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How to Marinate Steak

on March 17, 2016
Steak is one of the most classic choices for an excellent dinner because it is tasty and very simple to prepare. Any beef that is cut perpendicular to the grain of the muscle fibers can qualify as a steak, but most types of steak, including sirloin, round, shank, and flank, all come from the hindquarters of a cow. Steaks can be very thin slices of meat, or they can be up to a few inches in thickness. Typically, steaks are grilled or pan-fried with a simple seasoning, but adding a marinade to the steak can significantly increase its flavor and texture.   Almost any type of steak can be marinated, but some types of steak are particularly tasty when soaked in a marinade. Marinades are ideal for leaner, tougher cuts of steak that can benefit from extra moistness and tenderness. Even if a steak is not tough, a marinade can add some extra flavor that makes the meal more enjoyable. Flank, sirloin, skirt, round, and hanger steaks are all delicious when marinated, but it is probably best to avoid marinating high-quality cuts of steak because a marinade will not add any beneficial qualities to the premium meat.  

The Science Behind Marinades

  The phrase “marinate” comes from a French word that means “to pickle,” but normally, a marinade used for cooking is not just a saline solution that meat is soaked in. Instead, most marinades include an acid that tenderizes the meat, salt to make the marinade go into the flesh, fats that add moisture, or spices that add flavor. These ingredients work together to make a steak tender and flavorful.   Most marinades involve at least an acid, salt, and oil because these three ingredients are the key elements that make a marinade work. When meat comes into contact with an acid, the acid breaks down the muscle fibers of the steak. This allows the marinade to penetrate deeper into the steak, instead of just remaining on the surface. Salt further breaks down cell walls, pulling the moistness and flavor of the marinade even deeper into the steak. The oil in a marinade adds flavor and tenderness because the human body naturally craves high-calorie, fatty foods. The oil in marinades helps the steak to mimic the moist, delicious taste of premium cuts of beef, such as Kobe Wagyu, which are valued for their perfectly marbled fat.   Instead of involving active cooking time, a marinade does most of the work for the cook while the beef soaks in it. To get the best benefits from a marinade, it is important to use it for the correct amount of time. Most marinades involve acids that denature the proteins of beef. Therefore, you do not want to let your steak marinate for over twelve hours because it will typically become mushy and over salted. However, if a steak is only marinated for a few minutes, there is not enough time for the acids and salts in the marinade to affect the steak. Taste tests of steaks marinated for various lengths of time reveal that most tasters prefer a steak that has been marinated for at least three hours, and as the marinade time increases up to twelve hours, it becomes more flavorful and tender.  

The Essential Ingredients in a Marinade

  As mentioned earlier, the main ingredients in any marinade should be an acid, salt, and oil. Spices and sugar are also standard items in marinades that add more flavor to a piece of meat. Depending on what you want to accomplish with your marinade, you can alter proportions to make the perfect marinade for your cut of steak.   The acid in a marinade can be vinegar, citrus juice, wine, or even yogurt. Any steak marinade benefits from some acid, but they should be used sparingly in already tender cuts of beef. Tight, lean cuts of meat, such as flank steak, round steak, and rump steak all greatly benefit from a marinade that has a highly acidic level.   The oil in a marinade has two main purposes. First of all, the oil adds flavor and tenderness by adding fat cells to the meat. It also makes a steak more flavorful because many spices, including standard marinade spices like garlic and rosemary, only dissolve in oil, not water. This means that the compounds that make these spices flavorful are more accessible and apparent when they are mixed with the oil of the marinade.   Basic table salt is the type of salt that is most commonly added to a marinade, and it does an excellent job of helping the marinade to penetrate the beef. Salt does this because it has a chemical reaction with water that makes muscle fibers exchange the water in the meat for the flavorful water in the marinade. Another excellent form of salt in a marinade is soy sauce because it is high in glutamates, which are natural compounds that add a rich, savory flavor to the steak.  

The Health Benefits of Marinades

  In addition to all of the flavor benefits of marinating steak, a marinade can also provide some health benefits. According to a study by a university in Portugal, grilling meats causes them to release heterocyclic amines, chemicals that can trigger cancerous mutations of cells. However, marinade that contains red wine or beer reduces these carcinogens by 90 percent. This happens because the antioxidants in the alcohol process the carcinogens before the meat is cooked and eaten. Any alcoholic marinade can destroy carcinogens in grilled meat, but adding rosemary to the marinade can boost this effect further.   Acidic marinades also make meat safer to eat because they kill bacteria and denature proteins. Harmful bacteria can grow on the surface of beef even when it is refrigerated, but the acid in a marinade slows or even stops this growth. The acidic effect on muscle fibers partially cooks them, and in fact, some types of meat can be cooked just by soaking in acid. Though steak also requires cooking to become edible, the acidic marinade still makes it far easier for the body to digest beef without upsetting the stomach.  

