuts of meat have already been 'matured' and hence why they are so much more tender (well, this is one reason anyway).

As for flavor? Whether you add it just before, or the night before, a marinade will still make your meat tasty.

This is all regardless of whether or not you're going to be braising. It would not appear that braising changes how much impact a marinade has, ultimately.

For the braising itself, with marinade included (again, regardless of whether or not the marinade was on the meat for a few days or just a few minutes prior to the start of braising), the act of braising allows the meat to reabsorb its own juices, as well as any added juices/flavor in the pot. So, you could say there is at least *some* added benefit of having a marinade when the meat reabsorbs its own juices during the braising process.

Hopefully this was helpful!
posted by nightrecordings at 6:15 PM on December 1, 2014

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