We’ve all been there. You head to the kitchen late Saturday morning, excited to start on that special BBQ meal you’re planning for the evening. And then you open the recipe in the cookbook or magazine or on your tablet and look up ‘marinated flank steak’ or ‘cooking time for BBQ brisket.’ Whoa! Marinating takes hours or overnight. Or you were planning on using a slow-cooking method like smoking. (Think ‘pig roast’—there’s a reason the professionals spend serious time with their meat on a spit.) Either of these favorite kinds of grilled foods take hours and hours for which you need to plan.
Marinating is done for two reasons: to tenderize meat and to add flavor. Let’s focus on the important tenderizing function, because that’s what impacts cooking time.
Active enzymes and acids in marinating liquids help break down connective tissue in the meat, thus tenderizing it. So certain cuts of meat that contain a lot of connective tissue really benefit from a marinade.
- Acid marinades might be based on wine, lemon, lime, or orange juice, vinegar, buttermilk or yogurt.
- Enzyme marinade ingredients include papaya, pineapple, kiwi and Asian pear.
Contact is key: the marinade must meet as much of the surface of the meat as possible. This is why flat cuts of meat, like flank steak, benefit most from tenderizing marinades. Don’t marinate thicker pieces of meat, because they’ll just get soggy on the outside while staying tough on the inside. See Slow Cooking (below) for thick cuts. Place meat in a heavy zip-top bag with the air squeezed out and turn it often to be sure all surfaces meet the marinade. Refrigerate to avoid the growth of harmful bacteria. Let meat come to room temperature before cooking.
More tender meats with less connective tissue benefit from a short bath in a marinade, mainly to add flavor. Chicken is a great example. Marinating chicken breasts will not impact your cooking schedule.
Chuck eye, flank steak, skirt steak and hanger steak are all good cuts of beef that do well when marinated. Other suggestions include bottom round, eye of round, and top round. Bonus: they’re much less expensive than more tender, ready-to-grill strips or rib eyes. Try this flavorful carne asada marinade recipe.
Fun reminder: The liquid in which meat marinates is called marinade (marinate is the verb, marinade is the noun).
Read more about the science of marinating here.
And remember, the same general principle of allowing ample time applies to soaking dried beans or brining meat. Check your recipe and put yourself on schedule to start your prep as far in advance as needed.
The cooking process itself helps break connective tissue down into gelatin. So slow cooking is ideal for thicker cuts that can’t be penetrated by marinades. While crockpot and oven braising also require you to budget your time, we’re going to focus on outdoor slow cooking here, namely smoking. When you’re smoking meat, it will be on your grill for upwards of 30 minutes per pound. Some cuts can be on the smoker for 20 hours.
Low temps and long cook times combined make smoking a great technique to employ for tender, really flavorful meals from those less-expensive, low-quality cuts. (Those pricey lean cuts of meat would dry out when slow-cooked.) Beef brisket, pork shoulder, and ribs are inexpensive cuts that wouldn’t be palatable unless they’re slow-cooked, so they’re often smoked and barbecued. Try this feisty recipe for smoky, spicy pulled pork using the boneless pork butt cut.
Make a plan and take your time to really enjoy your grilled and smoked meats. And read about a great meal that’s always worth the time you invest, grilled turkey
And a shout out to a most informative source for this article: TheSpruce.com
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