Properly Marinating a Steak

  The most basic version of a marinade is one that is equal parts acid and oil with seasonings to taste. Typically, the oil can be any essential olive, canola, or grapeseed oil that has a neutral flavor and is liquid at refrigerated temperatures. Therefore, most of the customization in a marinade occurs in the spices and seasonings.   A classic steakhouse marinade usually contains oil, red wine, and salt. For spices, freshly ground black pepper and Worcestershire sauce are often used. Fresh aromatics, including garlic, onion, and rosemary, all add more flavor to the marinade. Sometimes, a small amount of sugar can be added to make the meat brown better and taste more flavorful. This marinade works best for cuts that are going to be eaten as a main dish.   Since they are a universal cooking method, inspirations for marinades can be taken from all around the world. Asian marinades often include soy sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, ginger, garlic, and sesame oil. Marinades for fajitas typically consist of lime juice, garlic, chili powder, cilantro, and cumin. Though steak is not a traditionally Indian food, an Indian marinade of yogurt, cumin, turmeric, garlic, and onion can still be quite tasty.   Specific marinade recipes may recommend a certain amount of soaking time, but in general, any amount of time between three to twelve hours is ideal. However, if the marinade is extremely acidic or salty, it is best to marinade the steak for no longer than six hours. Any marinade should work correctly as long as the steak is immersed in the liquid, and the dish containing the steak and the marinade is refrigerated.    

Grilling a Marinated Steak

  Though there are many ways to cook a marinated steak, a traditional grilled steak is one of the best. Grilling a steak gives it a smoky flavor that cannot be replicated with a stove or oven, and many people feel that a steak is not a proper steak unless it has been grilled. This summer classic requires nothing more than your preferred grill, a meat thermometer, tongs, and a perfectly marinated steak. A rare steak should reach 125 degrees Fahrenheit, a medium rare steak should be 130 degrees, a medium steak should be 140 degrees, a medium well steak should be 150 degrees and a well-done steak should be at least 160 degrees.   Many people claim that the first step of grilling a steak should be to let it come to room temperature. Theoretically, this makes sense, because the steak ought to cook more evenly when the interior is not chilly. However, practical tests with a steak that is just an inch or two in thickness show that the steak’s center only raises about 19 degrees after sitting out of the refrigerator for two hours. In the time it would take to warm completely up a refrigerated steak to room temperature, dangerous bacteria can develop, so it is best just to cook it directly out of the fridge. Make sure to use a paper towel to blot the marinade gently off of the steak before you grill it. A dry exterior will ensure that you get a nice, crisp sear on the outside instead of leaving the steak feeling soggy.   Coal-fired grill that uses briquettes or hardwood reaches higher temperatures than a gas grill, so it is typically preferable for cooking a steak, but this technique can still work on a gas grill. To arrange the heat source correctly, pile all of your coals along one side of the grill. This will give you two separate cooking zones, one for hot, direct heat and one for cooler, gentler cooking. Though many people suggest searing a steak first to lock supposedly in moisture, this is a bad idea because it can end up causing the outer layer of the steak to be overcooked. Since the steak is marinated, it will retain moisture without a sear. Start the steak out by cooking it on the cooler side of the grill until it is just a few degrees away from your preferred temperature. Flip it multiple times to ensure that the steak cooks evenly throughout. Once it is only a few degrees below the required temperature, move it to the hot side of the grill to sear it.    

The Best Way to Serve a Marinated Steak

  Before serving a steak, you first need to give it time to rest. If you cut a steak as soon as it is cooked, juices flood out of the steak onto the plate, and much of the flavor from the marinade is lost. However, if you wait long enough for the steak’s temperature to lower a few degrees, the juices will be thicker and even distributed, so they remain within each bite of steak. Depending on the thickness of the steak, roughly five to ten minutes should give it enough time to cool adequately.   If the marinated steak is a smaller steak that is being eaten as a main dish, individual steaks can be served on individual plates. For steaks that are going to be used in fajitas or other mixed dishes, cut the steak against the grain into small, bite-sized pieces. If your steak is a larger steak that will be shared by several people, cut it against the grain into inch thick slices and arrange them on a serving platter.  


  A properly cooked steak is always an incredible meal, but adding a marinade adds more versatility to the steak. Even cheaper cuts can become delicious and enjoyable with this simple cooking technique. Because marinades are so easy to create from basic ingredients, you can enjoy experimenting with different flavors to create your signature steak marinade. If you want to try the best, marinated to perfection steak in Brooklyn, come visit us at Atlas Steakhouse