Welcome to the Great Debates, where we consider the greatest culinary controversies of our time. Our goal isn't to tell you what to think or do, but rather to present both sides of hot-button issues, like coffee (is it good for you?) and breakfast (the most important meal of the day?). What's being said? Who's saying it? Then it's up to you to make your own decisions.
Growing up, there was always a zip-top bag of raw chicken breasts cloaked in Italian dressing filed in the lowest drawer of our fridge. Later, my mom would bake or grill these chicken breasts to serve alongside a bag of Rice-A-Roni and some microwaved vegetables as a regular weeknight dinner. My mom wasn't the greatest cook, but she believed that marinating her meat made it taste better. Marinating meat was a trend of the '80s and '90s that seemingly fell from fashion, as wet and dry brining became popular in the 2000s.
We've advocated both for marinating and against it here on Kitchn, and today we are diving deeper, exploring new insights and popular opinion on the subject of meat marinades, specifically around steaks.
What Is a Marinade?
Marinades are wet mixtures of acidic liquids like vinegar, wine, or yogurt, seasoned with salt and spices. Meat is put into a marinade a few hours to a few days before cooking so that the salt and acid can work together to both season and tenderize the meat.
A Case for Marinades
Aroma and flavor are two of the biggest reasons to use a marinade for your steaks. Food scientists suggest that marinades don't penetrate the surface of the meat enough to flavor the interior, but the right marinate can add flavor and caramelization the same way a finishing sauce would. Marinades also smell incredible while pan-searing or grilling, a benefit not to be discounted, as aroma has been proven to boost our dining experiences.
Marinades are best for tough cuts of meat, so they are beneficial for cheaper steaks like flank, skirt, and hanger steaks. You'll see the most improvement in texture and flavor working with smaller steaks or steaks cut into bite-sized pieces. Marinades are also great for adding a distinct flavor profile to a meal, say a soy- and lime-based marinade to pair with sesame bok choy and garlicky rice to make a hibachi-inspired dinner.
Grilled steaks especially benefit from the use of marinades, because their acidity can cut through the thick char of the grill and add another layer of flavor. Another tip for working with marinades is to pat the meat dry after removing it from the marinade. This is especially important for marinades high in sugar, which can easily burn before the meat is cooked to the appropriate texture.
Marinades are good for adding surface flavor and aroma, and are ideal for tough cuts of steak and steaks that will be grilled. If it's simply tenderness you're after, we've found that scoring meat can impact its texture with great success.
Read more: Cooking with Marinades
A Few of Our Favorite Marinades
A Case Against Marinades
A truly great steak needs little more than a sprinkling of salt and pepper before cooking because "a great steak" implies that you've chosen something thoughtfully and will be cooking it in a manner that leaves it tender and juicy regardless of seasoning. That means you're going to aim for a nice crust and a buttery, tender interior. Marinades prohibit browning, as they create a moisture barrier between the steak and the pan or grill and are likely to foil your best-laid plans for a delicious crust.
Marinades work slowly and rarely penetrate beyond the surface, leaving a large margin of error that can result in mushy or tough steak. Food scientists have found that marinades take significantly longer to penetrate meat than salt or even wet brining, as the oils, acids, and sugars actually work against the salt, preventing it from doing its work. So if you're working with a thicker cut of steak, a marinade will do you no good.
Dry rubs, dry brining, and wet brining are all much more effective at flavoring and tenderizing a steak and take less time to get to work. Steaks can derive the tenderizing benefits of salting with as little as 30 minutes at room temperature. That means no making room for a bag of marinating steaks in the bottom of the fridge or waiting impatiently to enjoy that steak you brought home.
Read more: Marinating Meat Is a Waste of Your Time
A Few of Our Favorite Steaks (No Marinade Required)
For the most part, marinating isn't a good use of time and ingredients, although there are some exceptions to be made for specific cuts of steak. Tender Korean bulgogi, usually made with boneless short ribs or hanger steak, is marinated along with Asian pear, which helps to tenderize the meat. But you'd never use that method for tender cuts of steak. So overall, with marinating, you're more likely to run into problems of texture than any major benefits of flavor.
For all steaks, tender or tough, use salt or a dry rub to flavor the steak before cooking, and finish the steak with a pan sauce for truly great flavor.