100 Techniques

Technique #5: Marinate in a Way That Actually Works

Are your marinades actually doing anything? Learn the keys to effective marinating.

Published Oct. 27, 2023.

This is Technique #5 from our 100 Techniques Every Home Cook Can Master.

Each technique is broken into three sections: why it works, key steps, and recipes that use it. Learn these recipe building blocks and you'll be set up for a lifetime of cooking success.

Jump to a Section

Marinating adds flavor and boosts juiciness in meat, poultry, and seafood before cooking. But slapping any old piece of protein onto a plate, drowning it in a bottled vinaigrette, and stashing it in the refrigerator for the afternoon is exactly the wrong way to marinate anything.

Marinades typically do most of their work on the surface of food because many flavor molecules—except for salt and sugar—are too large to penetrate deeper. In addition, flavor molecules in many marinade ingredients, such as herbs and spices, are fat-soluble; the water in meat repels them, so these flavors stay on the surface.

How do you get as much flavor into the protein as possible? Check out the key tips for this vital technique.

Sign up for the Notes from the Test Kitchen newsletter

Our favorite tips and recipes, enjoyed by 2 million+ subscribers!

Use More Salt

A key to successful marinating is to coax as much of the soaking liquid’s flavors into the protein as possible. For this reason, many of our marinades have a high salt concentration. The salt seasons the meat and also dissolves some of the proteins and loosens the muscle fibers, making the meat more tender and letting the salt penetrate. Salt also holds in water to help keep the meat moist during cooking.

In fact, salt is even more important than liquid in a marinade. And soy sauce and miso paste are two of our favorite ways to get the saltiness that a marinade needs.

Soy sauce is a double-duty secret weapon in many of our marinades. Its saltiness seasons, and its glutamates—taste-bud stimulators related to umami—enhance savory flavor. Salty, soy-based miso paste acts in much the same way as soy sauce, and a thick marinade made from miso and a little liquid clings to the surface of a protein, letting the salt do its work of loosening muscle fibers to let in flavor while keeping in moisture.

Our Miso-Marinated Salmon recipe uses miso for an umami-rich marinade that flavors the salmon without breaking it down.

Use Less Acid

Conversely, many of our marinades have a lower concentration of acid. It’s a common misconception that citrus juice and vinegar tenderize meat and poultry, but acidic ingredients can actually turn meat and poultry (and seafood) mushy if left to soak for prolonged periods.

Choose the Right Cuts

Another key to effective marinating is choosing the right cuts. Since much of the flavor stays near the surface, it’s smarter to choose cuts with more surface area. A smooth, thick-cut steak, like strip steak, will be minimally affected by a soak in a marinade. But something like a thin skirt steak, flank steak, or sirloin tip has lots of surface area to allow marinade to cling more effectively.

IACP Award Winner

Meat Illustrated

Increase your meat-counter confidence with this must-have guide packed with 300+ kitchen-tested recipes.

Step by Step: How to Marinate Effectively

Now that you know the "why" behind the process, follow these steps next time you're making a marinade.

Step 1: Assemble the Marinade Station

Combine marinade ingredients in baking dish large enough to hold meat in single layer.

Step 2: Marinate and Flip

Arrange meat in marinade, flipping it to coat both sides. Cover and refrigerate, flipping meat halfway through marinating time.

Step 3: Pat Dry

Remove meat from marinade and, if directed, gently pat dry to remove excess moisture.

Step 4: Turn Marinade into a Sauce

To use marinade as finishing sauce, transfer marinade to saucepan and bring to boil for 1 to 2 minutes.

Recipes That Use This Technique

Want to test out your newfound knowledge of seasoning? Try it with any of these recipes.


Miso-Marinated Salmon

Miso is one of the best ways to flavor salmon—inside and out.
Get the Recipe

Grilled Mojo-Marinated Skirt Steak

If you're not grilling skirt steak, you should be: It's a great cut for marinating, it cooks in minutes, and it's especially beefy, tender, and juicy—as long as you buy the right kind.
Get the Recipe

Cast Iron Marinated London Broil

London broil recipes often call for grilling to develop flavor. We wanted to get similar results on the stove.
Get the Recipe

Pan-Roasted Flank Steak with Garlic-Chile Marinade

So what's wrong with marinating steak in bottled Italian salad dressing? A lot.
Get the Recipe

Herb-Marinated Chicken with Bulgur for Two

Flavorful pan juices tie this dish of roast chicken and bulgur together.
Get the Recipe

Ready to learn another technique? Choose from our list of 100 Techniques Every Home Cook Can Master.

This is a members' feature.