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Marinating 101: An Introduction to Marinating Beef, Chicken and Fish

posted in Meat, Poultry and Seafood by Jessica Howard

One of the simplest ways to flavor food is to marinate it. That is, treat it like a sponge. All you have to do is pour sauce on the food, let it soak for a while and then cook it. There are many different types of marinates including a teriyaki marinade for Asian dishes, marinades for steak or a yogurt-based marinade for Middle-Eastern dishes.

Marinades typically consist of an acidic ingredient like vinegar, lemon juice, wine or yogurt, plus oil and spices. The acidic ingredient softens the food, allowing it to absorb the flavors of the sauce. Marinating works on all kinds of meat, as well as fish, tofu and vegetables.

You can either follow recipes or experiment with whatever ingredients you have on hand. A handy formula for creating your own marinades can be found at Cookthink, along with recipes for different styles of marinades.

How long should you marinate? Depends on what you want to marinate! Here are some pointers on poultry, beef and fish.

Poultry Marinade

  • You can marinate an entire chicken or chicken parts. Piercing the chicken with a fork, or cutting it into smaller pieces will help it absorb marinade.
  • Removing the skin from the chicken will help it absorb marinade
  • In general, two hours of marinating is long enough for the meat to soak up the flavor, but poultry can marinate for up to two days in the refrigerator, according to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Very acidic marinades can actually toughen the meat over time, so follow the recipe or package directions.

Beef Marinade

  • Marinating is best suited for the tougher steak cuts like flank, skirt, sirloin, round and hanger. These cuts can usually marinate up to 24 hours. You can actually ruin better-quality steaks, like porterhouse or rib-eye, by marinating them.

Fish Marinade

  • Fish and shellfish should marinate for only 30 minutes to an hour; any longer and the flesh might start to “cook” and go mushy.

Marinade Dos and Don’ts

  • DO think ahead: If possible, start marinating meat the night before, or in the morning before you leave for work.
  • DO marinate food in the refrigerator, rather than at room temperature.
  • DO marinate in re-sealable plastic bags, rather than in bowls or other containers. They cut down on cleanup and allow you to evenly distribute the marinade. But you can marinate in plastic, stainless steel or glass containers too.
  • DO cover containers containing marinating meats
  • DON’T use marinade from raw meat or fish as a sauce unless it’s boiled first for several minutes. It contains bacteria from the raw meat.
  • DON’T reuse leftover marinade for other food.
  • DON’T marinate in aluminum containers or foil, because a chemical reaction could spoil the food.

Marinating is a great way to experiment with new flavors and new recipes. If you have a favorite marinade, please share your recipe with us!

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Glenda said:

What is the longest you can marinate a roast for?

We have a 5# bison roast and it has been in a red wine marinate for 4 days. Can we push it to 7 or 8???


Kathy Maister said:

Hi Glenda, I wouldn’t! But then again I have zero expereince cooking bison. Hopefully someone else will jump in to the conversation! Good luck!

Eric said:

My marinade

2 large chicken breasts

Mango cilantro marinade

Mango Chili dipping sauce

fresh pesto


lemon juice

Havne’t cooked it yet, but it sure does smell good. I’m gonig to try and very lightly coat the chicken with honey just before grilling.

Kathy Maister said:

Thanks Eric! Mangos are one of my favorite fruits!

Virginia said:

I appreciate the links. Having food marinating while i’m taking care of something else is part of my time management system at home, otherwise it would be so hard to get the kids dinner on time. Thanks.

Theresa said:

After marinading a beef roast, do I use the marinade to cook the roast (in oven); if not, will the roast produce it’s own juices to cook in?

startcooking said:

Hi Theresa,
Generally speaking, a marinade is not used as part of the cooking process. It is drained off the meat before putting the meat in the oven. I show how this is done in my Leg of Lamb post.

Silvana said:

I have a white wine from last week, so it’s not good for drinking but I want to use it for one chicken recipe. I have to marinade the chicken, so I have two questions:
1. Can I use this old wine.
2. If I put the chicken to marinate tonight, can I cook it tomorrow night (meaning 24 hrs of marinading), what is the longest I can marinade any meat with wine??


startcooking said:

If you think the wine has gone off, then most definitely DO NOT USE IT! You will end up with your chicken being ruined.

Jake said:

I am marinating a london broil I have been marinating it since Friday evening and plan on grilling it Monday.. The meat expires on Monday is there anyway to tell if the meat is bad if the marinade smell takes over?

startcooking said:

Hi Jake,

My motto is “When in doubt, throw it out!”.

Having said that, you may still be OK to serve your London broil.

The USDA has some excellent guidelines on Food Product Dating and Safety.

I strongly recommend you reading this link and then decide if it is OK to proceed with your barbecue plans.

Good Luck!

Samantha said:

Hi again!

Thanks for this post. One question…
How long should I marinate pork chops for?

startcooking said:

Thin pork chops can be marinated for as little as 1/2 hour. For thicker cut pork chop, marinate for 2-4 hours.

Melissa said:

A friend of ours had to leave town so he gave us some beef ribs he had marinated in Sweet Baby Rays w/ honey BBQ sauce… OMG!!! THE best ribs we EVER had!!! So right now we are gonna try to duplicate it…but I’m thinkig he must have added a secret ingrediant…:) I have never heard of marinating in BBQ sauce..and I have no idea how long he marinated them…any advice?

startcooking said:

Hi Melissa,
My best advice is to ask him for his recipe!
Good Luck!

gina said:

Ive been marinating chicken breast for 24hrs other than grilling it what is the best way to cook it

Mike said:

Thanks for posting this. You are the first person I’ve seen to nail it when it comes to marinating beef! I’ve seen some high quality cuts of beef get destroyed this way… marinade the tough stuff.

Thanks for the good info!

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